by Rob DiCristino
Major spoilers herein for Joker. I’m serious.
“I used to think that my life was a tragedy,” Arthur Fleck tells his mother seconds before smothering her to death. “But now I realize it’s a fucking comedy.” Todd Phillips’ Joker is a bit of both, in truth, but where one ends and the other begins will be the topic of debate for some time. For sure, Joker is a bleak and uncompromising parable that reimagines the Clown Prince of Crime as God’s Lonely Man. For sure, its stunning visual palette and knockout performances will earn continued attention this award season. For sure, its haphazard political message will be defiantly appropriated by a core audience too vulnerable to understand its deeper implications. Joker is full of images that will be GIFs and memes by the end of opening weekend. We all knew that was going to happen. We can’t stop it. The really confounding thing about Joker, though, is that it seems like exactly the kind of brutal, macabre, standalone story the DC Universe should be telling. It’s not Marvel. It’s not building a universe. It’s not interested in sequels or spin-offs. It’s making a statement. I respect that. But is a statement this misguided and irresponsible really worth making?
Joaquin Phoenix’s sinewy frame stretches like Silly Putty over every inch of Joker. The actor is Machinist-level thin, which pulls his features into a kind of gawking carnival mask. More Travis Bickle than Rupert Pupkin, Arthur is right at home in Phillips’ Gotham City, which trades Burton’s Art Deco and Nolan’s industrial realism for 1970s urban rot. Thanks to Mark Friedberg and Laura Ballinger’s art and production design, we can smell the blood on the walls and the sewage in the streets. We can taste the tar in each cigarette Arthur smokes. It’s a dank and hopeless world further emphasized by Phillips’ cinematography, which favors lingering close-ups over fast-paced action. Phillips and Phoenix also seem to know exactly how an innocuous moment can become uncomfortable, often using long stillnesses and silences as preludes to shocking events. Joker is, from a technical standpoint, an immaculately made piece of art.
These thematic concerns aside, we need to get back to Joker’s gigantic Wayne problem. Thomas, Martha, and -- you guessed it -- Bruce are all shoehorned in for a second act diversion exploring Arthur’s origins that not only brings the narrative to a screeching halt, but further complicates Arthur’s already fractured ideology. Wayne is both a lost father figure and a kind of economic gatekeeper, The Man who keeps Arthur and his kind down. There is a version of his story in which Arthur could assign very specific blame to very specific actions and act in light of their repercussions. But that’s not this story. Arthur’s actions are driven by fever dreams and hallucinations. He isn’t a class warrior or a community activist. He’s mentally ill. “I don’t believe in anything,” he tells Murray Franklin. Firing off a long tirade during his segment on Franklin’s show, Arthur tells the studio audience that all he wants is for people to show a little kindness every once in a while. He wants them to consider the people they step over as they walk down the street. As he murders a talk show host on live TV, Arthur believes himself to be a practitioner of chaotic good.