Note: This review contains spoilers.
An origin story for a villain will never work in cinema. Rob Zombie's disasterpiece on Michael Myers is the definitive proof. I could write a thesis on that abomination.
Some of the most iconic villains in cinema are the ones with no backstory, and that's what makes them so terrifying; we know nothing about them: Michael Myers, Heath Ledger's Joker, the killers in The Strangers, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's Nurse Ratched. Even the shark in Jaws counts. What makes all of these characters so fascinating yet scary is their never-revealed, mysterious past. They have no motive, and if they do, it’s simple and that’s what makes them haunting. (For simple yet haunting, The Strangers comes to mind when Liv Tyler’s Kristen McKay asks the killers why they are terrorizing and trying to kill them, and their answer is short and shocking, “Because you were home.” For Jaws, we don't see how enormous and colossally terrifying the shark is until the very end. A wandering mind is one of the most effective ways to suck in an audience because of curiosity and often, fear. We don't know why these villains are so evil; we just know they take great pleasure in harming others. To paraphrase Alfred (Michael Cain) from The Dark Knight, "Some just want to watch the world burn.” Moreover, these villains don’t feel what they are doing is wrong. There’s nothing more horrifying than that.
There are myriads of problems with Joker. Co-writer and director Todd Philips (The Hangover) attempts a fresh portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime by borrowing other movie plots and using his mean-spirited storytelling to give the character of Joker a facelift. I don’t think it’s fair to compare Phoenix’s Joker to Ledger’s, and I felt the same about Ledger’s to Jack Nicholson’s. They are all different renditions, and it’s a waste of time to compare. The same goes for who plays Batman, and so on. Different styles of movies, different styles of Joker. That said, Philips went for a realistic version of Joker, but we already got that in The Dark Knight, and Ledger made a realistic psychopath funny and entertaining by doing what he’s set out to accomplish while hilariously antagonizing people in unique ways. However, Dark Knight’s director Christopher Nolan makes it clear that everything the Joker is doing is awful. Joker’s Joker is praised for committing murder and Fleck’s dreadful day-to-day is no joy to watch. I’m confident most people don’t want to sit through a movie that will make them miserable and depressed, so what we should be asking is, “What’s the point of this movie?” Philips’ result is a dangerous, pointless, tiring, and very depressing movie. I’m glad I saw it but I will never recommend it or see it again. That’s a real shame because Joaquin Phoenix — one of the most quintessential actors alive — gives one of his best performances of his career; he disappears and we don’t see Joaquin Phoenix the actor playing Arthur Fleck, we see Arthur Fleck, a schizophrenic who just can’t catch a break and descends into madness. Phoenix’s performance is the only thing good about this movie. The rest is just background noise.
The man who takes up the eponymic title, Arthur Fleck (Phoenix, again, who is phenomenal but wasted) is a down-on-his-luck sap who just wants to make people smile. His gaunt stature makes him an easy target for bullies to pick on and beat the hell out of. Fleck laughs uncontrollably when he feels uncomfortable and hands out a laminated card that reads that he has an unmanageable condition where he has random outbursts of laughter for no reason, like Tourette's Syndrome. (This fascinating mystery is ruined when Fleck eventually reveals the answer.) Fleck wants to do comedy, but he's not good at it, he's delusional, his reality is plagued with fantasies that aren’t real, and he lives with his equally broken mother (Frances Conroy) in a rundown apartment in the seedy underbelly section of Gotham City. Things just keep getting worse for Fleck. He loses his job as a clown-for-hire due to a no-good at his job giving him a gun after Fleck gets beat up one day. Another bad day, while on the subway, his compulsive laugh explodes and three young white guys in suits beat him to the ground. In a panic, he pulls out the gun and kills them. This is where things get worse for Joker, both the movie and the clown.
