image credit: Warner Bros

Movie Review: Joker (2019) ****

Joker was too political in its moment to be evaluated on its own merits. The PR around Joker’s release turned into an arm of Trump-era pre-pandemic culture war. Joker, both the movie and central figure, were claimed as icons of right-wing reactionaries. Being part of the left-leaning internet, I mostly saw analyses talking about how much incels loved it. It didn’t feel at the time like anyone was actually watching the movie.

But basically, if you wanted to be a libertarian neckbeard pissing off SJWs for the lols, you associated with Joker (often seen alongside memes like Pepe); if you were mostly trying to survive these guys, then you were following Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn redemption journey instead.

Now that we’re five years out from the mess of its Discourse, it’s easier to see that Joker is just a character piece akin to Taxi Driver wearing Batman clothes. Fleck’s journey is one of a man let down by society and his mother, the only two possible support systems he has, and gets real revengey about it. The revenge element, and knowing what power the Joker gains as a crime boss after the end of the movie, certainly makes this an appealing fantasy for a certain kind of person.

Does Joker intend to appeal to right-wing reactionaries? I don’t think so. Does Joker do anything to dissuade bad behavior from such reactionaries? Also no, but Joker’s bad behaviors and public shootings are not narratively approved. They are only *Joker* approved, and the movie can’t say anything Joker doesn’t think by virtue of its close POV.

This falls into the trap of any character piece about a villain: when you take a sympathetic and aesthetic look at bad guys, you give irl bad guys someone to misinterpret.

My biggest issue with the movie is that I personally don’t like incarnations of Batman’s Joker which give him a back story. I have never liked Red Hood. I wouldn’t even acknowledge The Killing Joke if Babs hadn’t spent so much time as Oracle thereafter. My preferred Jokers play into his role more like a chaos-entity, like the mischievous Coyote of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, emblematic of themes and serving as a mirror to Batman/Bruce Wayne’s character issues. Turning Joker into an actual person takes away the arcane magic of the Batman mythos.

I don’t mind this Joker backstory too much. It doesn’t feel like a real Batman-universe movie, really. It’s an adoring homage to cinema that appealed to a trend of comic book movie dominance in order to get funded.

Enormous narrative tension surrounds both literal and metaphoric loaded guns, which you know must fire, but not when or how or who will catch the bullet. The close POV with an unreliable narrator means having no clue which parts of the movie are real until you get the perspective of a conclusion. You can sense that Arthur’s making things up, but the seamless slip through his version of reality and actual reality makes it difficult to grasp the difference. Truth doesn’t seem all that important after a while.

The editing and score have a gorgeous confluence, evoking some of Nolan Batman’s rhythms and grit but without any of the action. The style is beautiful to look at, in a horror movie way; Gotham’s 80s NYC wear-and-tear has been rendered in stark shadows and shocks of virulent neon.

The performances are outstanding. If you’ve never understood when someone says “the actor disappears into this role,” Joaquin Phoenix manages to do it with Arthur Fleck here. His development of Arthur Fleck is really such great work, hand-in-hand with director and writers who take great care to show us that Joker is actually a really bad guy and his barely sufficient healthcare really was keeping him from turning into a monster. It’s a fun approach to the king of the Batman Rogue’s Gallery. Batman’s rogues are so traditionally representations of mental illness and trauma that they literally go to an asylum instead of jail when caught. But Joker’s really, really just a Very Bad Man.

I agree it’s easily read with bad motives, too. It felt more irresponsible to release a movie so easily appropriated by right-wing reactionaries in 2019 when Americans were suffering under a chaotic orange clown in the White House. But within itself, on its own rules, Joker doesn’t have to say anything about that — it just has a terrible sense of humor and legendarily bad timing for its political moment. Arthur Fleck couldn’t have done it worse himself.


What I personally find irresistible about Joker is how I relate to Arthur Fleck’s early movie struggle with his “mental illness.” I saw the movie not too long after my stay in a mental hospital. The healthcare system in my state was like participating in my own degradation for the betterment of my health. It meant spending a lot of time in very old buildings with peeling walls. It meant fighting side effects for medication that were sometimes worse than the illness itself.

My outcome was ultimately positive, but it felt bleak to trudge through. Fantasies constructed for self-preservation in such an environment can easily skew toward seeking a horrible catharsis. I don’t have the angry character of someone like Fleck, but I can *feel* it sometimes. The dangerous allure of leaning into the worst fantasies. This is a lot of the reason I also can’t resist Donnie Darko.

If the arc where Joker goes from being an infantilized fool into a serial killing kingpin mostly by stopping his medication doesn’t convince you to keep taking those meds, then maybe nothing will. (I’m kidding.) (Is it a joke? Would Arthur Fleck laugh?)

(image credit: Warner Bros)

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