No one really had any doubts about Joaquin Phoenix taking on the role of the Joker. He has the acting chops and resume that we all just assumed would be quite fitting for such an abstract role among the superhero genre (though not a superhero, obviously). If anything, we were surprised at how well director Todd Phillips managed to translate such an interesting story on the big screen. Allow me to explain.
Most superheroes don’t have a very complicated backstory. Usually, one about revenge after a loved one is killed, so they do the only thing they can- stop that from happening to someone else. The formula is one we can expect in nearly every major superhero origin, whether it be Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, etc, they all are motivated by doing what the right thing means to them after losing so much. For a villain, the motivations are quite nuanced.
The thing about many comic book villains is that they know they are the villain. They know they are the bad guy. This is to make sure the audience (or reader) doesn’t feel sympathy for them. If the bad guy knows what he is doing is bad, then the reader will clearly know this too and root for the good buy. But, every so often, you get one that is doing the John Q thing where they do something bad because they have no choice. Usually a life or death situation for their loved ones.
Among them, Joker is the one that stands out, and both Phoenix and Phillips recognized this immediately.
Also, it should be noted that Joker takes place in DC’s Elseworlds, a sort of independent universe devoid of any connection to other more mainstream universes. For example, as far as we know, there are no other superheroes operating in this world, although Joker took place exclusively in Gotham and didn’t explore the larger world around them. Bruce Wayne is a young boy, Thomas and Martha are still alive, etc. However, the intent of this movie didn’t seem to want to strike up a franchise or sequels of its own. It sort of just exists. Let’s talk about the plot.
Joker, or before then, Arthur Fleck as he is known, is a man with very little going for him. He has a mother with mental issues that he is forced to care for, a dead-end job as a party clown and severe mental disabilities of his own with a dwindling supply of medication.
Eventually, the weight of his many dilemmas drives him mad as he loses his job, his meds, and his connection to reality, even going so far as killing a handful of people who have wronged him (some of these could count as self-defense while others, not so much). This results in many of Gotham’s citizens to dawn clown masks and carry out acts of violence in celebration of Joker’s killings.
Later, after attempting to pursue his passion for standup comedy, Arthur is laughed out of the club and the attention of this event attracts Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a talkshow host who requests Arthur to appear as guest, with the intention of making a joke out of him on live television. Arthur agrees to come on as a guest, but calls Murray out for his ill-intentions and kills him while live on the air. Arthur is immediately arrested but manages to escape as riots on the street break out that aid Arthur/Joker to escape police custody and be hoisted up by the rioters as a sort of symbol of their suffering. And thus, the Joker is born.
Joker is a film about the first of many dominoes falling, showing us how he became the monster we know in more modern-day settings (Joker takes place in 1981 before caped heroes flew around saving everyone). And at first, Joker seems like a guy who just has it rough. Real rough. Gotham pushes him too far and, given that he has no more medication, spirals out of control. This really makes you feel for the character, which I equally liked and didn’t like.
Joker made me consider that no one is born evil, but some could be one bad day away from becoming that way.
I don’t like that I care for such a villain. We only knew Joker as the bad guy, even if he had a tragic backstory. And this film serves to make sure that whatever you feel towards villains, even the worst among them, they are still people with real human issues and we should be sympathetic to their hardships.
I liked that I cared about him because it made the movie better. This isn’t a comic book where the bad guy shows up, kills a bunch of people, and the hero swoops in and takes him out. Heck, most nameless thugs in comics and even movies are basically that. Do we really care why Thug no.3 or Henchman no.2 are doing what they are doing? No, because we don’t know their names, let alone what drives them. All we know is that they are bad and Batman is going to break every bone in their body and Jim Gordon and the GCPD are going to come in and take them to jail.
Joker was like that. We knew nothing about him aside from him being a crazy lunatic without a conscience. Joker doesn’t care who he hurts or who he kills because to him, it is either a joke or a point he is trying to make and that is all that matters. That made him interesting. But now, we know his origin, we saw his struggles, we felt his pain, and we understand where he came from. The mystery is gone because we know what is driving him.
The plot, the directing, cinematography, the performances, they were all either good or great. It is just hard to have to look at a character, a supervillain among supervillains, and feel like he is more human than monster because we know what he went through to lead him there. That bothers me. But it works and was needed in a movie, otherwise, we would be lost and without care. But in comics, it works to keep it mysterious with no explanation. It works to think that some people are just evil and that’s just how it is. But Joker made me consider that no one is born evil, but some could be one bad day away from becoming that way.