Make no mistake, Joker is not a whimsical tale of a classic villain meant to stir some sympathy in the viewer. Phoenix’s portrayal is of a poor soul’s last gasp before plunging into an eternal darkness.
Much has been made about Joker director Todd Phillips’ comments on the state of culture. Specifically, his comments having to do with the current cancel culture fervor sweeping the land. Phillips did not hold back in his statements, and anyone can refer back to his interview with Vanity Fair to see for themselves.
He doesn’t mince words, and speaks in direct language. This movie is his Vanity Fair interview turned up to eleven. There is no doubt in my mind that his comments didn’t sprout from a bad experience or two with liberal Hollywood producers. After watching Joker one can clearly see Phillips is keenly aware of the darker elements of the culture war. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn Phillips spends his time perusing Twitter, and other social media battlegrounds. This will be clear later.
I won’t bore you by recounting the first few scenes of Joker. I hate those reviews. They wet your beak with a frame by frame retelling of the first few minutes of the movie, and usually leave you hanging with something along the lines of, “And what happens next? Well you’ll just have to see for yourself…”
I’m not here to do that. Phillips is trying to tell us something about what he’s observed, and he’s done so with a movie that does little to spark your interest in a franchise complete with a toy line. He’s presenting you with a movie meant more as a cautionary tale. He’s telling you his vision of the worst-case scenario if the culture continues as it is, and he’s doing so by using a classic and—in many ways—beloved character. How many of us, after all, have found ourselves rooting for the Joker on a few occasions? Whether it was Heath Ledger’s “agent of chaos” in The Dark Knight, or the playful, and comical Joker of Batman: The Animated Series voiced by fallen hero Mark Hamill.
To say Joker is a fan favorite is a laughable understatement. But now we have a new portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime. Yes, Ledger’s Joker was hyper violent, and quite scary. Who wasn’t rattled when he roared at his poor victim, “Look at me!”? That being said, The Dark Knight still had Batman. You spent more time with Christian Bale, which gave you some respite from Ledger’s menacing madman. With that said, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is a true, and total monster.
In this movie Joker has a name—Arthur Fleck. Through Arthur you see the world through the eyes of a broken soul. He’s poor, he’s alone—save a mentally ill mother—and there looms a sadness in him that seems to know it will never get better. And, indeed, it doesn’t.
Rather than waste our
time with a man who is always looking on the brightside of things, only to be
met by the cold shoulder of the universe, we are given a man who is already
teetering at the brink. We don’t even have to wait very long for him to cross
the line into insanity. And while we are given a story of a man who has been dealt
the worst hand in the deck, he is undeniably a weak, and yes, useless man. A
man incapable of dealing with his anger and resentments in a healthy, assertive
way. A man with dreams, but absolutely no strength to make them reality, and
Phillips offers us a direct reason for this if one pays attention.
The fact is, Arthur Fleck
is a guy who undoubtedly needs a positive male role model in his life. This
isn’t my own speculation. There are multiple scenes and plot points we are
given that suggest a good father could have prevented the catastrophes we play
witness to. Whether it’s Arthur’s fantasy of bonding with his favorite TV
personality played by Robert DeNiro, or Gotham City’s resident billionaire,
Thomas Wayne (played by actor Brett Cullen to mimic a certain world leader). Fleck
is desperate to find some direction and guidance in life. And it’s not just
Arthur Fleck who is in need of a father figure. Gotham City itself appears to
be a city that could use a strong male role model to swoop in and tell everyone
to behave, and take out the damn trash.
Now allow me to explain why I call Phoenix’s Joker a true monster. Watching him, I couldn’t help but think of famed psychologist Jordan Peterson’s many comments and observations concerning incels, and other weak men. Men who never learned to stand up for themselves in a healthy way. Men who acquiesce to everyone around them until their resentment boils over into tragic acts of violent rage. Phoenix’s Joker is not so much frightening because he’s a murderous criminal. It’s because his origin and his motives feel so real that it’s not hard to imagine this exact story playing out in real life. And whose to say it hasn’t? I don’t know much about the home lives of serial killers and mass murderers, but I imagine at least some of them would continuously nod their heads throughout this movie.
Without ruining too much
it’s important to note Joker is only one rung below the psychotic ladder from
the rest of Gotham. One could argue the city itself is a character in this
movie. Like Joker, a large portion of Gothamites descend into a slightly lesser
madness. Political and social turmoil emboldens some of the town’s other
citizens to ramp up their social activities from harmless civil disobedience
into all out violence that doesn’t care who is to blame for their problems. The
parallels between this clown army, and present day antifa thugs is undeniable,
from their mutual hatred of those more successful than they, to their classic
tactic of goading others into confrontation so their comrades can sneak in some
Make no mistake, Joker is
not a whimsical tale of a classic villain meant to stir some sympathy in the
viewer. Phoenix’s portrayal is of a poor soul’s last gasp before plunging into
an eternal darkness. It is tragic, but also ugly and sometimes difficult to
Joker gets a thumbs up
from me, if only because it breaks from the Hollywood trope of romanticizing
insanity, and gives us instead a maniacal vision of a nightmare that can still
come to pass if our culture doesn’t turn it around soon.