Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is not Heath Ledger’s Joker.
The comparison falls short for a couple of reasons. First, Phoenix’s Joker, or Arthur Fleck, is set in the late-70s, early 80s. It is true to its narrative as a prequel, and character roots study, of the later Ledger-style Joker. Jared Leto’s Joker, in this author’s humble opinion, is not worth more than a mention here. Moving on.
This Joker film also makes us cringe and stare with morbid fascination at the underbellied nature of the character, as did 2008’s Dark Knight. That middle film of the Dark Knight Trilogy was, after all, just as much a Joker movie as a Batman movie (credit: Sean Larkin for identifying this in our discussions of the trilogy).
This is a return to the gritty, darker than dark film style of DC movies. Mercifully, it’s a distancing from the Batman Vs. Superman and Suicide Squad genre, which tried a little too hard to be like its Marvel counterpart.
But dark it is. I noticed in myself, as I watched the film, that an old tick returned. I counted touches of my teeth to seven (weird, I know) like I used to when I was younger, and more anxious. The scenes in Joker made me anxious! And not just for what was actually happening in the scenes, but also for the implications about humanity.
Of course, Joker is not reality, and probably only approaches so in the darkest, most desperate places of urban environments. But that doesn’t change the fact that humans created the character, imagined the scenes, and weaved this dysfunctional narrative about a broken soul.
It reminds me of reading, in high school, that Tony Hawk was scarred at a young age by Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. I can’t find the source now, but the famous skater said that he had probably seen it at too young an age. This of course, in my depraved humanity, inspired me to go and watch the movie. Tony was right–messed up.
And I’d have the same advice for people going to see this 2019 rendition of the Joker: don’t see it too young, and make sure you’re in a grounded state of mind before entering the theater.
This might seem a little dramatic, and I’m probably more “influenced” by in-theater movies than the average person. Seeing the latest Lion King a few weeks really inspired me to be my best inner-Simba! …I wish I was kidding. But there’s something about the surround-sound and lifelike picture that puts me in the character’s headspace. And I don’t think I’m fully alone in that.
I think the best word to describe how I felt most of the movie is offput. You’ve been warned.
With that being said, and with those disclaimers out of the way, I really enjoyed the movie. Albeit in a twisted sort of way. It was an incredible character study of a psychologically, physically and emotionally damaged man.
It proposes a couple universal questions about being human: How much can one person take, and to what depths can we stumble?
A couple more, now that I think about it: How do we treat those in need around us, and what do we assume about the (incredibly complex) backgrounds of those suffering in this life?
There’s much to be discussed about these themes, and about the Arthur Fleck/Joker character that is fleshed out in this film. But I said I’d avoid spoilers, so just go see the movie and then we can talk about it!
I would guardedly recommend doing so. If you’re feeling mentally strong, by all means. Just maybe have a long, calm meditative session beforehand.
As a tease, there is one main takeaway I had regarding the Joker’s actions in the Batman universe. It always seemed pretty unrealistic to me that the Joker would get locked up in Arkham Asylum all the time, only to escape as often (I learned this from a book I highly recommend, not from the video game). How could he escape a max-security prison so many times? And without going into specifics of this film, I got my answer. Joker evades social and punitive restrictions because he follows no norms of society. He’s a psychopath, yes, and a disturbingly effective one.
With that, I give the 2019 Joker 4 out of 5 stars, and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance a perfect 5.