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Joker Succeeds Amidst Controversy


Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, debuted in American theatres Friday, October 4. The AMC Theatre in Crawfordsville, however, ran the film one day before the official release date. My friend and I took two and a half hours out of our Thursday night (two hours for the movie, thirty minutes to debrief afterwards) to watch the anticipated film. As a casual filmgoer, I do not carry the intellectual capacity to critique films based on anything more than an education in THE 104 [Introduction to Film] with Professor James Cherry and my personal experiences. Therefore, I will present here what I consider a layman’s take on the film.

Interestingly enough, I was in THE 104 two years ago when I read an article claiming that Leonardo DiCaprio would play the Joker in a new origin story. A few months later, I was ecstatic to learn that Joaquin Phoenix was cast instead of DiCaprio as I am a humongous fan of Phoenix’s. Phoenix has been my all-time favorite actor even before Joker; I loved Walk the Line, Signs, The Village, Her, The Master, You Were Never Really Here, Inherent Vice, and Gladiator. And Joker just solidified Phoenix in that position.  

Joker is set in a 1981 Gotham City. Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, lives with his mother in a rundown apartment. Many social forces are in play when we meet Fleck: Gotham garbage truck workers have been on strike, causing trash to pile up on every street corner; citizens are becoming resentful towards the rich because of their increasingly-apparent and worsening impoverished lives; and crime is on the rise. While much of the movie revolves around Fleck, it also is a story of socioeconomic-centered realities, struggles, and protest in an underprivileged section of a large city which shape and are shaped by the actions of Fleck.  

Fleck starts as a man in his thirties that works for a rent-a-clown business. Scenes progress and Fleck’s state of mental health becomes obviously apparent to the viewer. Fleck is struggling with some mental illness(es). He sees a state-provided therapist every week. A series of unfortunate events takes a toll on Arthur which result in a vital scene I will not spoil. 

Turning-point scenes are scenes in which The Joker starts to peep out through Arthur. A true concern my friends and I had in preparation for this movie was that we believed no actor could rival the violence, charm, charisma, and just the “Joker personality” that Mark Hamill and Heath Ledger succeeded in creating. It wasn’t that Phoenix didn’t have the talent to do so, rather we were weary that the mentally-ill, frail, depressed, scared, and broken Fleck we saw in trailers could not transform into the confident and strong character Joker has come to represent. I started to cast doubts into my suspicions however when I saw the trailer where Arthur asks talk-show host Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro, to call him Joker when he comes on stage. If you have not seen the movie, watch the scene in the Joker trailer in which Fleck said, “When you bring me out, can you introduce me as Joker?” That is a turning-point scene. It contrasts the sick and fragile Fleck with the outgoing and purposed Joker. This is what makes Phoenix’s Joker different than the others.  

Joker’s Joker story, as compared to The Dark Knight and Batman: The Animated Series, is a story of a mentally-ill man, very slowly transforming into the traditional character we know. For any one doubting that Phoenix’s take on the character could not come close to Ledger or Hamill’s, I challenge you to genuinely compare the three side-by-side. They are all the outrageous, tactful, morally reprehensible, and violent Joker identity that has been ingrained into our perceptions of the character. 

Phoenix embodied the violent nature of the Clown Prince of Crime, which was the center of controversy surrounding the film. Many critics have scored Joker poorly because of the possible consequences of showing the film in theatres. The families of the victims in the 2012 Aurora, Colorado shooting, in which a man dyed his hair and killed families watching The Dark Knight Rises, spoke out against the film. Many people believe that Joker could be a catalyst for a deranged person to commit an atrocity because of its sympathetic depiction of a character associated with violence, certain communities, and certain social movements. Others are criticizing Joker for being, as they perceive, a rip-off of what Black Panther represented: a protest and call to rise against injustices targeted at a certain community.  

I do not agree with these critics in the slightest. Fans wanted a Joker movie for a long time. The character is older than most people living today and is beloved by the comic book community: not because he is a murderous villain, but because he represents social movement while also being the antithesis of a hero. This is the same reason people relate heavily to antiheroes such as Deadpool, Wolverine, Rorschach, and Punisher. These critics tend to forget other relatable villains that are symbols for social movement such as Killmonger (who wants to use Wakanda to spread wealth and power to marginalized communities around the world), Magneto (who is tired of watching non-mutants institutionally discriminate against his people and is taking a stand), and Ozymandias (who succeeds in preventing a nuclear disaster by bringing an end to the Cold War between the United States and Russia). These characters are meant to be relatable. That is the whole point. Viewers are supposed to be torn between the villain and the hero. It’s what makes an interesting story. Are we supposed to remove Watchmen, one of the best superhero movies of all time, from the ether because we are afraid a disgusting and immoral person is going to take international relations into his/her own hands?  

All things considered, Joker is a beautifully made movie. It aesthetically pleases the viewer while also captivating him/her with a riveting tale. The beauty is that everyone already knows, or has a good idea of what exactly is going to happen in the movie. And everyone is right. But the director takes an overtold tale and somehow keeps every watcher on the edge of the seat. This has quickly risen to one of my favorite films and I highly suggest it.