Imagination Connoisseur, Willow Yang, shares her review of JOKER which – while not the perfect move – succeeds in creating something we haven’t seen in the theater in a while: a new take on a legendary comic book character.
After finally having seen Joker last Sunday, I’m sending over my thoughts on the movie. I will say right off the top that I really enjoyed Joker. Now, I don’t consider the movie to be a “masterpiece”; it didn’t exactly change my life, and I won’t consider it a snub if it misses out on a best picture nomination come the Oscars. However, it is a beautiful film that, in spite of the dark subject matter, is vivid and vibrant, and saturated with colour. Of course, Joaquin Phoenix is magnificent: he made the movie, and I was riveted every moment that he was on screen. I don’t know if there were any effects done on him, but he looks like he’s undergone a significant physical transformation for the role. He expresses himself not just through his face, but his entire body: he slouches and drags his feet in the beginning; he is upright and spry at the end; he twitches; he dances; he contorts. He is childlike at times; he is fragile and pathetic; he is seething with rage and frustration; he is ferocious and chilling.
And while I understand your criticism of this iteration of the Joker lacking the capability to go toe-to-toe against the caped crusader, that did not bother me for two reasons. Firstly, the movie, in spite of the title, isn’t really about the Joker; it is about Arthur and his gradual metamorphosis into the titular character. It was clear to me that he was learning throughout the story, slowly figuring things out and honing his craft, and it was only at the end does he reach the final stage of his evolution to fully emerge as the Joker. Secondly, and more importantly, ever since the first teaser, I knew that the movie wasn’t going to be a typical comic book story. I was prepared for something that was “Joker-esque”, that was going to explore how such a person might emerge in our world by taking elements from Batman lore without necessarily giving us the actual Joker per se. This Joker was not going to fall into a vat of acid because that would be ridiculous in real life; I thought it was ingenious that his laugh was explained as being an involuntary (and apparently real) pathological condition.
I would have been fine if this Joker did not survive the end of the movie, even if that meant he’d never face off against Batman; I just wanted a good character study, and I was satisfied in that regard.
Joker is certainly not a perfect movie. Probably my biggest issue is that I felt it was a bit heavy-handed at times in the first half. A lot of the antagonists in the film were pretty generic: a gang of unruly youths, a trio of chauvinistic morons, an a-hole coworker, and a condescending, elitist rendition of Thomas Wayne. I guess one way of looking at it is that the story was being told from Arthur’s point of view, and that was how he perceived the other characters. I also felt that the movie beat me over the head a bit with its depiction of just how horrible Arthur’s life was.
I found some of the plot points at the beginning to be a little predictable: I knew that Arthur was going to get beaten up multiple times, get fired from his job and lose his healthcare, because the story requires that his life falls apart. Arthur’s mental health issues were literally spelled out for the audience in his journal entries. I preferred when the film took a defter approach in depicting his troubles, such as the scene where he was observing the other comedians and laughing at the parts where nobody else was, and the laughing fit that he suffers on the bus, where he was clearly in pain and fighting against his own body.
I will briefly discuss the controversy surrounding Joker and its supposed sympathetic portrayal of a killer. Having seen the movie now, I personally don’t understand the connection to “incel violence” that some in the media have made. I never felt that any of Arthur’s hatred and rage was stemmed out of sexual frustration or resentment towards women. To me, the message of the film was blatantly one about income inequality and class warfare, the stewing hatred of the downtrodden towards the unsympathetic upperclass and the broken system that often allows people to fall through the cracks. If the movie had come out during the 2008 recession and Occupy Wall Street, I think that all the think pieces would have probably been very different. I cannot help but find it a little ironic that the controversy surrounding Joker has now led to some people applauding it for being anti-politically correct when the main takeaway message I got from the movie is the need for greater investment into social programs, particularly healthcare.
When it comes to violence, I personally found Joker to be much tamer than what some people in the media has made it out to be. The film is rated 14A here in Canada, which means “adult supervision required for children under the age of 14”. It is our version of a hard PG13 or a soft R. There was only one particularly gruesome act where Arthur exacts vengeance on an ex-coworker by stabbing him to death with a pair of scissors. However, the violence in the aforementioned scene, and throughout the entire movie, was never gratuitous or excessive; it was not made to look titillating or overly gory; it was very mundane, it was realistic, it was necessary for the story.
The movie for me was much more depressing than disturbing; I’m watching someone going on a slow, downwards descent into madness, and in the end, it is evil that ultimately triumphs. Joker is very much a tragedy; it is a cautionary tale about our society and how we choose to treat our weakest and most vulnerable members.
I will conclude my thoughts with some observations on the incredible financial success of Joker. I’ve had the fortunes of watching the movie with two friends from high school (it is the reason why I was so late in seeing it: it was difficult for us to find a time where everyone can meet up). Neither of my friends are big comic book fans; in fact, one of them, after the movie, asked me about the significance of the scene where the Waynes got shot because she wasn’t familiar with Batman’s origins. Both of them still really enjoyed Joker however, in particular, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, the plot twists and ambiguity of certain events, and the commentary on healthcare and funding for the mentally ill. I’ve overheard several of my colleagues discussing the movie at work and all their theories on what actually happened, what was real and what wasn’t.
On the surface, Joker didn’t look like a particularly accessible movie to the general audience: it isn’t an action-packed spectacle like Avengers, but a slow character piece with some heavy subject matter. Yet, it appears to have touched a nerve with moviegoers with a message that, while a bit clunky and heavy-handed at times, is nevertheless highly relevant and universal. It is a movie that manages to successfully reflect society and express our current sentiments. Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?