The character of the Joker has always served as a Rorschach (no DC comics pun intended) test of the audience. Even the character’s background over the years has been given so many reinterpretations and ambiguities that his origins is more of a pick-your-own history than a steady descent into sociopathy. While this could be a function of 60 years’ worth of writers mucking up his story, as has happened with every long-running comic book character, a pick-and-choose background perfectly suits a figure whose entire modus operandi is chaos and confusion. The same has been the case with each of the Joker’s various live action screen incarnations: Cesar Romero’s campy clown of the painted-over mustache, Jack Nicholson’s 1980’s flash and excess, Heath Ledger’s Iraq War-era agent of chaos, and Jared Leto’s all style no substance pancake-faced juggalo. Each served as a commentary on what contemporary society valued and feared. This tradition of Joker as a canvas onto which the audience may paint its own picture is on full display in Todd Phillip’s Joker, complete with muddled commentary delivered by an unreliable narrator.
It should be stated here that I personally have never been a big fan of the Joker—recognizing that he is one of fiction’s greatest villains if only because he’s a compelling antagonist for his heroic antithesis—much less an expert. Honestly, I think the character is a bit overused and, since we’re being open here, overrated. This fact matters little, however, as Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker has near nothing to do with the mythos of the Joker other than iconography and interacting with Gotham City and one of its most prominent residents. Even if the filmmakers used elements of The Killing Joke, removing all traces of Batman from Joker would only result in changing a few names.
Instead, Phillip’s interpretation owes a much, much greater debt to someone to whom a lot of 21st Century cinema owes a debt: Martin Scorsese. It’s no secret that Phillips made Joker in the 1970’s style of the auteur (who was an early producer on the DC film) but Joker so closely emulates both Taxi Driver and King of Comedy that anyone familiar with those two pictures will see every story beat and development an hour ahead of time. Joker is less an homage to 70’s Scorsese than a joint remake dressed in DC cosplay. This lack of originality is perhaps the greatest knock on Joker, erasing the tense, volatile atmosphere the film works so hard to achieve. It’s hard not to imagine that Joker would have been better in a world where Taxi Driver and King of Comedy didn’t exist, and yet without those two films Joker itself would not exist.
Similarly it’s hard not to notice that star Joaquin Phoenix himself hasn’t been playing some variation of Arthur Fleck—a man on the edge of both society and sanity—for the last decade. In the case of Phoenix, this repetition feels less like dulling a blade with overuse than sharpening it, with his performance in Joker showing how keen his portrayal of this type of character has become. It’s easy to see parallels between this character and the one played by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (which remains my personal favorite version if only because he’s actually The Joker), but Phoenix definitely makes this character his own, all but vanishing into the part even beyond his near emaciation. Opening with a sad look into Fleck’s life, with his signature laugh morphing into a horrific affliction, Phoenix makes us feel for this downtrodden man. Then, very swiftly, he turns what had been heartbreaking entirely disturbing, to the point where his laugh is less an uncontrollable outburst than an expression of Fleck’s true intentions, and giving his every gesture the potential of violence. This is a deeply disturbed human being, and knowing why or how he has become this way doesn’t make him any less of a threat to his fellows.
And here’s where Joker most closely resembles its comic book namesake: different people will have different interpretations of Joker.
Much has already been written about possible acts of real world violence inspired by Joker and sadly, there will no doubt be some people, perhaps far more than anyone can imagine, who will watch Joker and see themselves in Arthur Fleck, much as they did in V for Vendetta‘s titular V and Fight Club‘s Tyler Durden. Yet as with those characters, most people who believe they most identify with Phoenix’s Joker will be missing the point. Like the Joker himself the film uses confusion and chaos to disguise its true intent. If there must be a political message found in Phillip’s interpretation it isn’t that the aggrieved white men of America need to rise up against the women who won’t sleep with them or the minorities who have hurt them by existing (as I’m sure some will believe it to be), nor that the 99% should hunt down the 1%, nor that nothing matters! Burn it all!, it’s that we as a society need to do more about mental health issues rather than dismiss, diminish, or, worse yet, laugh at them. If anything, Joker argues that society needs to care about its lowest members.
The ease with which Fleck crosses the line between justified, sympathetic victim and outright villain further demonstrates that there are some people in society who should not be trusted with the power to take a life (i.e.: making sure that guns aren’t available to people without the mental or emotional stability to own them). Thus, I’d argue that Joker, like Breaking Bad before it, is a document in favor of healthcare reform, particularly in the treatment of mental illness, and, like Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, a statement against arming the mentally disturbed.
But this is not what many people will see. Many will look at Joker as a symbol of rising up against the elites who wouldn’t care if they saw them—the “regular” people—freezing to death on the streets they’d prefer their chauffeur not drive down. There are elements which validate this reading, particularly in Joker‘s third act, yet we have to remember that was not Fleck’s purpose. Instead, as always, the people of Gotham place onto Joker the message they want him to have. This, more than anything, is the brilliance of Joker: it anticipates its own misinterpretation.
The fictional citizens of Gotham misread and misinterrept events the same way way we real people historically have. Just look at how both Colin Kaepernick and Donald Tr*mp (who is clearly the model for Joker‘s Thomas Wayne, except that Wayne is an actual tough guy) are hailed and hated in equal amounts. The fact that I can argue that Joker is a treatise on universal health care and gun control while others could claim it’s a screed against those exact things perfectly demonstrates what makes Joker a compelling character: he is a Rorschach test for the audience. The danger of Joker is not what is in the film, but in who is in the audience. Anyone who would use Joker as an inspiration for violence already has their inspiration. Joker‘s only danger is the all-too-real possibly of misinterpretation in a country which has had more mass shootings than days of the year. And that is a danger inherent to any film shown where people like Arthur Fleck are denied treatment but allowed weapons.
If I may be honest once again, I began this review from a much more critical standpoint. Initially I saw Joker as a beautifully shot film with an immaculate sense of pace entirely derivative of better films released more than 40 years ago. I even saw Joker‘s general disconnection from anything DC as an attempt to cash in on name recognition rather than risk doing the same film without a built-in fanbase. These may still be true, however I may also have written myself into appreciating the movie more than I did while leaving the theater.
Phillips and Phoenix have a crafted a compelling story of a villain who thinks he is a hero, of a man who thinks his problem is the world around him, and the consequences when that man is met with indifference. This is a crime movie, maybe even a horror movie, dressed up as a comic book movie. After Shazam and putting aside Aquaman, one has to applaud Warner Bros. and DC for taking the bold step of putting their characters into intriguing, if highly derivative, riffs on superhero cinema, a formula which is at least a lot more exciting than Zack Synder’s all-gloom all-the-time DCEU. We also have to applaud Todd Phillips for embracing the ambiguity of his title character. As such, Joker is not a rewriting of the comic book movie genre, it is not a social movement, and it should not (nor should anything else) inspire anyone to commit acts of violence, but it is definitely a film worth talking about. How you choose to interpret what it says is up to you.