Part of what makes the Joker one of the more memorable villains in comic book and pop culture history is his lack of an established, canonical back story. We have individual interpretations of how Batman’s arch nemesis and thematic foil came to be, but the whys of it all and the true motivations are not locked in. The Joker can range from simply a clown turned wacky criminal to a cold gangster schemer with a fondness for punchlines to an embodiment of pure chaos and nihilism.
There could be a litany of origin stories that could satisfyingly fit the profile. But perhaps not knowing what created the Joker is the most fascinating thing about him. Left to our imagination we can theorize any number of extreme scenarios that could push a man over the edge. Having him emerge fully formed out of the shadows is more menacing than anything a filmmaker with an interest in armchair psychology can give us. The mystery is much more captivating than the actual answer.
I’m gonna “cross streams” here but the Star Wars prequels suffered the same problem. Wondering about how Darth Vader came to be is much more interesting in concept than actually seeing it. And we already know the conclusion, so the suspense is never really there. Things are just not going to end well.
Right from the jump clown-for-hire and aspiring stand-up comedian “Arthur Fleck” (Joaquin Phoenix) is already a very sick, delusional powder keg. Systemic negligence and a series of devastating personal discoveries are compounded by a cynical, harsh Gotham City in a slump similar to ‘70s and early ‘80 New York City. Things go from bad to worse to homicidal. That’s pretty much it. It’s conventional to the point of dullness.
Todd Philips, best known for big R rated comedies like ‘Old School’ and ‘The Hangover’ never really narrows any of it down. Is it nature, nurture, modern life, or mental illness that created the beast? All of the above I guess. The attempts at social commentary are just as scattershot. Is it the government, society, our obsession with fame and validation? Just check all the boxes.
“Arthur Fleck” isn't a complete victim or a pure villain...and there certainly is no hero in this story. Phoenix displays so much turmoil and desperation that media fears the Joker would come across as cool anti-hero role model is just not possible for impressionable viewers.
Philips seems overwhelmed, almost never taking the camera off his star. It’s probably for the best. There’s not much here to work with outside of watching the always great Joaquin Phoenix melt down for 2 hours. Do NOT take the kids. In fact just skip it and watch ‘Taxi Driver,’ you know, the good version of this movie.
Chris Perucich, for Shelli Sonstein