Joker may be controversial, but with its October 4 release date quickly approaching, it's being praised by critics. Read our review here, and let us know in the comments below whether you're looking forward to the classic villain's first standalone film.
How could a Joker movie without Batman possibly work? 2019's Joker, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix, answers that question with a simple twist on the classic villain: by making the Joker an accidental antihero who inspires the downtrodden people of Gotham to rise up against Wall Street fat cats and the "fascists" in City Hall. Joker doesn't need Batman because this time, he's the hero--the villains of this movie are poverty, neglect, and oppression. Yes, we live in a society, Joker expounds--a society that stinks. We should burn it to the ground.
Arthur Fleck's plight is all too believable. A clown-for-hire by day, Fleck cares for his sickly mother (Frances Conroy) in their rundown apartment and half-heartedly tries to flirt with his neighbor down the hall, Sophie (Zazie Beetz). He doesn't know his father, but he has plenty of surrogates--from the co-worker who gives him a gun with which to protect himself, to late-night TV host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), from whom Fleck fantasizes about fatherly hugs and paternal admissions like "I'd give all this up to have a son like you."
But Arthur Fleck is not well. Although he functions somewhat normally thanks to a regular cornucopia of pills, the would-be comedian--who writes jokes in a notebook filled with scribbled-on pornography, but has never told one on a stage--is no stranger to four white walls and a straitjacket. He meets with a social worker, but he suspects she doesn't actually listen to anything he says. Add to the mix a neurological condition--or maybe an early-life head injury--that causes him to sporadically burst into painfully uncontrollable laughter, usually at the worst possible times.
This is a version of Joker we've never seen before. There have been origin stories, but rarely have the details of his life--from his real name to his immediate family members--been so explicitly laid out. Fleck doesn't start out bad in this movie--in fact, he's legitimately trying to be good. But the vaguely early '80s Gotham we explore here isn't kind to good people. Sanitation workers are on strike, and garbage piles up around the city. Gangs of teenagers and squads of Wall Street douche bags find a common object for their aggression: soul-crushed sad saps like Arthur Fleck. And as the social programs that provide Fleck his meds get cut, Fleck's sanity degrades in kind. His reality--and thus our perspective on the movie's world, as Fleck is the sole viewpoint character--break down along with him.
Phoenix's turn as the Clown Prince of Crime joins the growing list of career-defining Joker performances, gleefully matching predecessors like Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger, and others in sheer, joyful lunacy. But Phoenix's Joker brings something that no previous version has had: humanity. Fleck-turned-Joker isn't simply an insane foil for Batman or a naturalistic force of chaos. He's a man who was born with the deck stacked against him, nudged and shoved endlessly toward an inevitable explosion of violent self-acceptance. Fleck is absolutely a bad guy, but even as he embraces his new persona and the bodies pile up, you might just find yourself rooting for him regardless.
That's because, despicable as he may be, undeniably, Joker has a point. Like De Niro's own character in Taxi Driver, society has done more than abandoned him--it never gave a damn about him in the first place.
There’s a discomfort to that. You may squirm in your seat as Fleck crosses line after line. He commits unspeakable crimes--the kinds we see in real-life headlines seemingly every other day. And the scariest thing is that, throughout the movie, many of these acts seem justified. Fleck never becomes totally unsympathetic--as viewers, we can always understand where he’s coming from. Joker humanizes a murderer in a way that may make the kinds of disenfranchised real-world mass killers we now see regularly salivate--or, in the worst possible scenario, provide them inspiration. It’s powerful and potentially controversial, which is part of what makes this movie absolutely essential viewing right now.
Joker’s Scorsese influence is undeniable--this movie can accurately be described as equal parts Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. But director Todd Phillips also cites other movies from the same period, from Dog Day Afternoon to A Clockwork Orange. Joker has far more in common with those classics than its contemporaries in the superhero genre; If you removed the Joker entirely, and this was simply a movie about a murderous clown who goes off his meds, it could work just as well.
It’s powerful and potentially controversial, which is part of what makes this movie absolutely essential viewing right now.
Despite that, the movie's character-focused, socially relevant framework is the perfect fit for this particular incarnation of the Joker. And nothing about it feels forced; there are moments when it seems like the movie is getting a little bit too cute, but it always draws back the curtain a little bit further to reveal another twist waiting just offstage.
Phillips was cited recently in Empire saying Joker "doesn't follow anything" from comics, but the director has insisted since that he was misquoted, or maybe misspoke--during a Q&A recently in Los Angeles, he insisted what he actually said, or meant to say, was that Joker doesn't follow any particular comics storyline. What it does is take what it needs from various sources (the chilling laugh, which Phoenix makes very much his own), leave some things behind (Joker's rictus-grin or Nolan-era facial scars are nowhere to be seen), and add a whole bunch of its own (Fleck loves to dance, and often does so with weird gyrations that Phoenix's angular, emaciated body render unsettling).
Joker isn't, in fact, completely disconnected from the comics. Various members of the supporting cast, including Beetz, Conroy, and De Niro, are original inventions who exist solely to support Phoenix's performance and spur Fleck on at various points. But Brett Cullen's Thomas Wayne is a well-known face--albeit one not shown in the favorable light with which we usually see him (from his son's rose-tinted perspective). Clown-faced protesters hold signs calling Wayne, who's running for mayor, a fascist; he weaves into the story here and there, a rigid, larger-than-life presence who ultimately plays foil (in Batman's place) for the unhinged, wiry, greasy Arthur Fleck. And there are a couple more familiar presences, but I won't spoil who they are.
It was difficult to imagine a Joker without Batman, because the Jokers we've grown to love over the years all existed as chaotic evil counterpoints to Bruce Wayne's unwavering lawful good. Joker succeeds, without equivocation, because it transforms the villain into the populist antihero we need him to be now. Joker wears its influences on its maroon sleeves, but it also carves its own gashes through the blood-soaked landscape of contemporary comic book movies, offering something that, despite teetering on the shoulders of 80 years of history, is wonderfully fresh, dangerously exciting, undeniably entertaining, and rock-solid in its artistry. It might make you uncomfortable, and it will no doubt stay with you long after the curtains close; great movies often do.