Have you ever spent time wondering how the bad guys in superhero movies got to be so evil? If you have, now there’s a movie for you.
Joker is what is called an “origin story” for the traditional Batman foe — the sadistic nihilist with the cackling laugh and clown makeup.
The film is set in a dystopian 1980-ish New York City (aka Gotham,) and observes Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) as he becomes the character known as the Joker.
Fleck works gigs as a clown, and he wants to become a famous stand-up comedian. The barriers to this goal are his raw self-obsession and an unfortunate “condition” that causes him to break out into involuntary laughing fits that suggest desperation or sorrow as much as humor.
Fleck is an odd cat descending into insanity, and his life circumstances do not help. The city has cut funding for his useless psychotherapy visits and his seven prescription medications. While working as a clown he is beat up by a bunch of young toughs. He loses his job when he drops a pistol on the floor while entertaining children in a hospital. While riding home in the subway, he breaks out laughing and for this is attacked by Wall Street guys in business suits. Angry, Fleck shoots his tormenters and flees.
Press reports of an anonymous clown killing employees of loathed Wayne Enterprises spark a chord among frustrated Gothamites, who adopt clown costumes and begin tearing up the city themselves.
Meanwhile, a tape of one of Fleck’s failed comedy routines catches the scornful eye of a late-night television host whom Fleck admires. To his delight, Fleck is invited to appear on the broadcast.
Another plot element involves Fleck’s mother and her absorption with a former employer, a rich guy who announces a plan to run for mayor of Gotham in order to clean the place of “clowns.”
By the end, Fleck has become the fully formed Joker. It’s unclear how much of what happens in the story is intended to be taken as truth and how much is the product of Joker’s fevered imagination. Rather confusing.
Joaquin Phoenix carries the film here, and many have admired his performance. It’s hard to tell, however, whether his strength is acting or scrunching up his facial muscles into expressions that range from anguish to glee.
The writer/director is Todd Phillips, who made his fortune with the three Hangover movies and who is a big Martin Scorsese fan.
In fact, Joker borrows from two Scorsese films: Fleck has much in common with the increasingly unhinged Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in 1975’s Taxi Driver. Fleck also behaves like Rupert Pupkin (also played by De Niro) in 1983’s King of Comedy. In addition, De Niro appears in Joker as the successful comedian/television host.
One weakness of the plot is its reliance on two-dimensional stereotypes about the Gotham milieu: citizen rage about rich guys, suit-wearing subway thugs, New York City budget cuts (?) and so on.
A number of critics really can’t stand this movie, and for various reasons. One is that it humanizes a known bad guy. Another is that it is more violent than is really necessary, which seems a little odd given the state of film today. A third may be that the idea of an ostensibly serious movie about a cartoon character is just too weird.
Filmgoers seem not to be so troubled. Only Avengers: Endgame has sold more tickets on its first weekend this year.
Batman stories — and this is a variant on the theme — are very popular. The first Batman comic book was released in 1940 and followed by 712 others. Batman has been the subject of many television shows and 15 movies, including a Lego Batman Movie in 2017 and an embarrassment called Batman V Superman in 2016.
Of the recent Batman movies, the best regarded are the three written by screenwriter Christopher Nolan. The second of those, 2008’s Dark Knight, illuminated a certain similarity between the menace of the Joker and the distance and darkness of Batman himself.
Heath Ledger’s standout performance as the Joker in that film — and his early death just before its release — almost certainly suggested the idea of this newer movie.