By Michael of ThinkingMichael.com
A true work of art, and genius. I am tempted to give this film a perfect score.
All throughout, what we see as viewers is a blend of what really happens with Arthur Fleck (the main character), and with what he imagines. Oftentimes, it is outright revealed what the delusions are, but not always. In fact, it’s likely that the entire movie up to the final scene never happened, as the final scene implies. This is a film you can examine over and over, and still never be sure what’s ‘true’ and what isn’t. You could also examine this film a thousand times and still not be sure if Arthur is a bad person deep down, or if society made him that way. Almost any explanation, for anything we see, is open to interpretation.
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Part 1: What Just Happened?
What could be more fitting for a Joker movie, let alone a Joker origin story? Even after seeing his ‘origin,’ we still aren’t sure what we just saw, and we still aren’t sure if this guy was inevitably going to be Joker-esque regardless of his circumstances. Even after seeing where Joker came from, we still don’t really know.
We’ve had many tales of the Joker’s beginnings. Most of them involve a guy who simply falls into a vat of chemicals that give him a perfect clownish appearance, which I always found stupid, but DC has still never given us a definitive origin story for the character. This film, Joker, and The Dark Knight, seem to be the only ones that have done it correctly, in which the Joker purposefully gives himself a clownish appearance. A recurring theme, throughout all of Batman canon, is that the Joker became the Joker because of society. In The Killing Joke, which I personally never liked much (but everyone else does), the Joker tells Batman that it’s too late for him to be rehabilitated, which implies he wasn’t always this way but is now too far gone to ever be good again. In the video game Arkham Origins, the Joker tells Batman, “We both exist because of them!”
So, it’s safe to say that, regardless if the original man who became the Joker was mentally ill or not, it was still society that transformed him into the Joker. In fact, it’s debatable if the Joker is crazy or not. I’ve always thought of him as not crazy, and that he consciously carries himself as a parody of life itself. He sees himself as the embodiment of how ridiculous life itself is, especially when it comes to morals, standards, and law-and-order. It’s all a joke, he believes.
So, in this film, Joker, it undoubtedly is about a man who doesn’t have all his marbles, but that doesn’t inherently make him a bad person from birth. Arthur says in the film, “I’ve never been happy for even one minute of my life.” Now, is that because of his circumstances or because deep down he has always wanted to be a crazy killer? Whichever is the answer, you then have to ask, “Why didn’t he become crazy sooner?” Maybe it was the perfect sequence of events that specifically shaped him into the Joker, starting with the rich calling the anti-rich protesters clowns, then Arthur (in clown makeup) killing three rich people, then Murray Franklin specifically calling Arthur a “joker,” etc., etc.
So, maybe a combination of inevitability and the right events falling into place? Who knows? Who will ever know? For having so many answers from this film, we still have virtually none.
Part 2: It Had to be Set in Gotham
A lot of reviewers have said this film would have been better if it had no connection to the Batman universe. Basically, if it wasn’t about the Joker, but rather just about an insane guy named Arthur. I’ve heard, “This movie should have been called Arthur instead.” Well, I disagree with this.
Some cities in America, or really anywhere in the world, are shitty, but for any city to be as bad as Gotham is kind of unrealistic. Not to sound political or anything, but in truth, the rich can’t get rich in the first place if the other 99% have no money to spend. Money doesn’t work that way. Some cities are worse than others, without a doubt, but for any city to be so big and yet somehow completely divided between slums and mansions … is unrealistic. No city is so terrible that literally everyone is either homeless, a bully, or hiding from the other two. For this reason, I think Joker needed to be set in Gotham. Only in an unrealistic city can an unrealistic character like the Joker be born. We’ve already gotten a realistic depiction of a crazy person in a realistic setting, and that is Taxi Driver … as well as many others.
So, not only am I glad this film was set in Gotham, I also think it needed to be.
