Joker challenges viewers. But how much?


Director Todd Phillip’s new “Joker,” released on Oct. 4, takes a fresh, dark look at the titular DC Comics character. Whereas previous incarnations of the devilish clown portrayed him as the twisted yet funny ultimate foil to Batman, Phillip’s and Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is given a more complex treatment as a true antihero who, like the film itself, is sure to inspire mixed emotions in audiences. 

One indisputable aspect of the film is Joaquin Phoenix’s tantalizing performance. Filling the shoes of Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger is no small feat, but Phoenix accomplishes the daunting task by taking the character in a new direction. While Romero’s Joker was a playful trickster, Nicholson’s a hilarious and vengeful ex-mobster and Ledger’s a nameless and captivating anarchic terrorist, Phoenix’s interpretation is decidedly original, as he plays an impoverished and named near middle-aged man, Arthur Fleck, suffering from possibly multiple mental illnesses and a lifetime of crushing blows that force him to strike back, and without pulling any punches. 

Phoenix’s wide array of facial expressions, chilling laugh and deft use of physicality (he lost 52 pounds for the film) make his Joker feel incredibly real and, most interestingly, independent because he is not defined in opposition to Batman. His transformation from Arthur to Joker is gradual, challenging the idea in Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” that just “one bad day” is all that separates Batman from the Joker. His character development from loner to popular “hero” after murdering three bankers who assault him on the subway is measured, even if the popular movement that develops behind him seems unrealistic. 

“Joker” is a singular portrait in many ways, as few characters have enough screen time to compete with Phoenix’s dominating presence as Arthur, though Robert De Niro’s Murray Franklin, a late-night host, offers an interesting idol for Fleck’s comedic aspirations. 

The film is also a portrait of the city. Set sometime in the 1970s, the film continues to portray Gotham as a barren urban wasteland riddled with crime and poverty, an image more fitting with the 1970s setting when urban crime was significantly higher. The dark, graffitied subway stations, filthy alleyways and forests of tenements recall Tim Burton’s gothic “Batman.” Arthur remarks to his therapist that “things are getting crazier out there,” and the city’s indifference, particularly the wealthy’s, to abject poverty and mental illness is suggested as a partial cause of Arthur becoming the Joker, although his own childhood traumas play a larger role. Negative news broadcasts and heavy low strings form a soundtrack that contributes to the sense of despair. 

The horrific acts of violence that Arthur commits as the Joker have been criticized in the press and raised concerns that the film could inspire violence, as Arthur’s psychological profile is thought to resemble that of today’s mass shooters. To this unjustified fear, Phoenix responded to IGN, “If you have somebody that has that level of emotional disturbance, they can find fuel anywhere.” Although there is little evidence at present to suggest that overly violent video games or movies inspire real world violence, “Joker” is by far the most realistic and serious depiction of the villain’s murderous streak, departing from the tongue-in-cheek and bloodless representation in past iterations, which may shock some viewers. 

Perhaps more troubling or unsatisfying is the lack of any hero—any Batman—to swoop in to save the day or deliver a well-deserved sucker punch or rousing speech about the good people left in Gotham City. Except for Murray’s brief counter to Arthur when he appears on the former’s show and in a few other moments, no character in the film counterbalances Arthur’s heavy sense of loneliness, anger and despair. 

However, this bleak perspective is purposeful. For once told from the Joker’s perspective, Phillip’s film is not meant to have a hero or offer any hope. Literally abandoned, deceived, robbed and ignored, “Joker” shows what can happen when a society ceases to care and individuals with mental health problems are dismissed as “crazy.” 

Unlike previous Jokers, Phoenix’s is decidedly unfunny. The very few moments of humor are mostly situational and involve Arthur being made fun of rather than cracking anything resembling a joke. The absence of any humor, light or dark, plays into the gritty world Phillips is trying to create, but it also robs the film of another more memorable way of communicating with its audience that would have made it significantly more enjoyable. 

Fans who hoped for Easter eggs of the caped crusader will not be entirely disappointed. Thomas Wayne plays a significant part in the film as an aloof billionaire running for mayor, who, like everyone else, cannot take the time to listen to Arthur. Bruce does appear as well, even in another reinterpretation of the iconic shot after the theater, but has no real role. As a standalone film, not in the canon of the larger DC Cinematic Universe that includes “Justice League” and “Wonder Woman” (as well as Jared Leto’s controversial Joker), it is unclear if “Joker” will receive a sequel or ever be connected to DC’s other films down the road.

Philip’s film, staked on Phoenix’s performance, won top prize at the Venice Film Festival and has received enormous attention from critics and popular buzz, likely making it a hit, albeit a risky one for Warner Brothers. “Joker” is certainly entertaining and thought provoking beyond the clear majority of comic book films—if “Joker” can in fact be considered a comic book movie at all—and it has and should inspire productive conversations about people suffering from mental illness and violence in our society. Yet, while in Arthur’s mind the Joker is the “hero” a broken city deserves, it is questionable if it is the one it needs most right now.