Joker is an angry, depressing, joyless, plodding, mean-spirited movie that glamorizes violence. Worse? It’s frightening and dangerous, and after seeing Joker, for the first time in my life, I feel a movie could inspire mentally unstable people to commit extreme acts of violence. After killing these three rich white guys, the public, poor and ignored with no help from the rich, describe and salute the unknown killer as a revolutionary because s/he shot rich people to death. The media catches up and writes all about this unknown vigilante. The story is in every newspaper on the front cover and Fleck begins to love this attention. He inadvertently becomes a deranged Robin Hood to the poor, and co-writer-director Phillips plays that up when Fleck is walking out of his apartment in full Joker attire, with real-life convicted pedophile Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2” blasting overhead. This is a colossal insult to the audience. The film wants us to sympathize with Fleck because of his lifetime of mistreatment and abuse, but this scene encourages the viewer to fist-pump that the once-dull Fleck is now in full-confident Joker mode, smiling as he heads out, ready to murder. Joker is not an anti-hero. He’s not a revolutionary. Joker is a terrorist. In his delusional mind, he wants to relish the fame surrounding the praise of the killing of the three rich goons on the subway, who only deserved to be arrested and jailed. Fleck once felt invisible to the world, but now in his polluted fantasy, he believes that killing is the only way to get anyone’s attention.
Joker is it stands in a long line of movies that exploit and falsely identifies mental illness. Fleck is described as mentally ill when he sees his psychiatrist (who does not listen or care about him) and we see “mental illness” scribbled in his journal. Joker passionately implies mental illness is why he kills and becomes the Joker. This inaccuracy is why people are afraid of individuals who really are mentally ill or why folks are afraid to tell loved ones that they suffer from mental illness out of fear of being ostracized because of the stigma that mentally ill means dangerous. Not all mentally ill are dangerous. Most are scared and want to live a normal life. Phillips is tone-deaf and doesn’t understand the difference. Fleck is not mentally ill; he's mentally unstable — a significant distinction — and so was his mother. All of Fleck’s life's recent major upsets and constant bullying makes him vulnerable to a variety of mental punishment, so his behavior slowly becomes erratic and alarming. Nobody notices or understands he’s hurting or cares to help him get proper care for his shattered and exhausted mental state. Most of Arthur’s reality is all in his head — it can be fairly argued this is his way of escaping from the slums from the harsh everyday life he’s living, however, we learn that’s not how he was coping. His visions of a better life were real to him and when he realizes they were only in his delusional mind, he eventually snaps and becomes the Joker.
Phillips was the perfect choice to co-write and direct Joker, and that’s not a compliment. All of his comedies are cruel and mean-spirited. He’s since moved away from comedy (because of his false idea that woke culture ruined comedy — there’s plenty of great and beloved comedy that isn’t cruel) and makes a major misstep by playing it safe and using many movie tropes to turn a man who needs proper healthcare into a psychopathic terrorist: society rejection, mental illness, bullying, and loneliness. Elements we all endure at some point in our lives. We’ve seen Joker the character countless times in various mediums of pop culture and there is no originality here. Joker is just a Martin Scorsese-obsessed exploitation of a sick man who is deemed a hero because he kills the wealthy.
Joker also has no moral compass and we only see this film through the eyes of the Joker. In other renditions, we see a moral side. It’s explained through storytelling and shows Batman’s or someone else with a moral compass’ point of view that Joker is dangerous, cruel, and thrives on chaos, and needs to be stopped. Philips omitted this on purpose and he fails to see why this is dangerous.
A lot of people love this movie (which is perfectly fine) because Arthur’s abuse and pain are scarily relatable. It’s OK to love the movie and feel for Arthur — I definitely did, my heart broke for him, but I draw a line with sympathizing when he stops caring and carries out his romantic fantasy that he’s finally being noticed and murders because he feels people will continue to notice and give shower him with love nobody else has. My sympathy evaporates when he becomes Joker.
There are movies out there similar to Joker that do a better job with characters suffering delusions of grandeur and are slippery with their emotions. One of the notes I scribbled down says, "If you have seen both Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, then you've already seen Joker.” Joker is derivative and pointless, as well as a complete waste of Phoenix's gift. Remove the clown paint and title, and it's a movie about a fragile man who’s hungry for attention but needs gentle and understanding psychiatric help. That's it — the end.