Joker (2019) - Halloween Review Part I
Updated: May 2, 2021
Halloween is just around the corner, so let's kick things off with Part I of my Halloween review bonanza, shall we?
One particular "good vs. evil" pair I'm pretty sure we're all familiar with, as far as comics go, is Batman and the Joker. The Dark Knight, who scavenged for the criminals of Gotham City to ensure its safety, going up against the Clown Prince of Crime, who employed an unpredictable nature to him and had tricks up his sleeve for the sake of bringing up anarchy, served as the prime example of good will and order putting the unstable nature of insanity to rest. Their confrontations were so instantly recognizable that such Batman-centered movies as Batman by Tim Burton, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and The Dark Knight all gave their own interpretations of the rivalry while staying true to the methods that made it so memorable.
So, after many movies about how Batman came to be, why not give the Joker, and the Joker alone, the spotlight?
The story is about a man named Arthur Fleck, who lived with his frail mother, Penny, and worked for a living as a party clown. However, a series of circumstances that befell Arthur ended up making his life take a turn for the worse.
Let’s break it down: he was assaulted by a group of boys who stole and wrecked a sign he was holding, one of his coworkers gave him a gun, and a real gun, at that, Arthur accidentally brought it with him when he was entertaining children at a hospital thus cutting him off from his job, and he found out that he was intentionally subject to some unorthodox treatment by Penny without him even knowing it beforehand. As Arthur had to put up with one hard knock after another, they had him slowly start to find himself, become more defensive against his abusers, and engage in increasingly horrendous acts of violence that were to shape him up into the iconic supervillain we all know.
The first thing I will say about this movie is that out of all the interpretations of the character that I’ve seen, this was probably the closest anyone has ever got to portraying a sympathetic Joker. By sympathetic, I don’t mean feel sorry for him, but rather see where he’s coming from. Even then, some of the rough things he went through at the beginning did make it very hard for us to not feel sorry with him a little, but when he started to expose his true colors, only then did we start to fear him more and more.
One of the reasons that the movie evoked that reaction out of us may be due to the performances, which gave off the right expressions to give off the right effect.
Joaquin Phoenix was just spectacular as Arthur/Joker. His mannerisms added layers of humanity to his character, and by the time he became the Joker, his mannerisms ended up making his Joker alter-ego feel far more complex, as well as more dangerous. He can be unnatural, especially when he, as Arthur, gave off his laughs, he can be depressed when Arthur was down on his luck, and he can be deadly when he engaged more and more in his vicious crimes. What I especially like about it is that Phoenix went all out there in providing his own unique take on the character instead of replicating that of the other famous actors who played the Joker, like Mark Hamill, or Jack Nicholson, or Heath Ledger. This also tied in nicely to the fact that the movie was, in and of itself, a different interpretation of the character and of an arguably unexplored aspect of the Batman mythos.
Robert De Niro – who I did not expect to see star in this kind of movie – was also nice as the talkshow host Murray Franklin, who Arthur idolized. He gave his character a sense of giddiness and sternness and it all played out to great effect whenever he joked around or spoke with someone both on-camera and off-camera. Much like Phoenix, he also was a nice allusion to some particular themes of this movie, which I’ll elaborate on later in this review.
The rest of the actors did a nice job as well, including Frances Conroy as Arthur’s mother, Penny, and Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz as Arthur’s love interest, Sophie.
That leads me to discuss about another aspect of the movie I was interested to see: the movie’s interpretations of the other famous characters of the Batman mythos. We see Bruce Wayne as an elegant yet shy young boy, and his most prominent scene in the movie was when Arthur treated him to clown tricks from behind the gates, which was made even more trippy when you know that this was his future archnemesis he was speaking with.
Both Alfred Pennyworth and Thomas Wayne appeared in this movie, too, and they’re portrayed as being much more stern and then many of their other versions I know of. The first time I saw it, I took it as just instinctive reactions to the oddities that came with Arthur whenever he was in their presence. In Thomas’ case, he was shown as being more flawed, as he was a little more dismissive of the citizens of Gotham City while still striving to seek the welfare necessary to put Gotham back on track, especially since he was running for mayor in this movie.
