Conceptually, giving the Joker a backstory is a little like giving us an origin for Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers. It provides unnecessary explanation, and serves to demystify the character. With the latter two characters, as with Bond antagonist Ernst Stavro Blofeld, there is now product out there amply demonstrating that we were better off knowing as little as possible. With Myers and the Joker in particular, they are inexplicable forces of nature, with the latter wedded to the randomness of chaos. On this basis, an origin story may not be the best idea.
Yet, there is precedent for this. The 1988 Alan Moore one-shot The Killing Joke gave us a backstory of the Joker as a failed stand-up comedian, who gets caught up in a failed crime (under the Red Hood persona). That incarnation was a married man, desperate to provide for his pregnant wife. The kicker to all of it being that the character himself casts doubt on the veracity of the flashback when he says “If I have to have a past, then I prefer it to be multiple choice.”. Similarly, in The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s version of the character has multiple different stories to explain his scars. The character backstory can work if the film embraces both the one-shot concept – treating the story itself as apocryphal, or at least not wedded to any ongoing continuity. How Joker handles this essential truth is key to assessing its success.
Set in 1981, Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an outsider living with his frail mother, and working for a clown agency, visiting children in hospital, advertising outside stores etc. His mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), writes continually to former employer Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen – and, yes, father of Bruce Wayne) looking for support more than 30 years after she ceased working for him. Most evenings she and Arthur enjoy watching the Murray Franklin Show, a Johnny Carson-style show presented by Murray (Robert De Niro). Arthur is on a range of medications for his mental health, and it soon becomes clear mother and son both have an extensive history of psychological problems. On the side Arthur has ambitions to become a stand-up comedian (a clear reference to The Killing Joke), though his attempts don’t go well, even coming to be mocked on TV by his beloved Murray Franklin.
A perfect storm hits Arthur, as he loses his job, the funding stream for counselling and his drugs is pulled, and he learns uncomfortable details about his mother. With society mocking him – exacerbated by a chronic spontaneous laughter condition that hits whenever he is stressed or nervous – and the medication that serves, somewhat, to centre him having run out, Arthur descends into ever more unpredictable and violent behaviour, as this film’s version of the character so well known to the world begins to emerge.
It’s important, at this point, to acknowledge the debt this film owes to the 1983 Martin Scorsese film The King of Comedy (though in violence level and tone this is more akin to Taxi Driver). That film starred De Niro as an aspiring stand-up who develops an obsession with a late-night talk show host (played by Jerry Lewis). As the obsession develops, he is willing to go further and further to advance his career by getting on that show – all the while failing to see the erratic nature of his behaviour. It’s fair to say that were we to remove the canon of Martin Scorsese – and those two films, in particular – then Joker could not, and would not, exist. This alone would prevent the film from achieving any kind of legendary status. It’s been done (and done, arguably, better). Watching this is a little like watching Birdman, where they were all so proud of the faux one-take approach, seemingly unaware Alfred Hitchcock had done it a full 66 years earlier, with Rope. Pride is a dangerous thing – but an occupational hazard – in an industry with a long history but a short memory.
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The film looks terrific – or, rather, it looks appropriate – as it captures that 70s auteur vibe. The scoring is wonderfully eclectic, mixing mournful strings and understated percussion. The film is set-up to induce discomfort, and it does so successfully. Into this is placed an emaciated Phoenix, complete with many shots of his ribcage. It’s not only evoking the long and lean, otherworldly figure of the comic books, but reflecting both the poverty of Arthur’s life, and the slightly alien presence he has. Before returning to our lead, it is worth saying that this film has the most engaging depiction of delusion and false perspectives since, perhaps, Fight Club.
Phoenix creates a persona that leans on few, if any, previous live-action versions of the character. The laugh is somewhat tragic, as it catches in the throat, on occasion, as Arthur desperately tries to stop it. The stand-up scene is, perhaps, the most uncomfortable in the film, as his dreams die in public (we know the more comfortable end of that piece is a delusion). He’s the least “crazy” but most severely mentally distressed incarnation of the character in live-action. If there’s one complaint, his performance in the final scene with Murray needed to be played… bigger.
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On that, the dialogue of that scene will be what detractors will have been pointing to when they accused this of being a manifesto for incels. Whilst that is hyperbole, it is a film comfortable with the implication that society’s lack of care for its underclass created the conditions for the Joker to emerge. That the film points to this, rather than simply, once again, equate mental illness with heinous acts, does at least offer the opportunity for audiences to debate these things. The final scene is on the nose, but the themes raised are not to be shied away from.
Joker is an interesting step for DC on film. Comic book readers are used, often, to having more than one main continuity, with occasional one-shots and prestige offerings coming along outside of those continuities. This film sees itself as the latter. That slightly obnoxious sense of self importance costs it, just a little, in this rating, as it is doing only what was fairly common in 1970s cinema. Where it does offer an interesting spin is in bringing that era of cinema and wrapping it in the skin of the most commercial genre we have in 2019. This is not the Batfleck universe (the year is correct, but the details in a key scene are decisively different), it is an alternate version – and we’ll assume not the forthcoming Matt Reeves take either. This suggests DC will be embracing variety – something suited to a more director-led approach than Marvel’s producer-driven universe. If it has one final flaw, only at the end does it find what it really wants to say, then essays that into yet another replaying of that scene. These are, however, nitpicks in what is a terrific cinematic experience.