Also take some other aspects into consideration. Take Thomas Wayne’s murder for example. After Arthur (inadvertently) caused the poor to rise up and target the rich, for the rich bad-guy of the film to then be murdered simply for being rich, right in front of their son … that very much sounds Batman-origin-esque. Doesn’t it? Reviewers think a moment like that would have been better if it were not Thomas Wayne? But also take Arthur’s transformation into the Joker itself. He embraces a different persona entirely because it makes him feel alive, and free, and complete. He calls himself “Joker” because one of the many people who have beaten him down in life called him a joker. The whole point of the film is that Arthur transforms. He transforms into something that gives him everything he’s ever wanted in life. That’s not happenstance, it is the whole point of the film. So, take all these things together and what you have is a story that couldn’t be anything but a Joker story.
Part 3: Everybody Loses
This film does not sympathize with Arthur, and I’m going to explain that here. You feel sorry for him, and you even understand why he snaps, but the film doesn’t convince you, nor try to convince you, that his snapping is justified. The feeling I walked away with was that everybody loses. Arthur, the people around him, the city as a whole… Everybody. Nobody has a happy ending. I mean, where does Arthur end up? In an asylum. And it’s not like his actions brought about some revolution for the poor. We see that in the film, and we also know that because, well, it’s set in Gotham … before Batman appears.
Every violent action Arthur takes is set up in a way that shocks the audience. It’s gruesome, it’s hard to watch. In no way does the film glorify what Arthur does. I heard people (rather loudly) gasp when he shoots Murray Franklin at the end. It wasn’t cheers, it was shock. That’s clearly what the film wanted, and that’s how everybody reacted to it. Again, you understand what drove Arthur to do it, but it doesn’t make you happy that he does. It actually makes you depressed. When I was watching this film, the whole time I was hoping things just simply got better for Arthur and I was hoping he didn’t snap, even though I knew full-well that he certainly was going to snap.
Arthur had a chance at escaping his fate. Sophie, the girl he was stalking and fantasized being with, could have truly been his girlfriend had he done things a little less creepily. Being with her could have brought him back down to Earth. But it just adds to the tragedy of the story that he never got with her, and possibly even killed her? After breaking into her apartment, and he goes back into his own, we see/hear police sirens. We don’t know if he killed her for no reason, but it’s likely that he did. So, even being with a good woman couldn’t have helped Arthur, because his illness drove him to senselessly kill her.
Come to think of it, maybe the Joker, regardless of the story he’s in, actually is crazy. Just like Arthur in this film, there is no remorse for his crimes. After killing the three rich bullies on the subway, he admits to having felt great about it. Recall that Arthur ran to a bathroom after his first murder, and he does a slow dance as this feeling of satisfaction came over him. Good people regret their bad decisions, even if they think it was justified. Good people hate themselves when they accidentally take things too far. But Arthur only embraced it. He never set out to kill people just for the fun of it, but he certainly no longer had a sense of resisting if he wanted to do it.
It seems that Arthur was always doomed to become the person he eventually became. He didn’t get a happy ending; neither does anyone else. Everybody loses. This is why I believe it’s objectively true that the film does not justify or promote violence or uprising, because there is no victory for anybody in the end. It’s not a political movie, it’s simply a Joker origin story. Joker himself says that he does not have any political motivation.
Part 4: The Filmmaking
This film is beautiful, despite taking place in a filthy setting. The soundtrack is spot-on. The editing seamlessly blends Arthur’s delusions with reality, when we are or are not told what is imagined (again, we don’t totally know what is real or imagined). Best of all, the film makes you feel almost every negative emotion all at once – sadness, pity, fear, shock, and even confusion. Sometimes, I really wasn’t sure if I was supposed to laugh or feel bad about what I just saw. That, I believe, is the most genius part about the filmmaking. The Joker himself blends what is tragic with what is funny (to him), and with this film, we as an audience are sometimes confused as to what we should find funny or sad. Sometimes we know, but we are still conflicted. For example, when Arthur first goes on stage to tell jokes and he starts laughing uncontrollably. In that moment, it’s deeply saddening, but (at least for me), for the briefest moment at first, I almost started laughing too, but then I quickly became heartbroken seeing him struggle so much to live his dream. I both loved and hated that this film sometimes made me so conflicted, for however long or brief, about how to react to what I’m seeing.
