Joker tries to have its cake and eat it too

There are movies you watch, and as time goes by, you start to like them more, simply by reflecting on them. There are also movies that you start to like less as time passes. For me, Joker (2019) is one of those movies. Not as severely as Interstellar (2014) or Prometheus (2012), mind you. Those movies I thought were kind of okay when I first watched them, but having some time to process, I concluded they are utter nonsense.

No, Joker is a finely crafted movie that has the greatest care and attention for its characters and story. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is amazing, and I think he rightly deserved the Oscar. It’s beautifully shot and directed, with funny, dramatic and shocking scenes. Quite an accomplishment.

Something about the movie made it not work for me though, but I can understand all those people who love it. It took me a while to figure out what makes it fail for me, but it somehow has to do with the central innovation in the Joker’s story. Although there are many origin stories around, which seems to be fitting, the general gist is typically something like that the Joker was just some ordinary schmuck down on his luck who had one really bad day. The definitive story is perhaps Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, which is a great read and I can recommend it to anyone. The point is that the Joker is usually depicted as just some ordinary guy who cracks and becomes the insane Clown Prince of Crime.

Joker, however, goes for another tack entirely: Arthur Fleck is mentally ill right from start. He’s abandoned by a system that seems to care less and less for its citizens. Arthur doesn’t crack so much as he slowly descends deeper into his insanity. In the background, he becomes an unwilling symbol for the political unrest in Gotham city. The movie ends with a Jesus-like resurrection – he is actually laying in the crucifix position on the hood of a cop car – to a cheering riotous mob wearing Joker masks while the city burns.

What is this movie trying to say? It gives the very strong impression to have some sort of political message. If you’re a left-leaning person, you might see the setting of the movie as representing class struggle and revolution; civil unrest is inadvertently fomented by the greed of the powerful. If you’re a right-leaning person, you might see the movie as a warning about the dangers of civil unrest; an affirmation that the people need to be governed with a firm hand.

At the same time, Joker is trying to provide a character study of Arthur Fleck and his transformation into the Joker. Arthur would have to be some kind of unique and exceptional character to warrant such a focus. Why would Murray specifically invite Arthur if there’s ten other guys just like him? And just so: in the movie he’s considered strange and weird, he has fantasies of being accepted by the public. At the same time, Arthur claims that he’s not political and doesn’t believe in anything. He’s just angry with a society that’s rudely rejected him. Maybe that’s the true political message of the movie.

On the one hand, then, the Joker is presented as a symptom produced by the system. On the other hand, the Joker is supposed to be unique. And that’s where the movie fails for me. Either the system produces Jokers by the sack full or the one true Joker has a unique and interesting origin story.

Joker fails to resolve this tension and so we end up with a wonderful and quite possibly gripping movie that falls short of being excellent. I would recommend Joker, but there’s other movies I’d more heartily recommend. One such movie is Falling Down (1993), which is perhaps the greatest movie about a Joker-like character ever made. Incidentally, it does depict our everyday schmuck who has a really bad day and snaps – the more “traditional” Joker origins. Falling Down handles the tension created by the system-vs-character perfectly. Give it a go.

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