The Joker, Batman’s greatest nemesis, is well known for having no clear origin story; in Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke, he tells Batman that he considers his past to be “multiple choice”, with his memories always shifting. So on paper, a filmmaker is certainly free to make an interesting film that presents a fresh origin for the character; yes, it’s harder to make a good story if Batman’s not there for the Joker to play off of, but presumably not impossible. With this particular film entitled Joker, however, it feels like the filmmakers’ objective was less about the character and more about the story – a story that could have had a completely original character assigned to it without any association with a comic-book franchise. (It does feel pretty similar to Taxi Driver.) The main character doesn’t actually transform into a recognisable Joker until the last quarter of the film.
The protagonist in question is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), who lives in Gotham City in the 1980s. He doesn’t exactly follow the commonly-used Killing Joke-style origin of having one bad day that drove him insane – because for him, every day is a bad day. He lives in a crummy apartment with his sick mother; his job as a clown gets him mocked and beaten up; and his dream of being a stand-up comedian is going nowhere. One evening, Arthur is pushed too far and commits murder, and as he struggles to both conceal his involvement in the crime and find a little happiness in his miserable life, he slowly progresses on a downward spiral that inevitably leads to a new identity as the Joker.
How did I like this film? Let me put it this way. About halfway through, I seriously considered doing something I have never done before: walking out of the cinema. I ended up staying because I don’t like leaving things unfinished, and it wasn’t like I would get my money back. But any hopes that Joker would end up justifying my persistence were in vain. Even if I didn’t “get it” somehow, no increased understanding would change the fact that watching this film was a deeply unpleasant experience.
The film actually does make some good choices in terms of acting and aesthetics. Joaquin Phoenix is clearly giving it his all, and fully becomes his character, progressing from the broken, desperate, mentally fragile Arthur to a recognisably chaotic, laughing Joker. Gotham City is presented as a cesspool and a horrible place to live on a realistic level; instead of grim, gothic architecture and gangsters lurking in the shadows, there’s bags of rubbish piled in the streets, cheap, filthy apartment buildings, and youths who attack and make fun of innocent bystanders just for the hell of it. But these are details that get lost in the bigger picture. And for me, that bigger picture was two hours of purified misery being thrown in my face; one scene after another of failure and pain, leading to violence and even more pain, forced down my throat like rotten food.
Yet having an overwhelmingly negative tone shouldn’t be enough on its own to make a film bad. I don’t always go to the cinema for escapism, and I don’t need every film I watch to be happy and positive. But I do want to get something out of it. Take The Favourite, for example. None of the three main characters are very nice people; the story involves two women viciously trying to one-up each other for the privileges of being in the favour of an emotionally immature queen; and it’s often very uncomfortable to watch on a sensory level. But even if I probably wouldn’t watch it again, I still considered it a worthwhile experience, for its interesting story and unique style.
Joker clearly wants the audience to be uncomfortable, but aside from some appreciation of the elements mentioned above, I got nothing out of it that could make up for the negative feelings I was experiencing. I couldn’t get into the story; there isn’t much of one besides “guy gets hammered by life till he becomes a psychopath” – it doesn’t feel right to call it a tragedy, since at no point does there seem to be any hope for Arthur. As much as the film seemed to believe it was delivering profound lessons about how people treat the mentally ill and how awful society is, that side really all felt basic and not insightful. Before Joker had even come out, it was being accused of glorifying violence, and normally I don’t pay too much attention to that sort of thing – but watching the film, it actually did feel that way a bit, which certainly didn’t make the experience any more pleasant. There does seem to be an air of triumph to Arthur’s personal actions and what he inspires in others – apart from Arthur’s fantasies, this violence is practically the only part of the film that gets portrayed with anything resembling positivity. It feels like it’s meant to be at least seen as defensible, if not good.
And when the film tries to tie itself to the wider Batman mythos, it doesn’t even make sense. Bruce Wayne is still only a child in this film; if the Joker is becoming an active criminal at this point, then by the time Bruce is ready to become Batman, there really should be no Gotham City left for him to protect. At the end of the film, we also see the famous murder of Batman’s parents being committed by one of the Joker’s supporters, who specifically targets Thomas Wayne; in other words, the death of the Waynes becomes politically motivated, rather than the random action of a crook with a gun who just wants money. Surely something like that will influence Bruce’s ultimate motivations and objectives in becoming Batman? True, the twist at the very end suggests that maybe the whole thing was just Arthur’s delusion, but at that point, I was too tired to care.
It’s all subjective, of course. Plenty of people out there really liked Joker and found value in it, and that’s fine. For me personally, it was torturous while offering very little in return, and I truly wish I hadn’t bothered. Rating: 1/5.