Most of us do our best to avoid people like Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). Their raw needs make us uncomfortable. We fear their loneliness and asocial behavior might be catching. We know we lack the ability to really help them. So we stare straight ahead at the stoplight. We cross to the other side of the street. We keep our heads down in the hallway of our apartment complex. Don’t make eye contact. Let the sickness pass.
To watch Joker is to stare the sickness in the face. The film is a disturbing experience. We are not used to spending time with these kinds of characters anywhere, even at the movies. We are even less used to the movie’s sympathies being with them. Usually they are presented as objects of derision or as monsters. Arthur Fleck/Joker’s story as presented in this film is an emetic experience, a spiritual sinkhole.
The one mollifying aspect of Joker is its need to tie into the Batman mythology. Constant references to Gotham City, the Wayne family—as well as a nonsensical coincidence at the film’s climax—undercut any satirical edge the film feigns. (There’s a lot of that, by the way. Joker pokes at contemporary society with a sea urchin’s specificity.) It is difficult to take any of this too seriously when it is so resolutely stomping toward such a well-known costumed quantity.
That’s not to suggest that comic media can’t take on complex subjects. Comic media has shown itself to be better suited to tackling mythic ideals than it is to handling current events. Warner Bros./DC has stated that Joker is not meant to tie into any greater Batman continuity. Then why does it tie itself in knots trying to, I wonder? Another escape clause, perhaps, to placate the shareholders? A way to distance the company from Joker’s cynicism? Forgive the tautology, but you can’t take something seriously without taking it seriously. A Joker movie about the psychological urges the character represents is a different film than a Joker movie about the origin of the character. You can’t have it both ways. Joker tries. To land something like this, you’ve got to have conviction.
The only conviction in Joker is in Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. The—note the article—Joker is a big character. Phoenix gets the bigness, but more importantly, he finds all the small moments and subtle changes that build up into that big character. Phoenix divines Arthur Fleck, the abused-by-literally-everyone shell of a man whose breaking point is when his idol* calls him a “joker” on television. As always, Phoenix is electric. (Joker also leeches a little moral weight from references to two of Martin Scorsese’s** collaborations with Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. This is mere pastiche. )
I wish I could be all in on Joker. I wish I could laud it as a searing examination of people on society’s margins, an excoriation of the societal failures that pave paths of violence for people like Arthur Fleck. I could “amen” that kind of prophetic critique. But every time the movie begins to be affecting, it takes a step back, as if it doesn’t really matter. There’s a cynicism in that I cannot cheer. Real people do hurt like this, and the world need not be this ugly. I feel a need to declare that, because ultimately Joker so adamantly argues otherwise.
*SPOILER – The scene were Fleck appears on the talk show is the best scene in the movie from the Batman mythology point-of-view. It’s the only scene that initially feels like something you might see in another iteration of this character. Taking over a talk show is totally something the Joker would do. The best Joker moments in all his iterations are when you feel like he’s operating a step ahead of his intuition, like he’s realizing the potential of the moment and catching up to it a breath quicker than everyone else. Phoenix and the film get that in that scene.
**Scorsese was attached to this film as an Executive Producer very early on in its production. I’ve long believed it was a marketing ploy, that they paid Marty to use his name, and he needed the money to pay back his investors on Silence. I have no proof of this. The timeline just works, and that kind of thing is typical in Hollywood. Plus, they are so liberally borrowing beats from his famous films, maybe they feared a lawsuit? Probably not, but the thefts are obvious. Additionally, it is possible that Scorsese’s recent critical comments about comic book movies are his way of distancing himself from this project which his name was once attached to. It’s also possible that it’s all just a coincidence of algorithms and social media and Scorsese having a new film on the horizon. No press is bad press.