When it comes to comic books, there is arguably no singular character — hero, villain, or otherwise — as recognizable and revered as Joker.
As a life-long Batman fan — I first fell in love with the character and his glorious iconography as a child less than five-years-old thanks to the early 90s classic Batman: The Animated Series — I’ve long argued that Joker is as, if not more, popular than his heroic counterpart Batman.
Warning: spoilers for Joker will follow.
More relatable than the incomprehensibly rich and driven Bruce Wayne, the idea of the Joker character preys on internal wonders that almost everyone should have: what would happen to me if nothing mattered to me? Because while not everyone has the means nor the determination to become a roof-hopping, crime-fighting vigilante, everyone has the capability of becoming the Joker — all it takes is for them to become no one.
When we first meet Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, he is no one. Mentally and physically isolated, the only relationship still tethering Arthur to the Earth is that with his equally disturbed mother Penny.
Joker — which is remarkably acted, written, and directed and should score a bevy of Academy Award nominations — is gripping start to finish. However, similar to fellow soon-to-be Best Picture nominee Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Joker ultimately suffers from a lack of forward-driven narrative.
While Fleck’s descent into unchecked delusional madness is enthralling at every turn, Joker never truly capitalizes on the ceaselessly increasing tension, as the moment of his full transformation into the Joker happens in the film’s closing moments, making Joker an origin story to a fault.
However, all that said, the lack of plot is the only legitimate complaint that can be rendered against the film, as arguably every other aspect of Joker is perfect.
First and foremost, there’s no question that Joaquin Phoenix is the front runner for Best Actor, as his overbearing loneliness, pain, and those emotions devolution into blinding rage is palpable from the moment he’s on-screen until the second the credits roll. Phoenix’s Joker may not be as good as Heath Ledger’s version, but the performance certainly is.
While Ledger’s Joker was famed for being an agent of chaos, Phoenix’s chilling version is more of an agent of insanity, as unlike the Joker we see in The Dark Knight, Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck does not seem to have any discernible plan. He does not want to raise terror in the streets or to give the city “a better class of criminal” — he’s simply a mentally ill man starving for attention and affection, and after a life full of receiving neither, he turns to the only option he has: madness.
Despite the fact that director Todd Phillips was hellbent on making clear that Joker would not be pulling from the comic books, Arthur Fleck actually shares a lot with the Joker we see in Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel The Killing Joke.
Considered to be one of the most famed Joker stories ever told, The Killing Joke provides an insight into the Joker’s mindset that can also clearly be applied to Fleck and his rapidly deteriorating mental state:
“Madness is the emergency exit. You can just step outside, and close the door on all those dreadful things that happened. You can lock them away forever.”
And that, whether on purpose or not, is what makes Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck so haunting: he spends a majority of the movie desperately grasping for something, anything to tie him back to reality and the world around him and gets shoved aside or flat out ignored at every turn.
Which is to say that Phillips and Phoenix ultimately succeeded in what they were attempting to create: Joker is not a superhero action movie about the world’s most famous supervillain, it’s a heartbreaking horror story about an everyday man who is so painfully denied the basic human relationships and pleasures that you and I experience every day that his best option becomes the emergency exit that is madness.
And the result is a stunning, devastating film that borders on being a masterpiece.
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Eric is a New York City-based writer who still isn’t quite sure how he’s allowed to have this much fun for a living and will tell anyone who listens that Gotham City is canonically in New Jersey. Contact him on Twitter @eric_ital or via email email@example.com