With any and every movie one sees, they need to know the answer to the most important question: What is the point? It’s the question whose answer decides whether or not one will find it interesting, engaging, and/or memorable. For a film as controversial and successful as Joker, the point of the film seems to matter beyond the film itself. There were ‘news reports’ of potential shooters at showings, and there were antagonistic blog articles by people who hadn’t even seen the film saying it is, in essence, the ultimate incel movie – something something white men, something something mass shooters. I am not going to bother addressing the hysteria surrounding this film prior to and during its release, because simply seeing Joker is enough to know these hysterical activists never knew what they were talking about.
From a different and far more respectable group of people, the reception was mixed: A whole lot of “it’s good but not great.” To my great regret, I don’t agree with a single one of these people. Though I can’t state it as fact, I will state it as my strongly-held belief that … Joker is a masterpiece. Perhaps it doesn’t belong in anyone’s top-10 greatest films of all time, but I do believe it is among the greatest comic book films of all time. Greater than Logan, and tied with its own Joker predecessor, The Dark Knight.
While I love Logan, I just didn’t know what I was supposed to take away from it. So, Wolverine is old and wants to die, then he dies. Alright… A pretty miserable way to celebrate Hugh Jackman’s 17 years playing the character, if you ask me. Not to mention, we already had several Wolverine movies where he learned to think of others before himself, and he learned that lesson for the 10th time in Logan. Still pretty good movie, though.
Joker has a takeaway, and an important one at that. It’s a story about the fact immorality creates more immorality. The film asks the question: Are monsters born, or are they made? With Arthur, it’s a chicken-and-egg situation because I’m still not sure what the film’s answer is. Arthur does make a genuine effort to be a good person, or at the very least, to make others happy, until he decides it’s not worth the effort anymore. Would Arthur have become the Joker if he had at least one constant positive presence in his life, the kind of presence that Bruce Wayne has in Alfred to keep him grounded at all times? Who knows if Arthur’s metamorphosis into the Joker could have been prevented, or any other version of the Joker. Who knows if the Joker entity is nature or nurture.
When Joker was announced – simply announced, long before any trailers were released – I was against the mere idea of this film, not only because Joker is not supposed to have a definitive back story, but also because I knew it was going to exclude Batman, and I couldn’t really imagine a Joker who was not created in part by Batman. The Joker is my favorite character in all fiction, but I’ve always hated his commonly-depicted origin of falling into a vat of chemicals. I mean, a pool of chemicals that gives a clownish personality and appearance to whomever falls into it? Absurd.
No, I’ve always thought of Joker as a direct response to the existence of Batman. He’s a freak at heart who becomes a freak in practice, because of a freak. Also, and just as importantly, Joker, who is anarchy and chaos at any cost, is a response to what Batman represents, which is peace and justice at almost any cost. Batman may be the hero, and he may win all the fistfights, but Joker always wins the argument. You cannot punch your way to peace. You cannot eradicate crime. Batman is a force to be reckoned with; he brings criminals to their knees. But, rather than eradicating crime, or even reducing it, he amplifies it, like an antibiotic that created a drug-resistant virus. Batman’s entire gallery of villains only exist because of him. He drives criminals to take measures equal to his own, and Joker is no different. In fact, Joker is the epitome of this conundrum. So, that is my overly-elaborate explanation of why I just couldn’t imagine a Joker origin story that didn’t involve Batman.
I had low expectations from DC as a whole, given what they’ve produced in recent years. I was not expecting 2019’s Joker to be anything of quality given how much was working against it. The fact it was made by a guy most known for the Hangover movies also didn’t help it at all. What ended up happening was: I went in to the theater curious, and came out amazed with the masterpiece I had just seen.
Joaquin Phoenix. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance was outstanding. He flawlessly played a man with mental illness, a painful physical condition, severe father issues, and a desperate desire to put an end to his lifetime of misery. I know outstanding performances by Joaquin Phoenix is no surprise, but that doesn’t lessen the brilliance and talent displayed in this film. He carried this film, as he was meant to by the premise itself. If he didn’t make it work, the whole film would have been a failure.
