Joker, Sad Clown: The Movie

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker
Image Source: Warner Bros. Pictures
Heavy Spoilers Bar

To date, there have been four different Jokers to debut on the big screen, each with an entirely different flair. Jack Nicholson played Jack Napier, he had bad facial prosthetics but Tim Burton revolutionized the world of Batman with his gothic-industrial interpretation, so no one cared. Then came the late Heath Ledger. His performance was powerful but hyper-stylized. So much so that his incarnation felt foreign, but in a profound way. Jared Leto took a stab at the role in 2016’s Suicide Squad. Due to script retooling, he was robbed of screen-time. Truthfully, audiences may never know how good or bad his version would have been – but the forehead tattoo wasn’t a visual feature any movie-goer really appreciated. Not his fault. It wouldn’t be long until either Leto got his sophomore outing or DC decided on another actor to embody this iconic entity. Joaquin Phoenix was not an obvious choice, but he was undoubtedly the right one. In a culture that forces you to pick between this or that, know that all versions of this character have an important space in the scope of comic book history. But Phoenix did something with the character in Joker that is remarkable. Something different. And something people should be talking about.

Sad Clown: The Movie

Todd Phillips’ Joker is a breathtaking accumulation of stylized comic lore and incoherent ramblings from a terrifying failed comedian. Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, a brand-new alias for the Joker. In the realm of origins, most typically the Joker’s true identity is unknown. Attaching a name to the character is risky, but in this case, it adds depth. Phoenix’s delivery is incredibly realized. It’s equal parts captivating and unsettling. Superhero (or supervillain in this case) films have to walk a fine line. In 2019, these films must feel human, we rely on their reliability and often praise them for groundedness. But they also have to be fantastical, a least a little bit. Their source material is born from masks and tights, and audible plan revelations from a tongue and cheek bad guy. Without color and a little cheese, the genre feels dry. 

Even more than a solid narrative (which is questionable in some aspects), it’s Phoenix that champions every single scene. His character is entertaining to watch, but not very relatable. He’s entirely unhinged and completely unreliable as a narrator. It’s questionable if the Joker even trusts his own inner dialogue through the duration of the film. The eerie part is, we all kind-of know a Joker. He’s that guy at the back of the bus, the kid in school that never quite fit in. Arthur is naturally “othered” almost by life itself. You feel compelled to be sad for Fleck, until he guns someone down, and you immediately question your own sense of morality. ‘Jokers’ are like onions, they have layers (Shrek misspoke). Even more so than ‘Jokers’, Phoenix has layers as an actor. No disrespect to Ledger who is popularly regarded as the “best Joker” but his iteration lacked explanation. This is largely because we got 50-some-odd minutes with Ledger compared to a full damn movie this go-round. But the deep-dive into a character psyche, especially one as complex as the Clown Prince of Crime is pivotal. So maybe it’s overall pretty unfair to compare Joker cameos to full front-to-back storylines, but I digress. The extra screen time drove emotionality and left me feeling like although I don’t want to pick a favorite, this one might be it anyways. 

Sad Clown: The Movie, Feat. New Costume & Mean City

Joker makes a smile with his fingers.
Image Source: Warner Bros. Pictures

Coming from an honest standpoint of someone who doesn’t love a drastic costume redesign I admit — I really liked it. The new face paint is familiar enough to embrace but different enough to stand out. The hue of the suit is redder, and melds so beautifully with the yellow and blue tones of the film. In my book, Batman The Animated Series still reigns supreme with their visual interpretation of Mr. J – but this one is right up there with it. 

Gotham City got an overhaul, too. After telling Bat-fans for years how downtrodden and corrupt it is, this is the first time movie-goers get to really see it for ourselves from a socio-economic vantage point. The system keeps the little people in place, the powerful on top, and the mentally ill cast aside. 1980’s Gotham mirrors real life, except for the clowns. Well, in 2017 when clowns were showing up all over America for no reason at all, so it’s actually… very much like real-life. *hard gulps at the uncomfortable notion* Anyways, there is something very Trumpian about Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), and the way in which he conducts himself. It’s definitely on purpose, and really paves the way for a society that leaves a window open for figures like Joker and Batman. 

It’s clear to see how Bruce might feel compelled to make up for his father’s shortcomings. In turn, Thomas Wayne also ignites the fuse that sends Arthur further into madness. The Joker feels the need to combat the construct Thomas has set in place, defying his parental figure as revenge for abandonment, if Thomas is his father at all? That much is unclear and largely doesn’t matter. Arthur is positioned against the Wayne family, and that is a cornerstone seed that defines where the story goes from that moment on. The forethought that went into supplying the framework for a world that needs Batman’s yin to the Joker’s yang was deep. They now have a much more defined reason to be at odds and that deserves to be recognized. Forget being enemies by happenstance, now their rivalry is an epic, generational saga. Your family reunion could never.

