Kraig Taylor-Bryant put on a happy face and watched Joker (with spoiler warnings)...
It’s hard going into a movie like Joker, and not expecting a movie like Venom, or like Deadpool, two previously released R rated movies that helped to redefine the genre. I suppose you could say that Venom and Deadpool are attempts at establishing relatable characters, characters that have either lived in poor conditions growing up or, in Venom’s case, was the ‘loser’ of his species. Though, with both of these, I think it was the fact that they were still clinging to similarly cheerful film franchises, which meant that they never truly thrived as their own universes. I mean, yeah, Deadpool was amazing and funny, so I guess it worked alongside the X-Men, but that’s what I think it had to be; if it had such a strong association with the X-Men, there are enough superhero fans out there for someone to get mad if an X-man like Colossus has his reputation tarnished, by becoming a darker character, which is probably why they went the other way.
Anyway, this film isn’t about either Deadpool or Venom, they aren’t even in the same universe (speaking figuratively and literally), as the mind blowingly down to Earth “Joker”. This is a film that truly establishes a universe that doesn’t in any way feel like a superhero film. Sure, the film does have tethers to Bruce Wayne, but I think that purely serves as character development for The Joker. This film is not about a “superhero villain” and his origin story, this is a story of a man who is victimised and tortured by modern day society.
The script does a very good job of showing no mercy towards the character of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a character who starts on the edge of society and is forever being pushed further over it. From the very beginning, questions are raised about this character, that we don’t truly know, but without giving us the immediate answer. Questions like why can’t this guy stop laughing? Or what caused his condition are brought to the forefront from the beginning?, questions that most characters over Gotham are probably wondering when they see him in public. That’s probably one of the few moments where the viewer is treated as an average citizen that has very little information about this guy, and what goes on in his head.
(There are spoilers ahead be warned)
Arthur gets his fair share of suffering that comes with living in Gotham City, being beaten up by kids early on in the film and being mistreated by his boss simply because he is (called) ‘weird’ due to his condition. Those are two examples of the kind of prejudice we’re all fully aware of in real life, how some will judge those who work in a certain profession, despite having no choice, or judging someone with a condition that they don’t fully understand.
There are also hints fairly on in the film that things are going to get more complicated with Arthur; to help with his “laughing condition”, he’s given medication to take, and whilst he does take the medication, ultimately it doesn’t cure him. It becomes apparent how important that medication is, a little later on.
We don’t really have a clue what’s going on in this guy’s head until the character’s been properly established. We meet him and his mother (Frances Conroy), as Arthur sees her to be, and Arthur's neighbour/soon to be girlfriend (Zazie Beetz). We think this is how the general public sees things, because that’s the point of view we’re given at the start of the film, but everything gets turned on its side when Arthur uncovers his own truths, at the same time we do.
The issues with not having a father figure are quite present in the film too, and it’s clearly an important area to explore, in how that leads him down his dark path of destruction (from what we know about the Joker from previous “Batman” instalment). We, as an audience, know well enough about the importance of guiding a child through the crazy and dangerous world we live in, and we realise that Arthur doesn’t have anyone to do that. Arthur only really has a deranged mother, who believes that Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) will solve their financial situation, and his own delusions about TV show host Murray Franklin (Robert de Niro).
When the façade of what Arthur believes he knows about Murray is lifted he realises that ultimately he has no-one looking out for him. When it comes to his attachment to Thomas Wayne, it can become difficult not to tarnish his reputation and importance in the DC universe. It would be easy to give Thomas Wayne too much involvement in this story, especially since this is the father of the future Batman, and easy to make him seem like too much of a bad guy. But “The Joker” does an incredible job of making his actions during his interaction with Arthur, completely justified. Yes, he might have some political beliefs that are clearly shaking the faith of the public, but I think that’s always been a part of Wayne Enterprises, that Bruce Wayne has had to deal with, keeping the mystery behind Thomas Wayne, a mystery.
Eventually, it's everything he’s come to believe being shown to be a façade that tips him over the edge, finding out he was adopted, that his father isn’t really Thomas Wayne, that essentially everything he’s come to know, and love is a lie. Even the fact that, ultimately, his only friends from work will stab him in the back for their own gain, making us fully aware of why he’d want to lash out at these people, during his most difficult moments.
When he finally announces himself to be “The Joker” it’s when he realises his last “father figure” is making fun of him. The last person he was clinging onto, a TV show host, invited him on the show to make fun of Arthur’s failed attempts to be funny. That’s exactly why they say “never meet your heroes” because some of them, will have to put on a face to cover up who they really are.
The performance that came with the scene involving “The Joker” and Murray (the TV host) almost feels iconic thinking back on it, because of how they interact with each other, opposite ends of society, the rich and the poor, the popular, and the forgotten. As Joaquin Phoenix says, “if I lay down in the street you would just walk over me”. And yes I do mean Joaquin Phoenix, because as much as I say “Joker” when talking about the character, it doesn’t feel like the Joker we know, but a new character entirely, because of how Joaquin portrays the hopeless, neglected member of society named Arthur, who we’re not familiar with at all in Batman films.
It’s easy to assume that this film’s release had something to do with the financial success of IT, though I think this film does the entirely opposite thing to IT. Joker portrays clowns as people who only want to cheer others up, and some may face harsh living conditions, but will continue doing what they do, because it brings them their own happiness. And the film is trying to tell us that it’s the nicest of our society, like Arthur, that will suffer, because they don’t feel able to do whatever it takes to get to the top.
In a nutshell, Joker builds upon the story of a villain, and introduces him to be just like ourselves, helping us understand his motives on a more emotional level than any other villain that’s come before. It deals with issues that are very real, and in the end, it’s hard to see “The Joker” as a villain in this film. Despite the fact that The Joker is the one killing people in this film, it’s hard not to see everyone else as the villain, and I think that’s what Venom failed to do, because ultimately Venom was still trying to save the world, like a typical hero, whereas this sad clown, has given up on it.
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Images - IMDb