Technical Aspects. In an industry that over-saturates their images with orange and/or blue, it’s always refreshing to see a film that risks a color palette that could possibly be best described as faded. Speaking of risks, the film is rated R, which is generally a no-go zone in an industry that hates taking risks, especially with big-name properties. (Todd Philips director table ‘pajamas’ clip) In addition to a palette of faded colors, the setting itself is gritty and periodic.
Pacing. The film takes its time, and I respect that immensely. Yet, I never once feel like anything takes too long to get through. In fact, ever since the second time I watched Joker, it’s felt rather short to me. Still, nothing is rushed; everything takes as long as it needs to.
Emotional Impact. Never, and I mean ‘never’ in a literal sense, has any film invoked so many emotions, of such intensity, in such short increments of time. Take the scene where Arthur kills his ex-coworker Randall, for example. Here, we’re not aware he intends to murder Randall, and even when we’re shown the scissors, we’re not sure he’ll actually go through with it. It’s brutal. Then, while we, the audience, is still in relative shock, we’re left with Gary, whom we’re not sure will be next. When Arthur tells Gary he can go, and Gary passes him, Arthur jump scares him, which, even if for only a second, we believe is an attack as well. Then, Gary can’t reach the lock on the door, leaving us wondering why Arthur used that lock – was it to trap Gary inside? Then, to top it off, Arthur gives Gary a kiss, saying Gary was the only person who was ever nice to him, and then opens the door. So, we go from shock (the murder), to fear (for Gary), to fright (Arthur startling Gary), to more fear (seeing Gary can’t get out), to sadness (Arthur pours out his heart then lets a character we like go free).
Will there ever be another movie featuring the Joker that makes our very emotions as unpredictable as the character himself? The first time I saw Joker, I was split on whether Arthur would hurt Gary or not. Joker is unpredictable. In fact, I thought, If Arthur spares Gary, it won’t be because Gary was nice to him. The Joker has never cared who’s nice. I was wrong, but then again, Arthur hadn’t fully completed his metamorphosis yet.
I was shocked that Arthur murdered his mother. I’m still undecided if he murdered his neighbor Sophie and/or her daughter, and if he did, I don’t know why he would. We hear sirens immediately after he leaves her apartment…
The entire film gave me a rather … unfair … mixture of emotions. I left the theater having no idea if Arthur was a good person who became evil, or if he always was. I left the theater not sure if I should feel sorry for him, or hate him without nuance because he ultimately became a monster. I do believe people are always responsible for their conscious actions, but it’s not black-and-white, because people can be pushed beyond what they can mentally handle. We’ve all been there, when we’re so emotionally overwhelmed and we consider doing anything it takes just to make it stop. Not to mention, there were times in this film that I laughed when I felt I shouldn’t, like when Arthur’s mother said, “Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?” That was cruel to say, but I laughed, and I hate myself for laughing at that.
So, the emotional impact of this film is both complicated and leaves you all over the spectrum at once. I can’t think of any other film that even attempts that, let alone pulls it off. It leaves you feeling like Arthur himself – torn between what you find funny, what you justify, what you agree with, what you refuse to justify, etc. Putting us in Arthur’s shoes, at least emotionally, is masterful artistic merit. In my opinion, that’s what makes a masterpiece a masterpiece: How it makes you feel, and how it achieves that. Not only does Joker make you feel an array of emotions, simultaneously, but none of it is done cheaply. Even at moments in the film that reviewers have accused it of being cheap, like the triple murder scene. The emotion I felt during that scene was shock, because Arthur was outright chasing a guy down to murder him, even after the man was already injured and probably deeply regretted his actions and witnessed his friends getting murdered; Arthur still hunted him down, and I was shocked he took it that far.
Sometimes, when you expect Arthur to behave like the Joker, he doesn’t, and sometimes when you expect him to behave like any average struggling person, he behaves like the Joker instead. What is real, what is imagined? Being made to feel so many intense emotions all throughout… Being made to feel so morally conflicted all throughout… These are the characteristics of a masterpiece.
Now, I want to get into criticisms, since I just touched on it. First, I’ll give my own criticisms, and then I will address criticisms I’ve heard, most of which I personally find absurd.
