Origin Story: The Movie

What’s The Movie? Joker

What’s It All About, JG? Oh good, an origin story! We certainly don’t have enough of them littering the place! But rather than the usual heavy-handed here’s-how-character-X-became-a-superhero we instead have a heavy-handed here’s-how-character-X-became-a-supervillain. Yes, it’s the origin story of the Joker, Batman’s nemesis and a story which bears no resemblance to any other Joker origin story portrayed on screen (not that there’s anything wrong with that). This time we follow the life of Arthur Fleck, a sad-sack rent-a-clown with an obsession over a TV talk show and some pretty severe mental health issues, but with an unfulfilled desire to be a stand-up comic. After a series of humiliations at work lead to him getting fired (after taking a gun to a children’s ward) Arthur ends up killing three Wall Street-type bozos on a train, two in self-defence and one simply as an execution.

He gets away with this (guess Gotham City CCTV isn’t up to much), and even follows it up with a disastrous attempt to actually do stand-up, which goes badly though clips from it get played on his beloved chat show. Following the killings, Arthur becomes an unintentional icon for the disaffected against the rich ruling class, personified by Thomas Wayne. Turns out his mum used to work for the Waynes, leading her to believe that Thomas was Arthur’s father, though this ends up being part of her psychological delusion which Arthur discovers after a trip to Arkham Asylum. Eventually Arthur gets invited to appear on the talk show he idolises, executes the host (a wholly wasted Robert DeNiro, who’s good but in a role that absolutely does not demand DeNiro except as a Scorsese call-out) and reaches his eventual apotheosis as the Joker, standing atop a flaming police car as riots ensue.

Why Did You Give It A Go? Well it’s very much the movie de jour – something that, for better or worse, has captured the cultural zeitgeist. Whether scaring up fears of incel murder sprees, worries about the Joker being sympathetic, or just general concerns about a movie so focussed on the bad guy, the film is very much now.

Is It Any Good? Let’s get the most obvious thing out of the way first – as Arthur Fleck/the Joker Joaquin Phoenix is beyond brilliant. His portrayal of Arthur is disturbingly credible and real, and his ability to contort his rake-thin body into an external expression of Arthur’s internal torment is an absolute masterclass of physical performance. It’s stunning, in fact. Phoenix is the absolute stand-out, and if there was no other reason to watch Joker he would make it more than worthwhile all by himself. He’s in virtually every scene, he commands the screen and everything else pales beside his performance. It’s a different take from Nicholson, Ledger or Hamill (and, it goes without saying, Romero), but brutally effective. Ledger’s Joker – the most recent incarnation – was a nihilistic anarchist who believed the worst in people, but by contrast Phoenix’s character becomes the Joker almost by accident. It’s a compelling new take on the character, without vats of chemicals for him to fall into or mysterious slashes on his face to explain.  That’s as well, because the social and political takes the movie tries to deliver on are badly muddled, and stylistically the whole thing is an obvious  Martin Scorsese redux that revels in recreating his gritty 70’s faux-New York in Gotham but adds nothing to it nor finds any persuasive way of using it. Indeed Gotham is barely a presence at all here – Burton’s Gotham was a German-expressionism surreal nightmare and Nolan’s take felt almost hyper-real, but here Gotham is just a few dirty back alleys and a handful of back-lot streets. Both Nolan and Burton go out of their way to take time establishing the financial and class divide of a city that could produce characters like the Joker and Batman and through that give us a reason to invest in what happens, but we get precious little of that here – put simply we’re not given much reason to care about Gotham or its inhabitants, rich or poor. Thomas Wayne in this incarnation is a prick – a refreshing change from the sainted father figure he’s normally portrayed as – and he is technically a symbol of the class divide, but he’s also not actually in the movie enough for this symbolism to be particularly effective. Muddling his role with a maybe-illegitimate-child sub-plot moves too much of the focus away from his class standing into soap-opera territory and it undercuts his place in the film. So yes, if you want to watch a performance that ought to go down as one of the greats of 21st century cinema, watch this. If you want a coherent take on the class divide and an articulate critique of society… well, maybe not so much.

How Many Of These Did You Watch? I’ve seen all the Batman movies, a fair chunk of the 60’s TV show and some The Animated Series. And all of Gotham, but don’t hold that against me. So – enough.

Would You Recommend It? For Phoenix, in a heartbeat. Seriously, it’s hard to overstate just how good he is here. I just wish the rest of the film was up to his standard. There’s a few logistical holes that make little sense yet should have been easy to correct – Arthur looks like he’s in his mid-40’s or more, but a stray encounter with Bruce Wayne puts him at about… nine or ten years old maybe? The Joker will be approaching his pension by the time Bruce gets through adolescence, which makes it hard to buy into Arthur being that kid’s future arch-nemesis. And the film desperately desperately wants to say something meaningful about the way society can create monsters, but can’t quite land it – Arthur, by being so clearly mentally ill, never has the chance to arrive as a character who’s moulded into a monster by society. He’s murdered the three Wall St guys on the train even before he’s taken off his meds (if you want to say something about how support systems work it would have been substantially more effective to have them killed after he came off his meds, showing how cuts to public services directly impact peoples lives. That’s finding something meaningful to say). The Wall St guys are a symbolic representation of the 1%-ers, but that’s all they are – their deaths, other than starting the “clowns” meme in Gotham doesn’t connect to any kind of critique, they’re just there to get that bit of the plot moving, and the movie isn’t interested in exploring whether their killings represent a just or proportionate response to who they are. We only ever see them being drunken dicks, which doesn’t make them pleasant but doesn’t exactly suggest that murder is a fair response either. It’s the same with the execution of DeNiro’s Murray Franklin – the worst he’s seen doing is making a couple of corny jokes at the expense of Arthur, not endearing but standard chat-show fare, and he’s actively seen as sympathetic to Arthur prior to the recording. Joker has the shape of something that wants to act as a meaningful criticism of society but it’s not constructed well enough to get beyond “rich people are bad, and maybe the poor should be treated better”. Which is fine, clearly, but it’s not exactly a searing social insight either. Worries about the film being sympathetic to the Joker are largely unjustified, and it’s not going to inspire anyone to go on a murder spree – it’s simply not a good enough movie for that. This isn’t Taxi Driver, it’s maybe Order An Uber. Similar, but absolutely not the same. This all sounds terribly harsh but that’s borne largely out of frustration, because it wouldn’t take much to change for this to be a straight-A movie – all the parts are there, they’re just not quite arranged correctly. It’s a testament to just how good Phoenix is that actually a lot of these criticisms fade somewhat under the sheer strength of his central performance. This film is about the becoming of the Joker, and as an origin story it’s the best one we’ve yet had for the character. It’s just impossible to shake the feeling it should have been better.

Scores On The Doors? 7/10

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