Arthur Fleck has been through some shit, kiddos. And any of it — had it happened to you — might be enough to drive you insane. But if you already suffered from any number of mental disorders, well, it’d be enough to push you into a realm beyond insanity. Poor schmuck Fleck, for those not in-the-know, is the titular protagonist of Todd Phillips’ Joker. While a large part of me wants to dive deep into a nuanced spoiler-filled review of the film, it’s still fresh off its debut. I’d rather pivot to discuss some specific bits of internet-debate over the film instead. So, let me get this out of the way:
Joker is an amazing film. I would feign perhaps only to compare it to Logan; in so much that it’s a film first, and its roots to pulp and paper serve merely to enhance the final product. Remove a detail or two, and frankly neither film should be name-dropped alongside any other movie tepidly denoted as a comic book movie — which itself is becoming shorthand for flicks that are somehow less than, in spite of them largely being truly awesome entertainment. But, as usual for me, I digress. Joker was jaw-dropping. I suggest you catch it. Cool? Cool. Moving on.
The fracas I’d like to focus on specifically comes with the baggage being attached to Joker at breakneck speed. That the movie itself is some kind of lightning rod for the potentially dangerous loner-gun-owner whackadoos that continues to crawl out from the muck and mire they live in to deal death and chaos in the real world. Joker has quickly become a heated debate among the zeitgeist; where defenders of the quality of the final film are labeled as jokers themselves. Liking the film, to some, equates to siding with Fleck and his actions in Joker.
For those that subscribe to that point of view? You’ve missed the point of the film by a country mile.
Without spoiling a thing, I believe fully one of the points of Joker is that Arthur Fleck is wholly broken. His actions throughout the runtime — be they real, imagined, or somewhere in-between — are the actions of someone who is clinically imbalanced. Joaquin Phoenix’s Fleck is the kind of socially awkward being that doesn’t always comprehend proper social cues. The portrayal captures any number of specific mental maladies without ever singling a definable diagnosis as an audience member. Unlike any other former portrayal of the Joker in film or comics, this version is both the most timid and unpredictable. Fleck is not calculating at all. Where Ledger’s Dark Knight Joker may have said he was a “rabid dog chasing cars”… Fleck actually lives that truth. When the houselights came up on Joker, I turned to my date (my Unshaven brother, Matt) he and I shared a look of awkward dread. After 2+ hours in Fleck’s head… neither of us felt comfortable or safe.
The undercurrent from some is that the movie will somehow attract a certain kind of crazy, and coax from it violent tendencies. To this, I dare not mock someone in need of help. But I don’t give credence to those who walked out from this film convinced it celebrated the violence it depicted. Arthur Fleck is decimated down to an emotionally atomic level, and whatever emerges from that pain, confusion, and chaos is something left-of-human. Joker isn’t DC’s answer to Punisher, John Wick, or any number of other pew-pew-pew movies that would better fit the MO of what some are labeling Joker as peddling. Joker is a study of mental deterioration. And it wholly codifies how this singular being is not of us.
That people are affixing the movie to real-life domestic terrorists is simply right-message-wrong-movie to me. In contrast the Netflix Punisher series showcased better that ideology. A man suffering from PTSD decides to murder anyone who so-much as jaywalks if they are even suspected of being criminals plays into Frank Castle’s “shoot first and fuck your questions” attitude. In contrast, Arthur Fleck legitimately wants to bring joy and laughter into the world… but the world has made it all but impossible for that to happen. Joker doesn’t glorify the gore. It deals it in visceral flashes where the audience gasps and repels in disgust — partly because of the depiction, partly because we can see it happening in slow motion. Versus even American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman… Arthur Fleck doesn’t vicariously unleash our lesser selves. That ultimately the universe fails Fleck, and that is the joke should not let a would-be problematic audience member feel a kindred spirit. Phillips makes it clear several times over, in fact. Lest I reveal anything further to that point, I’ll refrain.
If I were to point the finger of blame/shame out to those misinterpreting the film, it would be to suggest the desire for a scapegoat. Joker is not built as some specific response to Marvel’s universe. It’s a singular film that gains nods and winks to a larger world, while wholly living outside of it. Joker won’t be canon to the already-disheveled Justice League universe. It is, as it should be, an Elseworlds story — something DC actually pulls off better than Marvel ever could. Because DC’s characters are more archetype than individual. Be it Kingdom Come, All Star, Red Son, or The Nail… DC has more often than not been able to present us with a completely new vision of a world with familiar faces. Joker in this case offers us something akin to The Killing Joke without being stuck with a franchise yoked across it’s credit-roll. Because of that, some would-be fanboys have let the uniqueness of this singular film get under their skin perhaps because it will live as something wholly unto itself. Because this will not play in the sandbox with the other toys, the boys have turned against it. Spite for spite-sake.
At the end of it all, Joker isn’t a siren song to the unloved masses. It’s a warning sign to recognize in both ourselves and each other… the potential that pain represents. This was, to date, one of the best interpretations of a comic book I’ve been privy to on the silver screen. Its message of love holds true in spite of itself. And that, my friends, is the funniest joke of all.