Robert J. Sodaro is an American born writer, editor, and digital graphic artist, who loves writing about comics, movies, and literature.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conro, Brett Cullen
Director: Todd Phillips
Not quite a comicbook film
Well, the most un-comicbooky movie of the decade has just dropped, and everyone is talking about it, lining up on both the “Wow it was awesomely great” as well as “Wow, it was incredibly awful” sides of the critical coin. As for us, we’ll hold our council for the moment, and let’s get into what this film is all about.
The DC connection
The film is pitched as an out of continuity DC Comics villain origin film, only — once you watch the film — It isn’t quite that, but only by a little bit, because all of what is being said about of this film is not entirely what’s happening with it. This is, quite frankly, a brilliant — though difficult to watch — film. To be sure, it will anger some comicbook aficionados, but whether or not you consider this film cannon or not, it is still a powerful film of a man whose life circumstances have driven him into depression and from depression to violence.
Put on a happy face
So, yes, Joker centers around an origin of the iconic arch nemesis of Batman (and remember, in The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s incarnation of the Joker gave us a number of conflicting stories regarding his origin, so who’s to say this couldn’t have been one of them?). Still, this is an original, standalone story never before presented either in the comics, or on the big screen. This film is an exploration of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man disregarded by society, who descends into an emotional hell.
Everybody's Joker in this film
Now there will be those of you who will say that we “know” that Joker’s “real” name is Jack Napier (something we learned in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film), only the TV show Gotham taught us it was Jerome Valeska. In the comics he has also been known as Melvin White, Jack White, Joe Kerr, Dr. J Reckon, Oberon Sexton, and probably others as well. Still, given that he is also known as “The Clown Prince of Crime” all these names could very well be just part of the gag.
A gritty character study
At any rate, as it turns out, Joker is not only a gritty character study, but it is also a broader cautionary tale of what rage, depression, and perhaps even a bit of misdiagnosis can do to a person who is already living in less than ideal circumstances. To start, Fleck is a downtrodden man, living (mostly) inside his own head, and (in actuality) with his ailing mother. He works as a dime-store, rent-a-clown, who spins signs outside “going out of business” stores in mid-town and children’ wards in the local hospital. He professes to have a debilitating condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably in inappropriate situations, and is actually aware that his S#!thole existence is feeding his problem, even though his state-appointed councilor doesn’t seem to quite get it.
These mean streets
The King of Comedy
As the film progresses, his dismal situation only grows worse after his is mugged, the shrink he is seeing has her budget slashed leaving him adrift, and a co-worker turns on him after a work-related incident gets him called in on the carpet and fired. In fact, the one single joy in his life is watching the Murray Franklin show (with Robert De Niro as Franklin essentially reprising his Rupert Pupkin role from The King of Comedy) with his mom.
The King of Comedy
Here's where the film goes south!
Unlike virtually every other comicbook superhero movie you’ve ever seen, there are no CGI pyrotechnics, no costumes, no mano-a-mano superheroic showdowns or fisticuffs. What we are here to witness is a man who is dragged down by his own delusions and stepped on and discarded by “civilized” society around him, even as the rest of the world in which he lives is going to Hell in a handbasket.
Run Joker, Run!
The world outside your window
Ironically enough, this is not so much the made-up world of DC comics (where heroes live in cities with made-up names like Gotham, Metropolis, Central City, etc.) this is the “world outside your window that was Stan Lee’s concept for the Marvel universe in the ‘60s (with Gotham standing in for NYC of the 1970s). This is where the mulling, puking masses, the dregs of society live and die.
This is the real world
No, Joker isn’t some gleaming city on the hill where most of the costumed superhero movies live. It is the other side of the tracks where the real world exists. And Joker is not the hero we need, he is the villain we deserve. He is what happens to the rest of us who get stuck with politicians who lie to us on a regular basis, who — instead of being held to a higher standard — are propped up by a part who are more interested in ruling than in governing. Where the über-wealthy see us not as humans in need of their assistance, but as clowns who need to be whipped into shape. We don’t so much deserve their generosity and kindness, but a brutal form of tough love so that we will pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and become self-sustaining.
It all gets real!
No, this isn’t a world of fantasy, glory and noble intentions, but one of pain and suffering.
We all have secrets
And then there is poor Arthur Fleck who is told a deep dark secret about his mother (which may or may not be true, but given the real-life similar instance of one-time cinematic Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1997’s Batman and Robin) could very well be true, and merely trading one lie for another). So, no, there is no Dark Knight to rise in this film (although we are not telling any tales out of school to reveal that we do get to see a pre-Batman Thomas and Martha Wayne, as well as a very young Bruce and Alfred Pennyworth).
What came first, the hero or the villain?
Unlike Watchmen, or Netflix’s The Boys this isn’t a film that deconstructs superheroes it actually pre-constructs them. Stay with us for a moment. We’ve been reading comics since the early ‘60s and in many of them there has been a fairly consistent thread that it was the appearance of “superheroes” that brought about the presence of super-villains. With Joker, Director Todd Phillips, theorizes that it was actually the rise of super-villains that brought about the need for superheroes. For our own part, we have long held that we are a Heroist, that is to say, an individual that believes in the concept of heroes, and further, that if heroes didn’t exist, we would have had to have invented them.
Only Jokers in this deck
The Clown Prince of Crime
Given that they not only do, but we have, we feel fairly confident in our need as a culture to not only have them, but to believe in them as well. In this regard, Joker, follows along with already-established DC comicbook cannon as to who he might have been, as well as strengthens the connection between the Clown Prince of Crime and the Dark Knight Detective. There is quite a bit of insider fun going on with this film; as stated the connection between Franklin and Pupkin, the connection between Flick and the Waynes, between Joker and Batman, between villains and heroes. It also shows us that sometimes, celebrities are simply people who are well-known for being famous, and that sometimes, the mulling, puking, disassociated masses are just rabble who are waiting for someone (anyone) to tell them to shout that they are a s mad as Hell and aren’t going to take it anymore, be that person a former newsman and TV icon like Network’s Howard Beale, The Bane (from The Dark Knight Rises), or some clown in whiteface, who’s may very well be off his rocker.
Eat the Rich
We are all at a tipping point, and who’s to tell when the next “man of the people” shouts “Eat the Rich” that the masses might not just rise up and do that very thing.
The Jokerest of them all
Be careful out there
As a post-script to this review, there have been news reports of a fear that there might be violence at theaters playing this film, as a reviewer for the past 30+ years, we have heard similar concerns about other films, from New Jack City to The Dark Knight Rises, but except for that one time with Dark Knight we don’t recall hearing of any actual trouble at theaters. Go, see the movie, it is a powerful film, and it should be seen.
© 2019 Robert J Sodaro