Warner Brothers has decided to take a break from the DCEU, and the result is the best film DC film since The Dark Knight Rises.
Perhaps they should take note of this.
Joker is a something of an interlude between entries in one of those other extended universes. For the most part, the DCEU has not been able to match their rivals at Marvel, though things have been getting better with the past few entries. Sandwiched between Shazam! from earlier this year, and Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman 1984 both coming in next year, Joker’s ties to the DCEU are tenuous at best. Aside from the general specter of Thomas Wayne throughout the film, there is almost nothing here connecting Joker to any other film in the DCEU. No little nods to other characters or cheeky name drops which have become common in other shared universe films; Joker is strictly about one man’s road to becoming a bonkers clown murderer, and nothing more.
Onto the film itself: it’s pretty good.
It is bizarre amalgam of Taxi Driver, Silence of the Lambs, and Insane Clown Posse. This film is first and foremost about the lead character. It is a character study about an already odd man as he falls down his own personal rabbit hole into the unlikely leader of an anarchistic rebellion and on-air-murderer. This is where the film shines, and it is the performance of Joaquin Phoenix which powers this. His performance has been well documented by now, and there is something about this character which has left room for four three pretty different portrayals each of very high quality for extremely different reasons.
This iteration of the mad clown man is the most pitiful and sympathetic. This Joker is a predecessor of sorts to the proper one we will inevitably see down the line. Those Jokers have previously been depicted as interwoven within the organized crime of Gotham, while this Joker is entirely independent from that scene. This Joker is entirely a victim of being poor in a rich man’s world…and of being a straight up crazy man. Pheonix’s performance is being lauded from many sources, and is sure to draw award recognition in a few months, though it lacks something. Perhaps it is because the inspirations for this film are so clear, perhaps is because this is the fourth third time we have seen this character on the big screen, or perhaps it is simply due to the fact that the character doesn’t quite live up to his actual impact within the film.
That impact is part of where Joker falls short. Early on in the film, before he even dons the moniker of Joker, our protagonist is having a laughing fit on the subway which leads to three punks attacking him who he ends up killing. It turns out those were three rich kids. And their murder actually leads to people protesting…for the additional killing of more rich people. This is such a sloppy handling of a contemporary social issue that is drags down the entire film. Yes, income inequality is one of the highest profile political issues in the U.S. right now, but the idea that the slaying of three people by a man dressed as a clown would lead to a sort of uprising of people, and that he would be lauded as a sort of hero is laughable.
With that being such a central issue within the film, it serves as a major handcuff. Those early protest morph into an outright riot brought with people in clown masks and makeup taking to the streets and seeking to do whatever damage they can- even striking down rich people. It leads to the question: what is the message here? Are we supposed to side with and feel sympathetic for the rich? A difficult notion to get behind considering recent news. Are we supposed to be for an uprising against the wealthy that goes to such extremes as to lead to open murder in the streets? That cannot be condoned in any way. Perhaps this is more of a cautionary tale of what the filmmakers believe could happen in the U.S. if this issue is not resolved in the near future. Even then, this wave of unrest is brought about in the most unlikely way, and for a person/character that isn’t even worth it.
Phoenix’s near sterling performance is marred by one thing: this Joker feels so small. While a determinate to the character, it does paradoxically lead to one of the stronger scenes of the film in which Arthur Fleck, now donning the Joker moniker for the first time on national television gets into a lightly heated discussion with Murray Franklin, a late night talk show host. Before the Joker shoots Franklin in the dome on live television, the two are trading verbal barbs as the Joker throws a tantrum about how hard life has been for him. Franklin, however, rightly point out how petty he is. He is full of self-pity, and violently taking his problems out onto others who are not deserving of his rage. Isolated, this is a very good scene for the film, as it presents a proper counter viewpoint from that of the character we have been following up to this point. However, it does work to taint the impact of this Joker.
Murray was right: this Joker is small, pitiful and violent- not the sort of qualities which propel one to being the central figure for a localized political movement. As the film nears its end, and the rioters have paused to watch the Joker dance atop a police car, we are left wondering if the Joker is even fully aware of what is going on? He knows that these folks are interested in his actions as this killer-clown, but in that moment, is he simply happy to be receiving the notoriety that he has been craving his entire life in the most superficial way possible. As his fans cheer, does he see it as simply a successful stand-up routine?
There is always the possibility that making the Joker small was done on purpose to undercut the severity of what plays out in the film. It would add a level of irony that all of these people out in the streets are praising, and downright deifying a man who has murdered five people up to that point, and is unquestionably in dire need aid for his mental health. Considering that he is seen as a sort of inspiration for the actual Joker, this is a logical step- though one that unfortunately does not line up with the massive political upheaval that his actions lead to. Such a decision would certainly be interesting, but it would arrive at the same conclusion as the alternative: previous Jokers have been larger than life characters whose impacts on the city of Gotham and those live there is unrivaled. He is a foil, not just to Batman, but to the very ideas of order, control and justice. He is the living embodiment of a monkey in the wrench; he is the antithesis of systems as a concept. But how can any Joker live up to that reputation when he is so wrought with self-pity from being beat up by some kids in an alley and being mistreated by a bunch of bums who work for a low rent clown dealership. Joker misses the mark by taking one of the most notorious criminals in all of comic book history, and turning him into a glorified misfit, who is not worthy of all the ruckus that surrounds him.
Oh yeah, and one more thing: I know what happens to Bruce Wayne’s parents, I don’t need to see it any more. If I have to see Thomas and Martha Wayne, or Uncle Ben get killed any more in my lifetime, I think I might just go on my own clown-fueled killing spree.