It’s Movie Night again and usually, I’m not into superhero films. I haven’t seen every Avengers film or the majority of the associated franchises. I am into Deadpool but that’s not really a ‘superhero’ film, more fannying about in a costume which is fine.
One franchise that I especially didn’t get into was Christian Bale’s ‘Batman’ era mostly because of my previously mentioned problems with Christian Bale or more specifically, his stupid fucking ultra-smug ‘let’s shout at lower level members of production for making a mistake because I’m getting paid millions to jump over things and shoot things and say words occasionally and every one should let me behave like an entitled cock-end just because I did ‘The Machinist’ and I’m severely overrated anyway’ attitude.
‘Joker’ is not associated with that or any modern interpretations of Batman because Batman himself is a ridiculous figure. He’s just a very rich man who instead of doing what any sane billionaire who’s worried about the severe levels of crime in his city would do which is invest in the police force; he decides to stick a pointy bucket on his head and punch people who are significantly poorer than and OK, they might be mugging old ladies and robbing banks but he’s a grown man in a cape so I’m perfectly justified in calling him a twat.
No, ‘Joker’ is a standalone film solely focused on telling the story of Arthur Fleck and how he became ‘Joker’. Or ‘The Joker’. Whichever is grammatically correct.
I will state again that I have not seen the previous DC universe films surrounding Batman so I haven’t seen Heath Ledger’s performance (may he rest in peace) but I am told that it was Oscar-worthy and I also haven’t seen Jared Leto add an extra layer of pretentiousness that comes with all his performances since ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ so I think I’m the perfect person to judge ‘Joker’ on it’s own merits because I have nothing to compare it to.
Then again, maybe that’s not fair because those films and this film are trying to do different things. In Heath Ledger’s and Jared Leto’s cases, their versions of Joker were both painted as the bad guys whereas in ‘Joker’, it’s a bit more complicated. This review will have spoilers.
You see, it didn’t come across to me that Arthur Fleck was being built to be a criminal mastermind and a supervillain, more of an anti-hero because I was rooting for him at the end. Yes, he did bad things and killed people but anyone would have been pushed to the point of aggression if you’d been through what Arthur Fleck had been through.
What I thought would happen is that there would be about 20-30 mins of character development until ‘the catalyst’ happens, that one event that tips Arthur over the edge and then the rest of the film will be Arthur establishing himself as the ‘Joker’ that we know, the charismatic, eccentric and totally mad supervillain who thrives in chaos. Whilst that it sort of what happen, I will say that the film is much smarter than I thought it was.
In a 2 hour movie, 1 hour and 40 minutes of it was Arthur Fleck getting the shit kicked out of him both physically and mentally and sometimes for no reason and this is someone with a pre-existing mental illness. It’s not like he was a normal guy who just snapped one day, this was a time bomb waiting to happen.
This film definitely has a lot to say about mental health and how sufferers are treated and classism, but I also think it’s important to note that this film does not take place in the modern day. It’s 1981.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is an aspiring comedian who suffers from a mental disorder that causes uncontrollable bouts of laughter and often at the most inappropriate times. He’s currently working as a clown and lives with his physically and mentally disabled mother in the ‘less developed’ area of Gotham City. Throughout the film, Arthur suffers several setbacks in his life and all of these culminate in an appearance on a late night TV show which turns deadly.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Joaquin Phoenix himself said that he was interested in doing this because it was a character study of a comic book character and that it certainly is, and the character of Arthur Fleck is one that deserves close examination.
Firstly, he seems to have spent most of his life with his mother and must have missed out on a lot of the milestones and rites of passage when it comes to young men. He’s desperate for a career in comedy and takes a job as a sign spinner whilst dressed as a clown just to make people smile.
His condition tends to get him into trouble and he carries cards around with him to give to people that explains and even apologises for his laughing. Yes, his laughing does get him into trouble but his behavior also isn’t helping.
Early on in the film, Arthur is assaulted by some teenagers who steal the sign that he was flipping and his co-worker, Randall gives him a gun to defend himself. Later, Arthur is performing as a clown in a children’s hospital and the gun falls from his pocket. Arthur is fired for this and probably rightly so. I don’t know why he brought the gun with him to perform, it could have been a mistake but Randall lies and tells their boss that Arthur bought the gun.
This is what I thought the catalyst would be.
Then, Arthur is on the subway in New York, I mean Gotham, and is once again assaulted by three drunken employees of Wayne Enterprises. That’s right. THE Wayne Enterprises. Arthur has another bout of laughter and they turn on him for it and I would like to call bullshit on that. I’ve seen this before in films where the protagonist is meant to be provoked to get the desired reaction and so here come some strangers out of nowhere to harass them and be physically violent for no reason. The kids at the start, I could understand but this is bullshit.