Sad Clown: The Movie, Lies To The Audience

Arthur Fleck laughing at the comedy club.
Image Source: Warner Bros. Pictures

If we’re examining the story, Joker is not the world’s strongest film, but it serves every purpose it sets out to achieve as a self-contained, one-off outing. Does the movie feature abandoned plot points like the ‘super rats’? It sure does. Do we kind of lose a little bit of richness in having to question what is going on all the time? It’s almost like, if everything isn’t real (allegedly) what is the point of watching this movie? Arthur just kind of lunks through life, with one bad thing after the next happening to him. There’s no fire under his feet propelling his sinister actions, except for kind-of being unlucky as a person. Alternatively, I believe that to be the point of Joker

The audience is supposed to ask questions and revel in the madness of half-clarity. It’s a descent into the persona that throws Gotham into a chokehold. This film is a character piece about a man with fluctuating and juxtaposing traits. There is irony in trying to be too critical about a movie that isn’t always being critical of itself. When it is being critical – it’s posing big questions and answers them swiftly. And then other times, it’s like whatever you think is correct, could be correct. It’s almost as if Joker is laughing in the face of the critics as an encore gag. Try as you might to comprehend and find meaning, the conclusion you draw is your own. If you don’t understand, that’s OK, no one does? Not even Phoenix. Not even Todd Phillps. Not even DC. But that one guy at your local comic book store who may or may not shower — he understands. You can bet your ass, he understands.

Sad Clown: The Movie, With An Ending That Fans Fight Over

Although Joker seemed to tie itself up in a concise little bow with a blood smile smeared across Arthur’s face, that wasn’t the epic conclusion. It kind of kept almost ending, and I wasn’t the only one in the audience wondering how the story would wrap. I didn’t want it to, but I was interested in the closing sequence, I knew it was going to have to be poignant. The movie closes with Arthur in Arkham “Not Asylum Because This Is A Realistic Take” Hospital, talking with his therapist. The time is 11:12. While the therapist talks to Arthur, the sequence is intercut with clips of the Wayne family being gunned down on the night Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) died. We never find out who carried out their murder, but they’re undoubtedly one of Arthur’s agents of chaos and we know this because… clown mask. Arthur starts to laugh. When his doctor asks what’s so funny, he insists she would not get the joke. 

Sad Clown: The Movie, Theories

Joker dancing on stairs.
Image Source: Warner Bros. Pictures

There is a lot to unpack here. 

Theory One – At the beginning of the film, Arthur is in his therapist’s office, the time is 11:11. When the film ends, it’s 11:11 (this time actually occurs three times in the film). It’s quite possible that these are different days and the clocks are mere coincidence. But if they are not, did the entire film take place in the realm of Arthur’s imagination? I hate this theory, I don’t even want to go explore the idea, because this notion undercuts every moment the audience digested. The thought feels like a cheat, so I don’t put any stock in it. 

Theory Two – Arthur is laughing because the joke is life itself. He began the film with a therapist and ended it the same way. He was never in a better or worse scenario, even with committing multiple murders and raising hell across Gotham. He was still mentally ill, as good as alone, and disenfranchised. Existence is the joke, and people who don’t live in the manner that Arthur does could never truly understand why that’s “funny”. It’s substantial messaging and probably the overall purpose of the movie, but it’s not my go-to theory either — because I don’t think that the last scene of the film is necessary to drive this bullet point home. We get it. Society did this.

Theory Three – In my opinion, the last scene is a flash-forward. This take is supported by Arthur’s hair looking a little more groomed and less green. Let’s assume it’s been a few years and he’s already gotten out of Arkham, maybe this go-round, a newly-emerged Batman has brought him back in. Arthur is reminiscing back to the night he was incarcerated and it hits him. Arthur inadvertently was the cause of Thomas and Martha Wayne’s death, therefore creating the Batman…who is Bruce Wayne. A hero trying to save the city he loathes. The underbelly of Gotham sculpted the Joker and now, the caped crusader is the reaction to Arthur’s existence. An existence Fleck had questioned and hoped that would be more impactful only in death. But now it certainly has meaning, in every single way he never wished it to. Now Arthur must combat against this do-gooder, just as he did Thomas Wayne. He laughs; because the irony of his life is far too complex for his therapist to understand. The identity of Batman is Bruce Wayne, and the punchline is, it’s his fault. 

All of these interpretations could be wrong, though. The simple point(s) of the movie is/are Joker had the odds against him, and he is bad and might have always been. Maybe not. Other people are to blame for being awful? There are a lot of varying points. It’s a “Choose Your Own Adventure” in terms of your personal meaning. And we…take that for what it is.

My personal takeaway was that: if the movie takes place in let’s say, 1983-ish (it’s never stated specifically), Arthur is around 31 years old, Bruce is around 10. By the time Bruce becomes Batman, even a very young Batman at 18, Arthur will be almost 40. When Bruce is 28, Arthur will be approaching 50. Does that make the Joker a more experienced, nuanced, 401k-wielding supervillain, or just easier to beat at hand-to-hand combat? He kind of seems already frail at 31? Keep the gun, Arthur. Chances are, you’re going to need it. The movie didn’t even touch on this point. But this is what I thought about the entire time, so this is how the article ends.

4 stars

What was your favorite scene in Joker? Let us know in a comment below.

Joker is in theaters now

Leave a Reply