Joker (2019): A Controversial yet Compelling Origin Story
The Joker is one of most well-known and infamous comic book and movie characters of all time. As each time Batman’s arch-nemesis is brought to life on screen sparks life (I will not mention Jared Leto’s take on the titular character), ranging from campy to downright terrifying. So when news broke of a Joker origin story, many were extremely curious. As this is a character that revels in his ambiguous nature.
Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally-ill street clown and struggling comedian who has a never-ending streak of bad days. From getting beat up by random pedestrians to getting mocked at every comedy club imaginable, he is on the verge of snapping. As Arthur’s home life and civil unrest in Gotham begin to deteriorate, so does his mental state. But his days soon lighten up when he gets a call from Murray Franklin (played by Robert De Niro) to join his talk show for an evening. With this new boost of confidence Arthur begins to see the world in a new light, as he becomes able to express himself more freely. However, this might be at the cost of his sanity and sanctity of Gotham.
It was a risk to try and create an origin story for a well known ambiguous villain such as the Joker, but the Joker himself said it best in The Killing Joke, “If I were to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” While it does work as how the Agent of Chaos came to be, the filmmakers and writers leave enough clues and open-ended questions to allow the film to be interpreted in varying ways. It could be taken at face value, or as a scenario inside Fleck’s head. Both work as ways to tell this story, but the best part is that they do not change the core of our main character. He is a madman that has his own unique sense of humor.
Speaking of our main character, Joaquin Phoenix absolutely transcends expectations with his sympathetic and deranged turn as Arthur Fleck. He certainly is no Heath Ledger, as that version is still a high standard to live up to. However, Phoenix raises the bar pretty dang close to Ledger. The only difference between these two characters is how the character is handled. Ledger’s Joker is a fully fledged anarchist only wanting chaos, while Phoenix’s Joker is a mentally-ill loner that is just trying to be accepted by society but fails consistently. Phoenix allows us to feel for Fleck’s shortcomings and fear his wrath as it is impossible to know what will set the character off. Joaquin rightfully earned the Oscar for Best Actor with this disturbingly realistic performance.
Joker was able to start some modern-day conversations as well, although not always for the best. Many groups were concerned about the depictions of gun violence in the film and along with its usage in the hands of a dangerous character, believing that strangers and crazies were gonna go out and start committing random violent acts. This is not the first time this conversation has been brought up about violence portrayal in media, as there was a tragic shooting at a movie theater at the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. But also, people should understand that it is just a film and it was rated R because of these depictions of violence. If you don’t like violence in an R rated film, don't watch it. Simple as that.
What I found really impressive was how much Joker paid homage to all that influenced the film. It’s no secret that Martin Scorsese was almost involved in Joker as a producer, but his influence is plain as day. The film pays homage to some of his classic films like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, hell they even got Robert De Niro on the cast who is a frequent collaborator of Scorsese. That is not what is only referenced; since Joker is a Batman rogue, it is only fair that they reference Batman or Bruce Wayne every so often. What I didn’t expect was how heavily Bruce’s father, Thomas Wayne, would be involved with the story; being a possible parent to Arthur Fleck, making for a more complex relationship between the Joker and Batman for future films if they do go down the sequel route (hopefully not). They also reference the origins of Batman from both 1989’s Batman and 2005’s Batman Begins. It’s common knowledge how Bruce’s parents died, but they managed to combine the origin from both Batman films; since Joker killed his parents in ‘89 and a random mugger in ‘05. It is truly shocking and mesmerizing all at once.
Joker is a controversial film, understandably so, as it can be hard to watch at times but it is equally hard to look away as well. A brutal tone and unpredictable nature work in the film's favor, helping sell the ambiguity of both the character and legacy of the Joker. But it also manages to pay homage, not so subtly, to classic films such as The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, as well as superhero films like Batman and Batman Begins. Joaquin Phoenix definitely gives Heath Ledger’s Joker a run for his money as the best, but my opinion is still on Ledger’s portrayal. While I do recommend this film, it is not for the faint of heart. You have been warned!