*Note: These impressions are mostly spoiler-free. Most of them are broad. However, I do discuss some specific imagery that was shown in the film’s trailers.
A man sits, watching the painted white face staring back at him in the mirror. He reaches one index finger into each corner of his mouth and aggressively, painfully, pulls up the edges of his lips, contorting his mouth into a strange, uncomfortable smile. The man is clearly troubled, indicated not by a murderous rampage or by the word “Damaged” tattooed across his forehead. It’s given away by his face. We see it in his troubled eyes, just as a tear leaks out and rolls down his cheek, smearing his makeup.
So goes the opening scene of Joker. Initially thought by some to be yet another comic book movie, a weak attempt by DC Comics to capture the public imagination as their rival Marvel has done, Joker has instead turned out to be less comic book movie, and more film as social commentary.
I saw Joker last week, and now, with a few days to reflect upon the film, have compiled some of my thoughts.
I recommend you see Joker.
It’s a well-made film featuring one of the great acting performances of our time.
You don’t have to be a fan of Batman, comics, or super hero movies to enjoy Joker.
Certainly, having some familiarity with and fondness for the Batman universe — the Joker himself, the Wayne family, Gotham City — may increase your appreciation for the film, and the risks it takes with its depiction of some characters.
That said, you need not be a fan of comics to enjoy this film. While I am a lifelong Batman fan — I particularly love the darker and grittier direction taken in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy — I am not well-versed in all things super heroes. I have seen only a few of the recent Marvel movies and enjoy them for what they are — big-budget, high-action battles between good and evil. And other than Wonder Woman, I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed any of the recent DC Universe movies.
With that said, this is not The Avengers or Spider-Man.
Joker is a character study, and a dark one at that. It seems a movie made not for traditional comic book fans, but for those who enjoyed Scorcese classics.
This is less Guardians of the Galaxy or Iron Man, and more The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver.
That said, Joker is not for everybody.
If you watch movies solely to be entertained — you want to laugh, or smile, or see a protagonist win the big game or the heart of their beloved, this will not scratch that itch.
Joker is dark. Gritty. Lacking almost entirely in humor or levity. It’s even repulsive, in its way.
It’s closer to an art house film than a traditional comic book movie. If that’s not your expectation, the film may not resonate with you. But if you’re open to it, you will experience a deeply affecting, emotionally-gripping film that will stay on your mind for a while.
Speaking of that acting performance…yes, Joaquin Phoenix is that good.
Even critics who didn’t love the film have largely praised Phoenix’s performance. And for good reason. This is, hands down, one of the single best performances I’ve ever seen by an actor.
There has been a small rumbling that the film may be over-acted; that Phoenix’s performance can actually be distracting, constantly reminding the audience that the ACTOR is ACTING.
This line of criticism has been heightened by stories of Phoenix’s behavior before shooting and on set, which apparently even caused tension between him and co-star, Robert de Niro.
On this topic, the critics are not wrong.
The performance is distracting, but I found it to be so in the most meaningful way. Everything he does — from his facial expressions, to his movements, his dancing, his laugh — exemplifies the character traits that define this interpretation of the Joker. It’s all awkward, uncomfortable, disconcerting.
In short, to avoid this film is to miss Phoenix at his best, cementing himself as a phenomenal actor and delivering one of the great performances of the generation.
Don’t compare this to previous renditions of Joker
I get it — whenever there is a new interpretation of a beloved character, we must, as humans, compare it to previous renditions. Such is the case with the Joker.
When Heath Ledger portrayed the character in 2008’s The Dark Knight, it sparked an immediate debate about whether his portrayal was inherently better than Jack Nicholson’s in 1989’s Batman. But such debates are fruitless.
While they share a name and are pitted against a similar protagonist, they are fundamentally different characters, written in different eras as reflections of their time and setting.
Cesar Romero portrayed a schlocky jokester battling Adam West in the 1960s.
Nicholson’s character leaned more toward a traditional mobster and businessman.
Ledger portrayed a deranged man who embraced sheer chaos in a modern city concerned with surveillance and classism.
And Jared Leto was…well, let’s not talk about that one.
The point is, comparing across eras undermines our ability to simply appreciate how each version was written and what each actor brought to their individual interpretation of the character.
Phoenix’s Joker is even less appropriate for comparison’s sake. He spends most of the film not as the Joker, but as Arthur Fleck. He’s a real character, oozing with humanity and color. And, unlike previous renditions, who were villains in Batman-led films and had a relatively small amount of screen time, Phoenix is the lead, appearing in virtually every scene across the film’s two-hour runtime.
Mental illness and class warfare are front-and-center
I mentioned earlier that Joker is less like a typical “comic book movie” and more akin to an art-house flick. It is, or at least tries to be, film as social commentary.
Joker has been praised by many for its willingness to engage with issues involving mental health and social class. By and large, it has been lauded for these efforts (though, not everyone agrees).
The film does very clearly attempt to provide some level of social commentary. Its success in this area is for another post, as it is difficult to discuss without including spoilers. Suffice it to say that, despite taking place in the early 1980s, Joker is a reflection of the current era, ripped thematically from 21st century headlines.
Inequality — social, political, economic — is center-stage. The film is a reflection of modern concerns. Classism and the ever-widening wealth gap. Stigmatization of mental illness, and the relationship between mental health and violence. Classism, protest, and disobedience.
Know what you’re in for if you decide to see this film, as all of these are inescapably part of watching Joker.
Now, whether or not it says anything meaningful about them is for another time.