If you were to physically lay out every essay and thinkpiece written about Joker in the last month, you would have an unbroken chain of paper that would stretch from Death Valley up to Alpha Centauri. Obviously it would be irresponsible for me, yet another cis-white-male blogger, to ignore this chance to throw my (much better) opinion onto the dumpster fire. The following is my review of The Joker. It contains spoilers, triggers, and gluten. Read at your own risk.
First, a disclaimer: I’m going to do my best to write about the movie itself and not the ridiculous hullabaloo surrounding it. In fact, I truly hate the hullabaloo because it tricked me into thinking I was going to see something important and groundbreaking. After all, if every major media outlet is coming out and condemning it, then it must be doing something right. That’s what ultimately motivated me to swallow my FOMO and see this crack baby full price.
It’s with a heavy heart that I must inform you that I was tragically underwhelmed by the whole experience. Based on reviews from friends and peers, I was expecting either a mind-blowing cinematic experience or a massive failburger. I got neither. I got mediocrity, which is always worse. Stripped of all the fuss and bullshit, Joker is a decently entertaining super-villain origin story that our media (both mainstream and social) has done a tremendous job of elevating to a level that it does not necessarily deserve. It’s not some terroristic polemic that will inspire domestic violence. It’s certainly not a faithful exploration of mental illness and its pitfalls in society. It’s a goddamn comic book movie, nerds.
In my opinion, Joker‘s biggest sin is excess. Not in blood and gore, but thematically. Joker has all the subtlety of a monster truck rally being blown up with a Howitzer missile. Arthur’s descent into violence is brought on by his existence in a cartoonishly-hostile environment that constantly beats him down literally and metaphorically. The opening scene depicts Arthur being brutally beaten to within an inch of his life by an anonymous group of roving teens and the tragic happenstances in his life never really let up. He gets beat up, then beat up again, then fired, then his mother ends up in the hospital, then he gets beat up again. Arthur’s suffering makes the story of Job look inspirational. It’s why I have a lot of trouble understanding the line that this movie does a good job of portraying mental illness in society. That’s a flawed premise when the world Arthur inhabits doesn’t resemble our own. Every single person that we meet in Gotham is either detached or outright hostile toward Arthur. There’s literally not a smile or positive influence to be found anywhere. Redemption or rehabilitation is not an option for Arthur because the movie never gives him those options. If there’s any aspect of mental illness that Joker is faithful about portraying, it’s the persecution complex that the movie tries to exploit in its audience to empathize with poor, miserable, misunderstood Arthur.
It leads me to believe that this film never intended to say anything important in the first place and we’ve all been taken for a ride. The way that the movie handles “the class struggle” in Gotham is my prime example. At the climax of the movie, Gotham is turned into a literal warzone by thousands upon thousands of clown mask-clad terrorists who have been inspired by the Joker’s actions to rise up against the wealthy elite of the city. Why? Because three random business bros got murdered on a train? What significance does that have in Gotham, where murder is a fairly common occurance? What is going on in Gotham that there’s already a full sleeper cell army ready to rise up and overthrow society? Are the rich publicly running a child-sex trafficking ring? What the hell? I ask these questions because Joker never bothers asking them. We’re just supposed to accept that the entire population secretly feels the same way that our twisted protagonist feels and is just waiting for someone to make the first move. And if that’s the case…then why does Arthur get his own movie and not any of the other people in Gotham that are being driven to violence? Wouldn’t that also be an interesting story?
Joker is able to hide its lack of true intellectual substance behind its cosplaying of other, better films that came before it. Arthur Fleck has Christian Bale’s physique in The Machinest and Javier Bardem’s haircut in No Country For Old Men. He was a Psycho-like relationship with his mother and works a dead-end job that steals his soul like Taxi Driver. Like the chain-smoking main character in Fight Club, he accidentally inspires a dedicated army of domestic terrorists while also striking back at his former hero/television host like in The King of Comedy. It would be less infuriating if Joker wasn’t so confident that it really was saying something unique and infuriating. Arthur’s climactic “you people” monologue before blowing Robert de Niro away was a heavy-handed way to bash the final message over our heads before everything goes fully apocalyptic. It felt like one of Stan’s monologues at the end of an episode of South Park.
I also have to talk about the plot holes, of which there are a few. Seeing how non-effective the police are in Gotham, it’s easy to see why Bruce Wayne said fuck it and started fighting criminals in a kung-fu bat costume. I’ve never seen movie cops as bad as Joker‘s cops. Despite being the only suspect in a murder case, Arthur is never taken into custody or even seriously questioned. He kills his own mother in a hospital and walks out without consequence. He openly confesses to murdering three people on public television and the host just admonishes him for being a bad person until Arthur shoots him. Also, it’s rather astounding that Arthur’s open mic meltdown just happened to become the first viral video of the 1980’s. Murray Franklin’s people were very much ahead of their time. I also had a lot of trouble buying the Phantom Girlfriend Zazie Beetz subplot, but that’s also because I’ve seen A Beautiful Mind too many times and always know when a character is imaginary.
Now, I know that I’ve just said a lot of mean things about the Joker. I say that because it’s a movie that tries to be bigger than it is. As a popcorn comic book movie, it’s fairly entertaining. If you like to watch society crumble and explode, you’re gonna have a very enjoyable time with Joker. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance alone is worth the price of admission and anyone who faults him for overacting in this movie deserves a frying pan to the solar plexus. Frances Conroy is having a wonderful career renaissance as a tragic gothic actress and Robert de Niro is Robert de Niro. The movie would have completely fallen apart without the strength of its actors. Phoenix and the rest of the ensemble hold the movie together with their bare hands and the characters do have a real emotional resonance on-screen. It’s certainly beyond what we’re used to seeing onscreen from comic book movie characters. If there’s any justice in the world, any gross income made by Joker should go directly to the actors and not the producers or writers.Their performances help elevate the movie to a place where it really should be the topic of serious critical conversation. If only there was more to actually talk about beyond the acting.
Bottom line, you need to have your mind made up as to whether you want to like Joker or not before you go see it. If you want to like it, you’ll love it. If you want to dislike it, you’ll hate it. I made the mistake of going in with an open mind and came away disappointed. Like any other form of art, you will see what you want to see in it. I don’t dislike the movie itself, but I do dislike the movie it is trying to be, if that makes any sense. I will say this for certain, though: It may not be bad, but it surely ain’t deep.