"When I was a little boy and told people I was going to be comedian, everyone laughed at me. Well no one's laughing now" – The Joker
To say that I had mixed feelings about a standalone origin film about the Joker would be an understatement. As the character approaches his eightieth year on the printed page, there really is no better time to examine his tortured psyche and deeply flawed personality. But, as with the Joker himself, the undertaking could go badly wrong in so many ways.
There are so many facets to him – on the surface, he’s kind of an evil clown with a macabre methodology to his crimes. Seen another way, he’s a victim, turned to insanity by circumstance and tragedy as related in the Killing Joke graphic novel of the eighties.
Optimism at the casting of Joachim Phoenix being cast in the role was diminished when writer/director Todd Phillips stated that the film wasn’t going to follow any comic book continuity, that it was gong to be more of a character study. That’s when the alarm bells rang in geek Central. We all know what happens when the source material is ignored in favour of writers and directors who believe they can improve on the material – we get Catwoman films with Halle Berry and we get Fantastic 4 films by Josh Trank who hasn’t worked since.
As I was out of the country when the film had its premiere, I’ve been avoiding all spoilers with the nimble skills of a ninja (no mean feat when you’re pushing sixty) in order to get to see the film fresh, with no preconceptions and open to what it had to offer with no expectations. But that hasn’t been easy with the wave of publicity and polarising opinions about the film. Its violence has been criticised; comments have been made that the film might actually incite violence. All very interesting.
So, what actually IS the film? Is this the Joker, as in the arch villain who has tried to kill the Caped Crusader and bedevilled Gotham City on a regular basis for eight decades, or is it something entirely different, i.e. Joker in name only?
Um – yes.
Leaning a bit toward the tragic story of a failed comedian as shown in The Killing Joke that I mentioned earlier, Philips certainly and undeniably does veer into comic book territory. All the background trappings are there. The film is set in Gotham, we see Arkham Asylum, the Wayne family is referenced. There’s no Batman, obviously – as this is set when Bruce Wayne is a child and ingeniously incorporates Bruce’s life changing childhood trauma.
But at its heart, Joker is a deep and resonating character study of a flawed individual on the brink of breaking. Of course, despite his eighty years, we actually know very little about the Joker in the comic books. We don’t even know his real name. But in this film, he’s Arthur Fleck, a man with a disability. An invisible one – not immediately apparent. He’s prone to nervousness, and this nervousness manifests itself in hysterical, loud, uncontrollable laughter. Usually at inappropriate times, which gets him into a lot of trouble when people think he’s laughing at them.
Arthur is a kind man, who wants to bring happiness in to a cold and cruel world as a comedian. He’s been working as a clown, but life and people keep beating him down. Arthur is very much a victim. More so when social services budgets are slashed, leaving him without his lifeline of counselling and medication to control his condition. Arthur’s descent gathers momentum as secrets from his mother’s past mental health issues and his abuse as a small child come to light, add to this a brutal beating on the subway at the hands of three Wayne Enterprises yuppies, when Arthur, in his clown make-up, shoots two in self defence and coldly executes the third.
This inspires an anti-rich movement/rebellion among the disenfranchised and impoverished population on the unstable streets of Gotham, who begin to dress in clown masks much as the Occupy protesters wore the V for Vendetta masks in real life a few years ago. Art imitating life.
As Arthur says to the Letterman-like late night TV show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) who has humiliated him to boost ratings;
“Have you seen what it's like out there, Murray? Do you ever actually leave the studio? Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody's civil anymore. Nobody thinks what it's like to be the other guy. You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what it's like to be someone like me? To be somebody but themselves? They don't. They think that we'll just sit there and take it, like good little boys! That we won't werewolf and go wild!”
And although the movie is set circa 1980, that sentiment holds firmly true as a bleak reflection of our present-day world. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Joker is a damning indictment of mental health care and the lack of empathy and compassion in our society today. Society created the Joker and then condemns their own creation as if he’s not their fault.
As the film progresses there’s a scene where Fleck’s psyche tips and he visibly becomes The Joker, wildly unpredictable in all his homicidal manic glory. You can see it in his eyes and his posture. And that’s when it clicked. Much as I like my comic book characters – I realised that maybe unwittingly, Todd Phillips had given us the origin of Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight. Not the one the Joker claims in that film, but then the character maintains that if he has to have an origin story, he wants it to be multiple choice.
Whether you choose to see this as a film about a comic book villain or a comment about societal injustice – see it.
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