Joker attempts to do what’s never been tried before: tell the origin story of one of fiction’s great villains. Writers have alluded to the Joker’s beginnings in DC Comics, but those stories (such as The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland) haven’t established a definitive past for the character or been accepted as canon.
But comic book movies aren’t obligated to follow their source material, and the mainstream audience doesn’t care about such fidelity anyway. In turn, director Todd Phillips (with co-writer Scott Silver) seems determined to keep his story as far away from those comic book roots as possible.
Yet the Joker is very much a comic book character. Though Phillips wants to deny that fact, clothing Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck in 1980s grime and despair and the visual language of early Martin Scorsese films, he can’t avoid the fact that the Joker is best known as Batman’s archnemesis. Allusions are even made to the future existence of the Caped Crusader. Can one exist without the other?
Perhaps the tie-in is fan service intended to placate die-hard comic book fans. But it’s also a concession that this story wouldn’t be distinct without a familiar villain who paints his face with clown makeup and favors purple suits with yellow accessories. Phillips tries to have it both ways.
Sure, there’s inherent intrigue about what motivates a man to become a murderous anarchist, but was there a yearning to know exactly how the Joker was created? Did Darth Vader or Hannibal Lecter become more intriguing once we knew how they developed into the evil figures we feared? Or did they become less frightening when humanized by prequel stories?
What Joker makes clear is that Arthur isn’t inherently evil — he’s mentally ill. (Even his signature laugh is explained by a “condition.”) He aspires to be a stand-up comedian but isn’t funny, nor does he understand people well enough to connect with them. He also can’t find a good job and loses his social worker when the state cuts funding for that clinic.
As Phillips tells it, a bureaucracy that fails to provide effective mental health services and a deeply angry society devoid of compassion are the forces responsible for pushing Arthur over the edge. Only when he can no longer tolerate getting beaten up by life and embraces his violent, homicidal side does he find the happiness — if that’s what to call it — he’s been seeking. That’s an extremely bleak path set against a hopeless backdrop. Phillips isn’t interested in anything grandiose or fun, though his story has moments of dark humor.
Joker is worth seeing for Phoenix’s performance. With his notable weight loss and outbursts of vaudevillian dancing, its physicality is truly impressive. The same goes for how completely he immerses himself in Arthur’s utter despair, followed by demented enlightenment. If only Phillips had built a better movie around that performance and embraced what makes the Joker such a compelling villain. Then we might have seen something memorable, rather than a movie willfully ignoring what makes its lead character special.