No film is perfect; not The Godfather, not Citizen Kane, not Schindler’s List, and this film isn’t perfect, either. Here are my criticisms:
- When the kids beat up Arthur to take his stuff, and even say to take his stuff, but they don’t even try to take anything.
- The flashbacks showing us that his girlfriend was imagined. It only lasted five seconds, so I say this counts as only half a flaw.
- When Arthur told Gary he’d be on the Murray show, and then everything proceeded as if he hadn’t said that. There are some possible defenses of this, though. Gary could have gone straight home, or a corner, to just sit and try to process the murder he just witnessed. Some people cope with trauma, especially intense trauma, through denial; Gary could have just tried to keep functioning for the rest of the day (or week) by repressing what he just witnessed. There’s also the fact that the cops showed up as soon as Arthur got to the stairs and danced on them, so it’s possible Gary did call the cops immediately, and didn’t bother mentioning the Murray show because he didn’t think there was any need to. So, once again, I’ll treat this as only half a flaw.
- The fact all the protestor clown masks are identical in design to Arthur’s. We all know clowns have varying designs. Nobody would realistically get a good look at Arthur’s makeup and take notes when he committed the subway murders. There also weren’t any cameras for the average person to pull footage from. So, it’s very unlikely that protestors would have the same clown appearance as Arthur. It could be argued that Arthur imagined the entire protesting subplot, but I highly doubt it, especially when he had no interest in politics.
- The co-hosts on the Murray show just sitting there after Arthur shot Murray. Nobody curls into a ball, sitting just inches away from a shooter, in plain sight without any cover, after the shooter started shooting.
Now, here are things reviewers I’ve heard criticize about the film:
- Everyone is a caricature. All the bad people do bad things for no reason and they look cheesy while doing so. I disagree with this entirely. Two words: It’s Gotham. It’s not your average city, it’s specifically Gotham, which everyone in the real world has known is completely consumed with crime and corruption. Gotham has always been a rather unrealistically-bad city. It’s almost just as much of a comic book character as any superhero. You have to remember this still takes place in the Batman universe, which brings me to the next point…
- It takes place in the Batman universe. When I’ve heard people say this as a criticism, it actually sounds to me like the highest praise. It sounds like the film itself is too good to be based on a comic book character. Well, the fact remains that it still is. Whether the Gotham in this version is more realistic like the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, or extremely unrealistic like the Arkham Asylum games, the fact still remains that it is still a comic book movie. I’ve heard people say that it was only about the Joker to get people to see it. Again, this sounds more like praise than criticism, because it was always meant to be about the Joker from the beginning. It wasn’t a random indie film about a mentally ill guy who shoots some TV host – it was always about the Joker himself. So, again, if anyone think the film was too good for its own roots, that’s praise, not criticism.
- Thomas Wayne being a selfish asshole. Honestly, how often have we ever gotten a complete depiction of Thomas Wayne in any Batman comic or movie? One that isn’t from Bruce Wayne’s perspective at all? What if Thomas Wayne was, canonically, an asshole? Honestly, it actually makes sense to me that Thomas Wayne was an asshole and just never showed it to his son, as people do with their family members. Gotham is the worst city on Earth to live in, but Thomas Wayne, a billionaire, was brought up in it, operated his business in it, and had no connection to its condition?
I have no issue with Thomas Wayne’s death at the end of Joker. In fact, I think it was the best way to close his arc. Every reviewer of this film I’ve seen has had issue with everything to do with Thomas Wayne, particularly his death. Do none of these reviewers understand that main characters aren’t the only ones who have arcs? Was Thomas Wayne supposed to be some guy who tells Arthur that he’s not his father? Was that supposed to be his entire arc? No. He’s introduced as a billionaire who is perceived as being a contributor to the city’s problems (which he logically would be), then we see him confirmed as being rather heartless with how he speaks of the protestors and how he treats Arthur himself, and then when the protestors turn to rioting, it only makes sense that the rioters would target one of the main people they despise. I appreciate that the Waynes’ killer wasn’t trying to rob them, he was actually trying to kill them, and he was motivated by hate. I always found it absurd that Joe Chill in the comics would kill two people, including a helpless woman, when neither of the Waynes were even resisting. No, it makes far more sense that their deaths would be motivated by hatred.
