Updated: Oct 28, 2019
By Derek May:
“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.