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YIN/YANG REVIEWS: Joker / Ranking the Bat-Verse

Updated: Oct 28, 2019

By Derek May:

YIN: Joker

“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.”

The Killing Joke


Over the nearly 80 years since Batman’s greatest nemesis first graced the pages of Detective Comic books, those words by writer Alan Moore remain the closest we may get to understanding the maniacal, homicidal prankster known simply as “The Joker.” And for most of that time, readers and viewers have been satisfied with that. Part of the power of the character is his nebulous ambiguity, the fact that he seems more a force than an individual. Knowing too much seems a surefire way to tarnish his mystique. And so when it was announced that Warner Bros. was planning to produce a Joker origin story, like many a fanboy, I scoffed, bristled, and railed against the very notion. Then they announced that Joaquin Phoenix would play the Clown Prince of Crime . . . Are you kidding me?! And the film would be directed by the dude from The Hangover movies? . . .



But then I saw the first photos from set and started to soften—just a touch. Oh, it’s dark and gritty, with a 70’s vibe? Intriguing. De Niro’s signed on? Well, surely that’s a good sign. Then the first trailer hit. . . .


They got me again. I was all ready to hate this monstrosity, just like I was ready to hate Ledger, Bale, Affleck, Clooney . . . (ok, I was right on that last one). But damned if WB doesn’t have a knack for obliterating my preconceived notions. And now, after finally witnessing the birth of this version of the enigmatic Joker, I’ve never been happier to be wrong.

The movie is, quite simply, a work of art.


Borrowing heavily both cinematically and thematically from such classics as The Graduate, The Exorcist, The King of Comedy, and most especially Taxi Driver, the film is a deconstruction of the Man Who Laughs, exploring his traumatic life as a statement on class struggles, mental illness, and desperation rather than as an excuse to simply sympathize with a madman. That being said, early on we do indeed empathize with poor Arthur Fleck, a castaway even amongst the other dregs of Gotham City’s lowest rung. We can certainly relate to his situation, if not always to his psychological issues, and that’s an important point. As throughout most of his existence, the Joker is hard to pin down, but one thing that’s fairly clear is he’s a psychopath. He doesn’t have a conscience, doesn’t fit in with society or conform to its principles and, most importantly, doesn’t properly connect with the emotions of his fellow human beings.


This is explored in a variety of ways in the film, but one of my favorites was the way Fleck, a wannabe stand-up, dutifully jots down notes while observing one of his peers. He seems pleasantly bewildered by the audience’s reactions to a punchline, but doesn’t laugh himself, seemingly missing the joke. Instead he barks out that displaced cackle on the off-beat, proving his distance from the rest of the world. His humor is completely skewed, much like his perception, his emotions, and his understanding.


That laugh itself is put to ingenious use throughout the film as more than an affectation. For the first time, it’s something completely devoid of humor, a demon within him that bursts forth and causes him pain on a number of levels. To take something that iconic and turn it on its head is a stroke of brilliance and a fresh take on a character that, after eight decades, would seemingly have been wrung dry by now.

Instead, Phoenix’s performance provides enough layers to continue digging through multiple viewings. And yet, at its core, it is a somewhat simple tale of a man desperate to be noticed, to be accepted and loved, and yes, to make people laugh. Fate, it seems, has dealt Fleck one bad card after another, but at a certain point, he makes his own choices. While his numerous and varied afflictions and circumstances provide a rich and human character, at a certain point you can only understand, not excuse, his actions. As Fleck gives in to his homicidal nature, that sad and somewhat pathetic man evolves into something darker and, surprisingly, into an unlikely icon—a painted face for a movement that pits the downtrodden against the one-percenters.


That may seem like quite a transformation, and it is. To be able to legitimately pull that off is no small feat. And like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, Fleck is spurred by his own desires and a general disgust with the larger world around him until he’s set himself upon a course with no return. That commentary is central to the narrative, as the upper crust, embodied by Batman’s pre-murdered father Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), is pitted against a lower class distressed, angry, and ready to rise up at the call of a figurehead ready to stick it to the man. Director Phillips ratchets up the tension ever so slowly over the course into a final crescendo. In fact, the further Arthur descends into his own internal madness, the more intense the outside pressure becomes.


Alongside these already substantial forces is an underlying plot exploring Fleck’s background and potential place along that societal stratum. What initially concerned me as too broad a peek behind the curtain turned out to be one of the most delightful twists of the film. As with Ledger’s turn in The Dark Knight, we are left to wonder what is really true when it comes to the history of Arthur Fleck. To me, that’s a necessary element when dealing with the Joker, as his ambiguity is essential to the character. Phillips and Phoenix both, thankfully, understand this and somehow manage to give us more than we’ve ever gotten but never more than is needed.

This fine line runs through to every facet, from tone to commentary to characterization—and even to the level of violence. You can’t have a story of a homicidal maniac without a few victims. But the violence isn’t gratuitous or taken lightly. Requisitely intense, it’s all shot in such a way as to more often than not suggest the worst rather than actually show it. Horrific acts sometimes burst forth at unexpected times—not unlike Fleck’s laugh—punctuating stretches of quiet introspection. Similarly, Fleck’s spontaneous outbursts of dance mirror his quickening into something new, something above the restrictions of his job, his mother (Frances Conroy), and the very rules of the world at large.


While the cast is unsurprisingly at the top of their game, Phoenix deserves particular recognition. Considered something of a distant odd-ball himself, Phoenix dives deep to bring each minute element of Fleck to the surface. Losing over 50 pounds for the role, he often bears his twisted, emaciated body and writhes on screen with a sort of horrific delight. The hooked nose, crooked teeth, and hunched torso natural to the actor all seem perfectly suited to the role, as if born to play this man. As Fleck begins to wash away and the Joker steps into the spotlight, you can see the torment and toll the transformation has taken on both actor and character. Whether Phoenix was shooting for an Oscar or not, he’s certainly earned the right to a nomination. There’d be some cosmic symmetry should Phoenix join his friend Ledger in winning for the same role (take that Leto!).