Joker was built up to be something of an event. It was a controversial movie, possibly dangerous. There were the rumors leading up to its release that it might inadvertently encourage angry loner types who took out their frustrations by acting out in violence. While putting aside these concerns, there was the draw card of a live-action origin story for Batman’s greatest nemesis.
I was curious. Was it an act of irresponsible film-making? Or, on the other hand, was it perhaps… good?
My opinion on that latter question is that it is not and I’ll talk about that in a moment. However, as to whether or not it was an irresponsible film, I feel it was but not for the reasons one might expect.
It didn’t, in my opinion, glamorize the main character Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix) nor did it condone his acts of violence. Indeed, Fleck is as pathetic and unglamorous as they come. Through the lens of the movie, we are invited to pity him but not to sympathize. The crimes he commits are abhorrent and portrayed as such. And through a late reveal of the fact—hinted at earlier—that Fleck is an unreliable narrator, we learn he is even creepier than we’d at first thought. Fleck is a monster and the movie doesn’t pretend otherwise.
The irresponsible aspect however is how regular citizens are portrayed. If you’ve seen the trailer for the movie, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that Fleck’s violent deeds inspire regular citizens to don clown masks and riot. We see in the movie that this is how the discontented, the have-nots, act out against those who take from them. The government. The wealthy.
The problem here is that the discontented are an in-movie representation of all of us, the ninety-nine percent. Butterflies on the wheel of unchecked capitalism and corporate government. That’s a pretty serious social issue for a movie to take on.
Now whether or not this movie alludes to our collective lot intentionally, I’m not sure. But it does so without any regard to real life or consequences. The message I read in this movie was that we the ninety-nine percent are an unruly mob and the wealthy elite need to keep us in place or we’ll turn into savage animals. Yes, I concede that the movie doesn’t exactly let impersonal government policies or wealthy fat cats get away without some criticism but it’s too little when weighed up against the unruly mob scenes.
However, let’s put aside any agenda or messages in the film and take a look at how well it works just as a film. Visuals are great and the Gotham City of this movie has a real, grimy lived-in quality. The score is effective at heightening tension at the appropriate moments. And of course, Joaquin Phoenix knocks it out of the park with his performance, giving us the definitive portrayal of poor old sad Arthur Fleck.
And therein lies the biggest problem with the movie.
It's an Arthur Fleck movie, not a Joker movie. At no point in the film does the main character become the Joker—nor can he in the future. He becomes increasingly violent, true. He murders people. But he isn’t cunning enough to become the arch nemesis of the dark knight detective. He’s just too weak and pathetic to be that kind of villain. And in a movie titled Joker, that’s a bit of a problem.
So in the end, Joker isn’t the violence-inciting movie that people were worried about. But with mixed messages and an origin story that doesn’t work, it’s no masterpiece either.