It’s been a while since I’ve been to the theaters for this site, not since July for the latest Spider-Man movie. Now DC has had all sorts of different continuities through their animated movies, their TV series, and their live action movies. Honestly, that’s one thing that I’ve really appreciated about DC vs Marvel is that they actually don’t stick to a single shared universe. Instead, they go the much broader and more interesting multiverse route. This is an entirely different continuity version of the Joker’s origin story even though it does have some ties to other stories and it’s presented much more like akin to a drama and a strong homage to Taxi Driver. There was a bit of controversy due to some of the ways mental health was presented, but taken just as a movie I thought it was well written, well performed, and completely entertaining if still disturbing at times. And as this is a current movie, there will be spoilers so here’s your warning.
At least at this point in time, there has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding this film. On one hand, it does very much present an antiquated view of mental illness with a narrow point of view in a country and time where mental illness and guns have created an era of fear. On the other hand, when taken on its own it creates an interesting and alternate picture of a well known Batman villain and paints it with shades of real world overtones. This is still Gotham City, there’s still a Thomas Wayne present and there’s an odd touch of otherworldlyness to it when you combine the Gotham City fictional nature with the period piece as it’s set roughly in the 70’s. There are hints of real world connections, but it’s all just surface level with nothing going too deep.
As a Joker origin story, there are several elements that are quite well done. His laugh in particular is an interesting concept. Arthur Fleck carries around a laminated card that mentions his mental condition that causes inappropriate and uncontrollable laughter caused by brain damage. Brain damage that we later learn was caused by forgotten abuse as a child. But what really carries this is the performance Juaquin Phoenix gives this laugh, whenever you hear it and see it it’s difficult to tell whether he’s laughing or crying. And while it’s presented as being something that he can’t control, there are a couple moments where you learn that he actually can be in complete control of his laugh when he wants to. As seen when he goes in to see his boss at the clown for hire business and he immediately stops laughing. Or when he’s being interviewed by the police outside of the hospital where his mom had just had a stroke and there is no hint of his uncontrollable laughter despite it being a potentially uncomfortable situation.
Joker in this film is presented as someone who hasn’t been happy a single day in his life. He’s someone who’s been constantly ignored or disbelieved by the world around him. We frequently see him in this film with his shirt off, often with injuries sustained by people who have knocked him down and started kicking him in an unfortunately cliched version of a beat down. We get to see ways that he makes himself happy, like when he has a positive experience with his neighbor so he creates this fantasy where he starts dating her. She’s there to support him and comfort him in his imagined times of need, but when he actually starts to face the reality, he and the audience realize that it never actually made it past that one moment in the elevator.
There are plenty of images of suicide throughout the movie. Joker frequently dances whenever he gets into his power fantasies, often after something positive happens to him. The dance usually ends with his arms outstretched and his head tilted back as far as it can go, the image is also used for one of the posters. This pose correlates to how he would react if he had shot himself in the head from under his chin as he feigns to do when practicing his moment on the not-Johnny Carson show with Robert de Niro’s Murray Franklin. Although while he chooses to commit violence as an act of revenge on those who have wronged him, there are hints that things could go down an even darker road, especially as we see him a few times interact in a positive manner with children and it could have gone down an especially dark path with his neighbor. Thankfully the film does choose to stick with pure revenge fantasies all the while having a political movement rise up around him.
Since this is a DC movie there does have to be some connections to the comic books, but this is unfortunately one of the biggest shortcomings of this film coming from a comic book movie perspective. It’s granted that it would take place in Gotham City and the reference to Thomas Wayne being a part of the story is acceptable. But when the movie once again covers the extremely overused death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, it didn’t feel like an homage, it just felt like a cheap connection. The only saving grace for the idea is the twist that in several continuities the theory is that the existence of Batman was what created the Joker in the first place, and this movie takes that in absolute reverse. Here, the creation of the Joker is what ultimately creates the Batman. But that twist doesn’t make it worth it to see Thomas and Martha Wayne die for the umpteenth time. Aside from that, the film looked gorgeous, the music was intense, and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance was absolutely astounding. It’s a film that I’m not used to seeing and I enjoyed watching it play out, it might not be the best version of this type of film and a pale imitation, but if you’re not looking for perfection it’s a damn fine piece of cinema and a unique take on the Joker character. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.