Fans seem to love this film but critics are panning it and regardless of the camp you’re in, you have to agree Joker strikes some pretty sharp chords. I was able to see this movie this past weekend and, though I’m not a DC fan (I grew up on Marvel) I like comic book movies typically. This was not the typical comic book fare. Sure there were characters that were over the top, but much of the core cast was subtle. The acting was superb and the themes were relatable and understandable. I like the editing choices, some of the WTF moments were great (refrigerator… nuff said), and the writing was spot on. So why do the critics pan this film?
I think one issue critics take with Joker has to do with the mental illness angle. I think we should, as a society, normalize the mental illness conversation. Gone are the days when it was OK to have just a crazy villain. We’re a lot more savvy now and we know what mental illness is. Many of us are impacted by it. That being said, it should still be ok for the motivation of a character to be his illness. We see it all the time in the real world. Loner with a gun goes off and plans a murder or mass shooting. It’s just kind of how our world works these days. Knowing why does not make the actions any less reprehensible but knowing why does make the person who committed the atrocity human. Humanizing the illness or the action is not something “the media” is willing to facilitate while film has always been up to the challenge.
Film has always been a catalyst for society; An engine for change. Of all the disparate forms of mass media, Film still has something to say. Enter Arthur Fleck. He’s a down his luck literal clown who can’t catch a break. He’s got a neurological condition that causes inappropriate laughter…. something that actually exists…. and it’s hinted at that he suffers from schizophrenia , persecutory disorder, antisocial disorder, narcissistic psychopathy and a frontal lobe injury which might be the root of some or all of the others. The signs are not clear and, without studying mental illness and focusing on specific disorders, it would be impossible to portray. It’s easier for an actor or writer to take surface symptoms and apply those symptoms to a character without really doing a deep dive into the disorder. That being said, mental illness and society’s changing view of it make for a sympathetic attitude towards a character who had very little initial motivation in the comics.
The Joker was based on a character from a German impressionist film called “The Man Who Laughed” which itself was based on a tragic Victor Hugo novel of the same name. The character, Gwynplaine was disfigured as a child to pay for the crimes of his father and bore the garish grin that would come to be associated with the Joker. Gwynplaine was a true tragic figure. All he imparted on the Joker was the disfigurement. It was just the grin that informed the Joker’s schtick. He was not intended to be psychotic or a monster, just a clown themed criminal. In the 90’s, everything got really dark. He became fixated on the Batman and this whole yin-yang balancing act we still entertain today of the Joker’s chaos and the Batman’s justice took form. The Joker became more of a purposeful serial killer than a trickster who’s tricks might kill. In the naughties, (the double aughts?) the Joker needed explanation and we had more stories that painted the Joker in a humanizing light but leaned into the “crazy” angle. We even had a story where he cut off his own face and wore it like a mask. Yes…. that happened.
These days, we are seeking to find the root of our own illness through the Joker. I don’t think he was intended to be a realistic representation of what makes the Joker crazy or sick. I think he was a mirror on what it is that is eating America from the inside out. Hate, fear, violence, class-ism, etc. I noticed that there was very little sexism or racism in the film even through it was set in the 80’s when there was arguably more of both than there is today. I found that lack a little disjointing and I was pulled out of the period. That being said, none of the movie happened according to several theories floating around the internet. It all could have taken place in Arthur’s broken psyche. If that was the case, I think the whole thing would be a dream sequence cop out ahla Dallas season 9.
At the end of the day, the Joker was a film I would say I enjoyed. The Themes were interesting, and it was beautifully shot. I could have done with a little less of Joaquin Phoenix’s tighty whities and all the running he did made me think of a Tom Cruise movie and no one wants that. Otherwise, it was a cringingly enjoyable film.