We don’t know if the Joker in this film is the future arch-nemesis of Batman. Joaquin’s Joker could simply have been the inspiration for a future, agent-of-chaos Joker that fights Batman, for all we know. Don’t forget that in the comics, Batman learned when he sat on an omniscient chair that 3 different people have been the Joker. Maybe that’s the main reason we’ll never get a definitive back story for the Joker like we have for Batman – the Joker is a figure, an idol, a condition, a state of mind … not just one specific person. So, all in all, no, I don’t have any issue with Thomas Wayne getting gunned down by a man motivated by Arthur Fleck at the end of this film. In fact, I wouldn’t have written it any different myself. Also don’t forget the fact that Joaquin Phoenix is in his mid-40s while Bruce Wayne is just a kid in this film. That’s quite an age difference for these two to be arch-nemeses 20 years after this film takes place. That alone leaves a good chance that Arthur merely set the stage for a future Joker. He’s just the original.
Maybe Arthur Fleck should be the canonical, definitive inspiration for the Joker figure in all Batman lore, for all of Gotham’s future Jokers to emulate. This would make Arthur’s film here be both canonical and would keep the Joker’s origin a mystery at the same time. After all, that omniscient chair pretty much confirmed there is no singular Joker character.
The Ending (Conclusion)
I’m honestly not sure what to think about the ending of Joker. All I’m certain of is that it’s not supposed to mean the whole film takes place in Arthur’s head. Even if Todd Philips had never addressed this, I would still believe this. Arthur just isn’t the type to imagine his own misfortunes. He wouldn’t imagine getting fired, he wouldn’t imagine getting beat up by kids in the street or Wayne Enterprise executives. He wouldn’t imagine being lied to by his mother, he wouldn’t imagine getting different stories about his past from his mother and Thomas Wayne and hospital records. He wouldn’t imagine … let’s just say, a lot of things.
In the final scene when Arthur is laughing at a joke he won’t share, it flashes to Bruce Wayne standing over his parents’ bodies. It doesn’t show anything else, let alone a montage of the entire film’s events. I’m more convinced than not, that Arthur may have been imagining Batman himself. Maybe the entire Batman franchise exists in Arthur’s head. A world where he has a rival with a complete opposite world view to his own, to challenge him in every way, and to entertain him by constantly trying to thwart his schemes. Maybe he found it funny if Bruce Wayne became a freak like Arthur himself, and that Arthur would be the cause. In a sense, this would mean the two created each other. So many possibilities of what the ending means, but I’m certain it doesn’t mean the whole story was imagined.
Clearly, 2019’s Joker was a story of metamorphosis. Arthur is in his larval state up until he murdered three businessmen, and over the next few weeks, transitioned into his completed form. The meds helped nothing, the counseling helped nothing, and trying to make others happy didn’t help. Once Arthur transforms, he no longer has painful fits of laughter – only voluntary laughter henceforth. Perhaps the Joker entity was always inside him, and it was only a matter of time when it came out. We’re not meant to sympathize, but we are meant to understand. We are meant to understand that immorality always spreads more immorality. We are meant to understand why people snap in the real world.
The film is its own story, but we already knew it’s not the complete story. I could talk all day about the philosophical implications of the endless conflict between Batman and the Joker, but at the end of the day, that is the meaning of the character’s existence. This film was just a depiction of a man who took the wrong path – whether he chose it or was doomed to walk that path, we may never know for sure. The path Arthur went down brought nothing good. The rioters solved nothing, Franklin Murray’s murder solved nothing, Thomas Wayne’s murder solved nothing. The last place we see Arthur is locked up, which is our proof that nothing good came from anything he did. He’d been locked up before, and now he’s locked up again. Back to square one, but now a lot of people are dead, and that’s the only result.
Final thought here: Think about Gary, the only person who was ever kind to Arthur. Arthur sparing Gary showed us that he still understands right from wrong, but after he becomes the Joker, he just doesn’t care anymore. Gary’s good nature may not have kept Arthur’s darkness at bay, but it did preserve at least a small amount of Arthur’s capacity to be good, and it brought out what remained of Arthur’s good side. Just as immorality creates more immorality, so it is with being good to people.