movie reviews

Behind great Joaquin Phoenix performance, ‘Joker’ wags finger at society for creating villain

For the past 20 years, figuring out what makes villains evil has become an entire creative industry. I don’t know if it started with the Star Wars prequels, but that seems to be where it was popularized. How did Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader? OK, that question was inherent with the character because we knew that he was Luke Skywalker’s father and a Jedi Knight alongside Obi-Wan Kenobi. 

Yet was that story really begging to be told? I think we all — whether “we” means Star Wars fans or general pop culture — thought we wanted to see that story. But would it have been better if Darth Vader stayed ruthless and villainous? Isn’t it enough that we knew he had a change of heart by the end and chose to save his son over his devotion to the Empire and the Sith?

The mystery of what made Anakin turn into Vader added appeal to the entire Star Wars mythology because it invited people to imagine what might have happened, rather than having that story told to them. 

But that question of what creates a murderous, diabolical villain is so intriguing. Is that what compelled Thomas Harris to write an origin story for Hannibal Lecter? Here was another example of a villain being humanized by showing how he was pushed toward evil, how abhorrent behavior informed his own impulses.

I don’t know how many people saw or read Hannibal Rising, so maybe it’s not as good an example as Darth Vader. But it’s not enough for evil to simply exist and maybe to develop into something or someone truly despicable. Not when there’s content to create, stories to tell, and intellectual properties to be squeezed for more, more, more. 

Did we really need to know what created The Joker? I mean, we can find out why he wears clown make-up — or has white skin and a smile scarred into his face, as in the comic books. Background elements of the character can be filled in, but how deep do we really need to go to explain him?

Isn’t what made The Dark Knight’s version of the character — Heath Ledger’s performance, building on the interpretation by director Christopher Nolan and writer Jonathan Nolan — so appealling is that we didn’t know his whole story? That Joker even mocked the need to understand him by telling different stories about how he got the scars on his face. The best explanation was no explanation, provided by Michael Caine’s Alfred, who said some people simply want to watch the world burn. 

That could apply to Joaquin Phoenix’s version of The Joker. But what we get here is why he wants to watch the world burn. And I wonder if this movie is attempting to say that it’s not his fault, that a culture and bureaucracy which largely turned its back on mental health and those who suffered from mental illness is ultimately culpable for creating the conditions that spawned an evil force like The Joker.

I’m sure there are plenty of people who will criticize this movie for its portrayal of mental health and what it can lead to, and that’s a discussion worth having. But does humanizing the Joker make a character sympathetic who doesn’t necessarily deserve sympathy? 

Joker is a really dark movie. Yeah — no shit, right? You’ve seen the trailers or read the think-pieces. OK, sure — I knew this was going to be a darker, grittier take on the character, maybe even more so than what we got with Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight

I’ve tried not to read much about it because I didn’t want any of that stuff to influence my opinion or view of the movie, though it’s been virtually impossible to avoid some of the stuff Todd Phillips has been saying about the death of comedy and so forth. And there were times while watching Joker when I wondered if Phillips was trying to say something about that with the virtual absence of humor in this movie or the inability of aspiring stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck to be funny.

There are some dark comedic elements in the story, but I was expecting more. After all, we’re dealing with a character who identifies as a clown, who fancies himself a comedian. 

Instead, Fleck’s laughter is explained by a medical — or psychological — condition which causes him to break out into laughter, or almost another form of crying, often at inappropriate moments. Maybe he eventually has to find the confidence to be funny, or what he thinks is funny. Phillips’s script (written with Scott Silver) sort of hints at that. But would that have even occurred to me if I didn’t have those Phillips quotes worming around in my head? I kinda doubt it. 

But what surprised me about the darkness of Joker is that it’s bleak to the point of nearly not having a pulse. There’s no personality to the film. Fleck and the hellhole which is late-70s/early-80s Gotham City begins at such a level of misery that it doesn’t feel like there’s anyplace else to go, whether you consider that higher or lower. Yes, Fleck’s anger, resentment and psychosis escalates through the course of the movie. That’s basically what this movie is about — what causes this man to become arguably the most demented, unhinged villains in fiction, whether it’s movies or comic books? 

Yet when everything is already terrible, how much lower can you go? Sure, people get angrier, more despondent, maybe more impoverished while the one percent seemingly gets wealthier. Though Joker takes place nearly 30 years ago, those sentiments apply to our current culture. But no, people don’t all become murderers. And maybe that’s the underlying point. Very few progress to that point. It’s not in our nature, it’s not in our minds. But those who are truly evil follow that path — or are maybe pushed down that path — by forces and events that everybody else chooses to deal with in a healthier, hopefully more productive manner. 

Phoenix’s performance is spectacular, truly impressive in its physicality. He loses himself in this role to such an extent that you might hope that he’s OK, that he eventually recovered and got to a better place, after filming completed. He had to have been exhausted from this, and that kind of effort has to be admired. To the degree that Arthur Fleck is sympathetic at all is a credit to Phoenix. Had he gotten help, maybe Batman would’ve had another arch-nemesis. (The Penguin and The Riddler are surely snapping their fingers with disappointment at missing that opportunity.) If not for him, this movie wouldn’t be worth watching.

(By the way, if this occurred to you long ago, I’m the dumb-ass. But it occurred to me while watching Joker that “Arthur Fleck” or “A. Fleck” was maybe a Ben Affleck Batman joke? “A. Fleck”? “Affleck”? Can that possibly be a coincidence?)

Also, as a diehard Batman fan and longtime comic book geek, I have to address my problems with the idea of a prequel that throws an entire mythology into question. For instance, if this Joker goes on to become the legendary villain we know and the eventual greatest adversary for Batman — and there are definitely allusions made to Batman here, which there probably have to be — there’s like a 30-year age difference between the character. Do we want to believe that a 29-year-old Batman was taking on a nearly 60-year-old Joker in their greatest battles? (This is a problem I had with the series Gotham too.)

I realize this is supposed to be a standalone story and not necessarily connected to anything else in Batman or DC Comics mythology. In fact, I think it actively doesn’t want to be connected. And that’s fine. Just tell a good story about this one character. But that kind of stuff makes my Bat-ears stand up in annoyance. 

I’m glad that this movie was made, even though I’m not certain it was a story that needed to be told. Comic books and movies based on comic books don’t have to be one thing, or handcuffed to a certain source material. These characters and their worlds are deep enough and rich enough to tell different sorts of stories, including this dark, gritty, Martin Scorsese-esque take on a supervillain.

There’s room for this interpretation, along with Heath Ledger’s, Jack Nicholson’s, or Cesar Romero’s. The Joker is that great of a character. I’m glad Todd Phillips, Scott Silver, and Joaquin Phoenix created their take on him. It doesn’t have to be definitive. It’s probably better if it’s not. 

But maybe this could’ve been a better movie that didn’t keep The Joker on a virtually flat path throughout the story and rub the audience’s face in the grime over and over and over. See this for Joaquin Phoenix and maybe be left lamenting that a better movie wasn’t built around that performance. Joker gets 3 1/2 out of 5 stars from me. That might provoke The Joker into laughter. 

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

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