Anyway, they all start kicking the shit out of Arthur where he exerts his all American, 100% totally legitimate, 2nd Amendments rights and shoots two of the fuckers dead whilst wounding a third. At this point, I’m thinking ‘The first two were self-defense but actions have consequences and they started it’. It would seem Arthur thinks the same way and executes the third man. I was counting bullets as well. He fired 8 rounds but it was a .38 that he had. Do 8 chambered .38’s exist? I don’t know, I’m not a gun expert, I’m English.
So now, I’m thinking, ‘This is it. He’s Joker now. Bring on the Crime Syndicate’. Apparently not.
Then, the program that gives Arthur his therapy and his medication loses it’s funding and has to be stopped, leaving Arthur without his medication.
When that happened, I thought, ‘THIS is it. THIS is the catalyst. He’s got no more meds. This has to be it.’ Apparently not.
It’s nice to see that Robert De Niro is still getting work. He plays Murray Franklin who is this late-night talk show host and he really nailed the delivery. He really does seem like every other talk show host but Arthur is in love with this guy.
Arthur also has a love interest, Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz) who is a single mother that lives in the same building with her daughter. He invites her to watch his stand-up comedy routine and she accepts. The gig itself doesn’t go well. Arthur’s laughing fits make it difficult for him to deliver the gags and the audience aren’t all that impressed.
Arthur’s set is filmed and the tape is sent to Murray Franklin who plays the tape on his show and openly mocks Arthur.
First of all, that would never happen today. It’s easy to send in a clip to a late night show but if a host played a clip of someone with a mental illness and the mocked them in front of the nation, that guy would be cancelled and fired before the next commercial break.
When that happened, I was thinking, ‘This has to be it now. He’s been mocked by his hero. This is the catalyst.’ Nope.
I was told that this was a standalone film and whilst I originally thought that this was loosely related to the Batman universe and there would be a few sly references to the Wayne Empire etc. That was the case up until the Wayne family is really pushed into the plot. Arthur’s mother, Penny worked for the Wayne’s and she alleges that she had an affair with Thomas Wayne and he is Arthur’s father.
Arthur visits the Wayne Estate and meets a young Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olsen) who genuinely slides down a pole whilst playing in the garden before he meets Arthur. The family butler, Alfred (Douglas Hodge) shoos Arthur away. Eventually, Arthur confronts Thomas face to face and Thomas reveals that Arthur was adopted and his mother is not his mother.
The next bit is weird.
Arthur visits Arkham State Hospital where his mother was previously incarcerated. Apparently, it’s customary at Arkham for the patients to wander the corridors unsupervised with civilians around. But that’s not the weird part. The clerk (Brian Tyree Henry) grabs his mother’s file and reads a few details from the folder but won’t actually GIVE Arthur the file, most likely because of the contents so Arthur steals the file and runs down about three flights of stairs and then stops to read the file. I’m thinking ‘Don’t stop! They could be coming after you.’ Nope, security is really lax at this place that houses mentally ill and possibly dangerous people. No wonder criminals kept breaking out of this place in the Batman mythos. They probably didn’t lock the doors.
Anyway, Thomas’s accusations are confirmed and on top of Penny not being Arthur’s real mother, she allowed herself and her son to be in the presence of an abusive partner who did some pretty horrible things to both of them. Arthur is understandably even more upset. He goes to Sophie’s apartment and whilst we’ve seen that they’ve been meeting up and Sophie comforts him at the hospital when Penny has a stroke after two Detectives (Bill Camp and Shea Whigham) arrive to question Arthur about the three dead guys on the train, she doesn’t know who he is. He imagined their whole relationship.
When that happened, I thought ‘NOW, this is the catalyst. Surely. It has to be because the film’s nearly over’. It kind of was. The next day, Arthur suffocates his mother in her hospital bed.
Now, Arthur’s mental state is spiraling down to its all time low but then, he is invited onto the Murray Franklin show because of the response to his stand up clip and he agrees. As he is practicing his interview technique, it’s strongly suggested that Arthur plans to commit suicide on live TV with the gun that was given to him by Randall.
Randall and his co-worker, Gary visit Arthur but out of nowhere, Arthur kills Randall for lying to his former boss about the gun. He lets Gary go and then prepares himself for the Murray Franklin show by dressing himself up in the iconic makeup and suit from the posters and trailers.
Since the train murders, the disenfranchised masses have begun wearing clown masks since Arthur was wearing his clown makeup when he killed those guys, so the police are looking for a clown. To these people, that look has been associated with anti-establishment, anti-1%, ‘fuck rich people’ basically.
As Arthur is leaving his apartment (in style), the two detectives from earlier chase him into a train filled with these clown mask people and these people really don’t like the police. Arthur blends into the crowd and as they turn on the cops, one of the detectives accidentally shoots one of the protesters and they start rioting. Arthur escapes in the chaos.
