Is Joker the Origin Story we need?
Joker might just prove me wrong and that’s a good thing. I was skeptical of a Joker movie at first for a few reasons. But after the final trailer and some early positive reviews, I’m actually very curious about it and hope to watch it when it comes out.
Set for release in October, Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a clown for hire who’s taking care of his mother (Frances Conroy). Joker is a film about the transformation of a downtrodden nobody into the violence prone titular character. It’s less a comic book villain story and more of a psychological thriller centered on a disturbed, misunderstood individual.
Despite my initial apprehensions on Joker, I was always confident that Joaquin Phoenix would turn in a great performance. Phoenix is known for his commitment to roles like learning to sing for Walk the Line. I also really liked his performance in Inherent Vice where he conveyed the dark comedic tones in the script. I’m oddly excited to hear that in preparation for Joker, Phoenix met with people afflicted with a condition where they burst out laughing during inappropriate situations. At a film festival, Phoenix is receiving standing ovations for his Joker performance.
In addition to the lead acting talent, the trailers are promising a visually compelling cinematography. Some of the shots are quite evocative. You get the feeling that Arthur Fleck’s transformation coincides with some sort of city wide uprising. Gotham City looks weary in a convincing way, not as a caricature. Gotham City might be a reflection of some major cities in America where the society is breaking down. Some reviews suggest that while influenced by Martin Scorsese’ realistic gritty films, director Todd Philipps (The Hangover), infuses a surreal, nightmarish quality to Joker.
Even though there have been comic book stories that have explored the Joker’s origins, I wasn’t sure we needed to see a definitive feature length cinematic version. Heath Ledger’s Joker kept us guessing as to his actual origin story which made him that much more enigmatic and unpredictable. Joker is an agent of chaos. So bringing a sense of order to his origin didn’t appeal to me at first. Maybe we don’t need to understand the Joker so much as we need the Joker to help us understand our human frailties and hypocritical stance on morality.
For example, in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the Joker was probably right that one of the two ferries would blow up the other in reality. However, because of superhero movie conventions, the villain isn’t usually allowed to be right about the dark aspects of human nature. Arguably, the Joker is strongest opposite Batman, and vice versa, because they challenge each other’s deep seated beliefs and principles. The Joker amuses himself by toying with a man who cosplays as a bat at night. The challenge is can the Joker be at his most riveting without Bats?
Joker can get around the conventional trappings by not following a comic book movie formula and abstain from an intrinsically villainous portrayal. But when I think of an anti-hero, The Punisher comes to mind; a vigilante using unethical methods to do “good” based on his personal moral code. The Joker is not an anti-hero by that definition. Hopefully, Phoenix’s Joker doesn’t fall into that pitfall. Neither should the Joker’s maniacal glee come from a place of resentment and vengeance. The Joker’s motivation should be complex, something that can be debated back and forth between fans.
With mainly the trailers and non-spoiler reviews to go on, the Joker sees the broken down state of a rotting society ie. Gotham City which created him. He laughs at the absurdity of the situation. A life without meaning and without purpose. But the trailers suggest that the Joker becomes a catalyst or a symbolic figure for the disaffected people of Gotham, evident by protest signs saying “We are all clowns.” These intriguing ideas potentially sets up Joker to be a provocative, genre-defying iconic film. If the potential issues and questions can be addressed perhaps Joker gets the last laugh after all.