When I saw that Joker was rated R, I knew going in that this was going to be a darker, more violent kind of superhero movie. After seeing it, however, I was surprised by the general mood this movie established. My instinctive reaction to it was that it was a gangster movie in superhero movie’s clothing. Feeling more inspired by the works of Martin Scorsese and Paddy Chayefsky, it didn’t focus on the wild antics of superhero action or diabolical schemes, but instead kept its focus on the crime rate of Gotham city and the effect it could have on people, especially on people like Arthur. In fact, this was a good thing, because it makes Joker feel more like a cautionary tale about how criminals are born and what indifference or mistreatment towards others could lead to. And, because Joker exulted so much of the gangster tropes, throwing in Robert De Niro, one of the most famous gangster movie veterans around, was a nice touch.
The one part of the movie that left me confused was the subplot concerning Arthur’s parentage. It was said that Arthur’s mother, Penny, had an affair once upon a time with Thomas Wayne, meaning that Arthur could very well have been Thomas’ illegitimate son. But it was also stated that Penny had a bad history of being delusional, and thus made stories up on the fly, like this one. Either I’m missing something, or this was a good indicator of the kind of insanity that Arthur had to put up with before establishing his own sense of deranged humor.
Before I saw Joker, I noticed how the movie had a pretty low score among critics. Even though it made me not too enthusiastic about it, my curiosity over it still got the best of me and I went to see it with an open mind. Looking back on it, I feel like this movie was treated as dismissively as it was not because of artistic missteps, but rather because people felt a twinge of disconcertment over what influence this movie may have over real-life shootings. One reason for that may be that this movie, like I said, showcased a dark and uncompromising environment that heightened the severity of the crimes being committed. For that reason, the violent acts committed in the movie, especially by the Joker, were expressed with a sense of realism to give off a more unnerving effect.
In fact, the collective result gave off such a disturbing effect, that theaters across the nation discouraged moviegoers from going in with clown costumes or masks for fear that since the movie portrayed people dressing up as such and causing mayhem, people in real life could’ve followed suit and done the same thing. Even the Montrose theaters, where I saw it, had a disclaimer online that said:
The funny thing is, at first, I thought this was included because people were intending to dress up for the occasion since the movie came out on October, hence Halloween season. But having seen the movie, it makes sense now why it had to be there.
I also noticed that not only did the theater in Aurora, CO, where the shootout at the screening of The Dark Knight Rises occurred in 2012, refuse to show the movie (and understandably so), but also, the families of the victims of said disaster wrote to Warner Bros. requesting that gun safety advocations be attached to Joker. Warner Bros. issued a public statement in response to it, saying:
Gun violence in our society is a critical issue, and we extend our deepest sympathy to all victims and families impacted by these tragedies. Our company has a long history of donating to victims of violence, including Aurora, and in recent weeks, our parent company joined other business leaders to call on policymakers to enact bi-partisan legislation to address this epidemic. At the same time, Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues. Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.
At the end of the day, that’s kind of the idea, isn’t it? With all the shootouts occurring in America over the past several years, we need movies like this to generate discussions and debates about how we can work against the spreading of gun violence and ensure the safety of our country, much like what Batman does in his own way for Gotham City.
Ultimately, while I don’t see Joker as anything groundbreaking, it’s still a nicely told and very solid supervillain origin movie. It provided some nice commentary on crime life, it has nice allusions to the Batman mythos, and Joaquin Phoenix proved himself as good a Joker as the Joker veterans before him.
It may rattle your cage a little, but I can assure you, it’ll sure put a smile on your face.
– *SPOILER ALERT* When the Joker shot Murray on live TV and the screen cut off before we were treated to multiple screens showcasing the news recapping the murder, I noticed how it was a subtle homage to the ending of Network. Coincidentally enough, I saw Network for the first time not long before I saw Joker, so when I saw that scene, it instantly reminded me of that ending.
– Funny thing is, Game of Thrones, for all of its fantastical elements, also showcased horrendous events in history so that we, as the audience, can conjure up discussions and debates about how to make the world a better place, just like Joker here. And to make one thing clear, I wasn't angry over the level of sex, violence, and that fact that it addressed those issues (on the contrary I applauded the last part). I was rather insulted by the level of sadism that ran amok throughout the show, the amount of innocent people victimized by it, and the fact that people barely bothered to react against that sadism.
– UPDATE: As of this writing on Oct. 25, 2019, Joker has just broken records and became the highest-grossing R-rated movie ever, beating out even Deadpool. Man, now I feel really lucky to have seen this in theaters!
Yehl, Joshua. “Warner Bros. Responds to Aurora Families’ Letter Over Joker Movie Fears.” IGN, IGN, 24 Sept. 2019, https://www.ign.com/articles/2019/09/24/warner-bros-responds-to-aurora-familiesa-letter-over-joker-movie-fears.