Movie Review: Joker (2019)

If you haven’t yet figured out I’m an obsessive Joker fan, now you’re aware. I’ve been anticipating this film for quite awhile, since rumors first started circulating years ago in the wake of Suicide Squad’s disastrous box office failure. Jared Leto wasn’t the problem so much as the film’s overall tone. It felt completely off, especially following The Dark Knight trilogy. While Marvel movies excel at lighthearted comedy alongside expansive heroes, Batman and his villains have, with rare exceptions, been lenses through which we view the world of mental illness, social injustice, environmentalism, and existential dread. Rising from The Joker’s philosophy of chaos and “one bad day,” in The Dark Knight and The Killing Joke, Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) presents a clear vision of what the character is all about. At his root, Joker is about suffering and how humanity can either accept their place in life or become something more — for better or worse.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

This movie doesn’t play around. From the opening scene, the bulk of which ended up in the trailers, we get a string sense of exactly who Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is and how he fits into Gotham’s social fabric. Suffering from a mental condition caused by blunt-force head trauma as a child and PTSD, he struggled to connect with other people. He works a job where he is constantly belittled, barely makes ends meet, and is constantly ostracized or patronized by people who don’t understand his mental condition. We see him observing, calculating before he speaks, while the people around him talk over him, see through him, step over him.

“Ugh, why is everybody so upset about these guys? If it was me dying on the sidewalk you’d walk right over me! I pass you everyday and you don’t notice me! But these guys? Why, because Thomas Wayne would cry about them on TV?”

Arthur Fleck, Joker (2019)

Will the Joker movie cause copycat crimes? No more than owning a gun or exposing oneself to the evening news. I’d argue that the media is so scared of this movie because it does indeed hold them accountable for the cruelty Joker reacts against. The newscasters in the film constantly sympathize with the cruel and the wealthy and ignore or downplay the less fortunate. In referring to the garbage collectors’ strike going on in the city, mayoral candidate and media darling Thomas Wayne compares the poor to trash. Later, he calls the killer of a group of wealthy young businessmen a clown and a coward, even though we know that those young men were sexually harassing a young woman and ready to beat a man to death for sport. “They were awful,” Joker says later when asked why he killed them. The crowd is dumbfounded.

“Comedy is subjective … isn’t that what they say? All of you, the system that knows so much: you decide what’s right or wrong the same way you decide what’s funny or not.”

Arthur Fleck, Joker (2019)

So why are there so many reports of people walking out of Joker? I’d argue that it’s because it makes them uncomfortable on a deep-seated level. Audiences are used to films that spoon-feed happy ideals instead of cruel realities. Joker isn’t a positive role model, but he also isn’t a one-dimensional villain. He has motives and we empathize with him. He has reasons for what he’s doing. He’s the hero of his own story, even if we the audience realize he sees the world from a very biased point of view. Like all art, you take away from it something equal to the effort you put in to understand it.

As a person suffering from depression, anxiety, and sociopathic tendencies, I felt Arthur’s struggle. I’ve been that person observing others to try to figure out what to say or how to work through a situation.

However, his case is also made worse by the circumstances of his environment. He’s young and under-socialized. He’s without medication, and probably accurate diagnosis since he’s on seven different medicines before funding cuts sever his access. He’s living in a city where he is the sole caregiver for his dependent, narcissistic mother. He often has only enough food in the house to feed one, so he chooses to go hungry. He has no social safety net.

Gotham itself creates the Joker, just as it creates Batman and all the rest of the Rogue’s Gallery. Hopefully, this movie starts a movement to bring more villain-centric stories to film. Batman’s villains are each sympathetic, each suffering in their own ways, and each with unique stories to tell.

So if you go see this movie with a friend, and they’re annoyed that the villain isn’t clear, do remind them that the city itself is the villain. We, in essence, are the villain until we can honestly look at and help people in poverty and/or suffering with mental illness, people in need of healthcare and caregivers. Joker is here to remind us that the world is cruel for those on the fringe, and that we can either be part of the solution, or keep ignoring it and creating more horrors.

My Rating: 5/5 stars

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2 thoughts on “Movie Review: Joker (2019)

  1. Great review! Spot on interpretation of the villain(s). If it weren’t a story about a comic book character the media, reviewers (other than you), and the public would be falling all over themselves and heaping praise on it. I’ve recommended it to a lot of people and told them to ignore the Batman universe part of it and just think of Joker as a gritty, 1970s, character profile type film.

  2. It’s such an intense film and it hits on many levels that I think are major issues in our society. There’s such a big message packed into it without having to really say much. I can’t wait to go see it again!

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