‘Joker’ Review: A bad joke with no punchline

As a Batman fan and a film fan, this movie kinda just made me feel icky.

If you don’t already know, Joker follows the story of Arthur Fleck, a mentally-ill man trying to make his own way in a grim realization of Gotham in the 1980s. He’s a clown-for-hire by day and an aspiring stand-up comic by night, but nothing seems to be working out for him. After a confrontation goes wrong, Arthur finds himself at the center of a cultural flashpoint, and a series of personal revelations send him on a dark path, leading him to become the character we all know today as Gotham’s most notorious criminal and Batman’s arch enemy.

As a film, Joker tries to be a juggling act. It’s trying to tackle mental illness, marginalization, and fame all at once in order to paint a picture of our times: a picture of a society gone mad, and at the center of it all is really just a lot of hurt. However, the movie fails to succeed in this act because of two major problems:

1) It doesn’t really provide commentary on any of the problems it brings up, it just vaguely gestures in their direction.

Joker talks about “society” in the same way Tyler Durden from Fight Club talks about society. It’s painted as this big, awful, sinful thing, and the movie assumes that, because you live in 2019, you get what it’s saying without ever really trying to lay it out. What Joker doesn’t get is that Fight Club was never really about the grossness of society.

To the film’s credit, it is masterfully crafted. It walks and talks like an arthouse film with it’s dark and heavy score, skillful cinematography, and of course, a knockout performance by Joaquin Phoenix, who makes a true character out of Arthur Fleck. Honestly, I believe he’s one of the reasons that anyone is able to glean any sort of theme from Joker at all. He gets exactly what drives Arthur, and he makes you empathize with him even when you don’t want to. Arthur’s transformation, however, is where things start to go very VERY wrong, taking Joker from dark and depressing homage to Martin Scorsese films into something more cruel. This is the movie’s second major issue:

2) It’s a movie about the Joker.

The very last thing I have ever wanted to do in any Batman movie is empathize with the Joker, and for good reason. Among all of Batman’s rogues, each villain has at least one thing that makes them somewhat human…except for the Joker. He’s always been a force of nature – so cruel and inhumane that it serves him better not to have an origin story. And yet, here it is.

Joker is, at the end of the day, a movie about a guy who becomes more violent, more deranged, and more evil until he eventually becomes a version of the most iconic supervillain of all time. By that very fact, and with the help of some gross framing, the film kind of revels in that final stage of Arthur’s transformation. You’re supposed to feel at least a little rush of satisfaction when you see him in full Joker makeup for the first time, and that is downright disgusting when you consider what he’s just done and how until now, we’ve been made to understand where he’s coming from.

Like the society the movie tries to show us, Joker is a fractured movie that wants to be two contradictory things. The Joker is not a good vessel to tell a story about society. There’s a reason he’s always been written as a force of nature rather than a human character. He was made to be the flip side of Batman’s coin, and by trying to twist him into a figure that represents the brokenness of an uncaring society, Joker does a disservice to its apparent themes and its character.

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