When there is violence, there’s no over-the-top action music, there’s no stupid DA-DA-DAAAA, or anything like that. There’s no music at all with most of the violent scenes. That silence amplified the disturb, because it leaves you feeling stuck in that moment long after it’s over. In the apartment when he kills his former coworker, the silence makes you feel like you’re just sitting there in a room with a mutilated corpse. This all just makes me even more disgusted with the “journalists” who said this film glorifies or justifies violence, because it couldn’t be more obvious that the film actually wants you to be disturbed by what you’re witnessing, as if you’re there in the moment extreme violence takes place. What adds to the quality of the filmmaking is that all this combined with the fact Arthur says this violence doesn’t bother him at all, just further drives home what’s wrong with this guy. We, the audience, as normal human beings, are in shock, while Arthur feels more alive by it. No, this film will make people less inclined to violence, not more.
That dance Arthur does in the bathroom after committing his first murder was like a welcoming ritual, as if Arthur felt this dark spirit enter his body and he was fully embracing it.
Part 5: Arthur as the Joker
I can’t picture the character of Arthur Fleck as holding his own against Batman. I’ve heard other reviewers say this as well. Despite agreeing with them, I’d say it’s obvious that this film is only about the Joker being born, not about him being a full-fledged mass murderer. It’s the difference between a Freshman and a Senior, or being a new employee versus getting promoted to the Board of Directors. Every tree was once a seed.
Notice how Arthur’s condition – his uncontrollable laughter – dwindled down almost nonexistence the closer he got to becoming the Joker? The more he was happy, the more he felt alive, the more he felt he had control over his circumstances, the less of a problem he had with pretty much anything. He even became less delusional. He didn’t need to fantasize as much. Not to mention, his mental instability also lessened when he stopped taking his medications. Placebos exist, and confidence really does have the ability to improve one’s behavior. Mental illness is not as simple as everybody thinks, where you just have to take some pills and then you’re suddenly this or that. Mental illness is about everything in a person’s life, and brain development is only part of that. Sometimes there is no cure, sometimes the cure isn’t yet known, and sometimes the cure isn’t what you think. Sometimes, people don’t get cured, they just learn how to live with their illness. It’s not a simple, black-and-white subject. With Arthur, what I think is that the person he always was underneath just had more capacity to emerge once he stopped taking his medication, and what kicked that door wide open was when he committed his first murders. Sometimes it’s not mental illness; sometimes people really, truly are despicable deep down.
The Joker, to be the Joker, did need a push. No matter what incarnation of the Joker you’re talking about, I think his origin always involves getting pushed to that point. But at the same time, I think he is also a reprehensible person deep down. You have to be to become that level of evil. There’s just no circumventing that fact. Joker, the character as a whole, doesn’t spend a single minute of his life regretting his crimes, nor does he lose a single minute of sleep over it, and it is no different with Arthur.
Arthur, even at the end of the film, isn’t yet someone who is prepared to devote 100% of his time to creating chaos. This film is only about the monster that lied dormant finally waking up. Once it awakened, Arthur’s mentally instability diminished. The instability was only caused by society and his medications preventing him from being who he always was deep down. He was always a monster.
So, is Arthur a legitimate Joker, in the sense he could or would fight Batman? I think yes. Not at the very beginning of his Joker-hood, but in time, yes.
Conclusion: I love this movie. I hated the media trying to scare people into not seeing it (and much to my pleasure, not one person in my theater, and probably any theater, showed any fear of a shooting). I would recommend this movie to anyone who is not squeamish. It is not a comic book movie, it is a character study of a character who happens to have his origin from comic books. It’s the first comic book movie that is not a comic book movie.