The scene on the show is the most illuminating as it shows the depths that Arthur has sunk to although that assessment is from the audience’s point of view. From Arthur’s perspective, he’s probably never felt better. As far as he’s concerned, he’s been pushed down, abandoned, betrayed and shat on by everyone. His co-workers, his mother, his social worker, his hero and random members of the public have been fucking with him and turned him into a joke.
Before he goes on stage, Arthur requests that he’s introduced as ‘Joker’ because that’s what Murray referred to him as in the initial mockery and Murray agrees.
During the interview, Arthur tells some off colour jokes and confesses to killing the three men from Wayne Enterprises as well as causing the riot in Gotham. Just when the audience, Murray’s guests and Murray himself have turned on Arthur, he kills Murray with the .32 which I definitely didn’t see coming. I knew he wasn’t going to kill himself because I was of the mind that they weren’t going to kill off the character as they need him for ‘sequel’ purposes (more on that in a minute).
Arthur is rapidly arrested and whilst he’s being driven through the riot, an ambulance slams into the police car and the rioters recognize Arthur. They drag him out of the police car and lay him on the hood of the car. Arthur wakes up, stands up on the car and starts dancing in the midst of the chaos as the rioters cheer for him.
That’s where I thought the film would end but there’s another clip after where Arthur is sat in Arkham and he starts laughing but when he’s asked what he’s laughing about, he says that it’s a joke and they probably wouldn’t get it. Then Arthur is running through the corridors, away from the orderlies with bloody footprints, implying that he has killed or seriously injured his psychiatrist.
I personally feel that the film should have ended with Joker dancing on the police car as it’s fitting ending for his character. Since superhero films like ‘mid-credits’ sequences so much, it would have been better to have that as a mid-credits bit.
Nevertheless, awesome film.
I feel that Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix went about this the right way. Phoenix lost about 50lbs for the role and it shows given that for half the movie, he’s either shirtless or in his pants, possibly channeling ‘Machinist Christian Bale’, who knows. Not ‘Batman Christian Bale’ because he put on pounds of muscle… and Phoenix’s performance was actually good.
The one aspect that I really liked was the laughing. Let me explain. Phoenix has said that he prepared by watching people with ‘Pathological Laughter’ AKA ‘Pseudobulbar Effect (PBA)’ AKA ‘Emotional Incontinence’. In the way Phoenix performed in the incessant laughter, it looked like it hurt. Have you ever laughed so much that it hurt? That’s what it looked like and it also makes laughing not fun. Laughter is an expression of joy and that makes it especially sad because there is literally nothing in Arthur’s life for him to be happy about so when I see him laughing to the point of tears in his eyes, I know he’s not happy about it.
In a way, I was rooting for Arthur to get his own back on the world because it felt like he’d never been given a chance and everything that he’d worked hard for, his job, looking after his mother, had all been taken away from him and I believed that after he’d done all these terrible things, that he was going to take his own life on TV to accomplish two things. One, to escape the authorities and being locked away in Arkham which ended up happening anyway and to make a statement which ended up happening away as well so he accomplished his goals but in a different way. Then, he was willing to accept the punishment. He didn’t run after killing Murray. He was freed by the protesters and even in the police car, he’s happy at the level of chaos.
An outsider would look at the terrible things that he does and think of him as an evil person and normally, I would say that Arthur Fleck made those decisions but that’s not the case. Or at least that’s not how it’s put forward. Arthur Fleck is mentally ill and his decisions and actions were born out of a society rejected him as well as some deeply rooted personal tragedies. Could it be his parents? If he’s adopted then he doesn’t know who he has and this persona of ‘Joker’ is a coping mechanism or maybe an outlet for his rage? You see, this is a ‘thinking’ film. I like those. The ambiguous ones. The ones intended for discussion.
Even more respectably, Phoenix and Phillips have stated that this is a standalone film with no plans to do a sequel. For a film related to a superhero franchise, that’s an unusual move. Good. You’ve done this one now. Don’t do any more. If they were to make a sequel, it would be more of the same and in no way could improve upon the first film. That’s not to say that this version of Joker won’t appear in another film in the same universe if they decide to go with the ‘dark, gritty R-rated origin stories of Batman villains’ thing which I would be very surprised if they don’t because ‘Joker’ has made over $1 Billion. I coming up with a new mantra – The first film is the story you want to tell, the sequel profits off its soul. It’s not perfect but you get the idea.
Last thing. Not only was this an origin movie for Joker, it was also cleverly an origin movie for Batman. At the end, a rioter shoots Thomas Wayne and his wife, Martha dead whilst young Bruce is spared. He then inherits the power of infinite resources and money, determined to beat up the poor for the greater good. Whatever, I’m done harping on about that. I’m not ‘anti-rich’ or ‘anti-1%’, I’d fucking love to be rich. I’m ‘Anti-Batman’. Now Pro-Joker. Because of this movie.
Dare we dream?
I hope so. It would annoy a lot people.
It’s already annoyed Jared Leto and that can only be a positive thing.
At least an Oscar for Joaquin. He does deserve one for this.
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