As one of the most highly anticipated movies of the year, Joker topped an impressive $400 million box office worldwide. But despite this sheen of success, Joker has received a kickback of controversy, dividing fans and critics alike.
(Beware of possible spoilers ahead!)
Origins and Portrayals
So, what exactly is Joker? Of course, The Joker is one of cinemas most infamous supervillains, originating from DC Comics in 1940. Since then, the insane, cackling psychopath has been portrayed by various actors. Cesar Romero sparked the chain in 1966, and has since been succeeded by Jack Nicholson in 1989, Heath Ledger in 2008 and Jared Leto in 2016. Perhaps the primary reason The Joker has become so culturally dominant – other than his deranged, unpredictable personality – is his constant evolution throughout cinema.
At his core, The Joker is a sadistic, green-haired “clown” from Gotham. Totally void from any sense of empathy or conscience, The Joker is famed for his spontaneity. Other than that, every portrayal has their own unique twist. For example, whereas Ledger took to facial scars and patchy makeup, Leto opted for gold teeth and tattoos.
It has become somewhat of a cult tradition to measure up the newest Joker rendition against its predecessors (with Ledger usually taking top spot). With this amount of pressure on acing an original yet true-to-character adaptation of The Joker, it’s no wonder director Todd Phillips’s new movie received some negativity.
What sets Joker apart from other movie depictions is its separation from the DC Universe. Despite being the first origin story, Phillips exercised a gritty character study over superhero spectacle. Joaquin Phoenix was announced as the newest Joker back in 2018, apparently leaving Leto “alienated and upset” in conjunction to other controversies. There are essentially two ways to judge Joker: one based on Phoenix’s version of the character, and another on the film itself. Both sides were met with mixed feelings, but why did this movie ignite such backlash on social media? Let’s take a look:
One of the immediate adversities Joker met was Phillips inclusion of a Gary Glitter song. Rock and Roll, Part 2 (1972) could profit Glitter millions in Joker royalties, yet Glitter was convicted of child sex abuse back in 2015. With offenses dating all the way back to the 1990s! Regardless of prison time, Glitter is still banking off his music as if nothing happened, thanks to Joker’s stair sequence.
“Mockery” of Mental Illness
In 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman rooted The Jokers lunacy in a vat of toxic chemicals. In 2019, it’s derived from society. Phillips sets up The Joker (or Arthur Fleck at this point) in the suburban underbelly of Gotham. Parallel to Arthurs in-depth character study is a social commentary on modern life. Arthur jokingly asks “what do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?”, offering a more insightful take on a simple comic book story. Or so some would say.
Others have become outraged at Phillips connection between mental illness and homicide. Throughout the film, Arthur has become a social outcast, forced to carry around a card that warns people of his neurological disorder. His diary of depressing thoughts is used as a stepping stone to murder.
But it would be unfair to say Phillips has manipulated mental illness as an excuse for insanity outright. After all, many have found it to be a raw and powerful portrayal that places most of the blame on an ignorant society.
As The Joker is a notorious serial killer, the film is bound to include some kind of violence. Albeit fairly muted compared to other explicit films (such as anything by Quintin Tarantino), Joker still harbours some grisly scenes. Gruesomely stabbing people to death and stirring up violent riots, Joker must have has a large budget for fake blood. Some viewers have found these brutal scenes harmfully triggering, especially given the misleadingly moderate trailer.
The closing message that ignorant people get what they “f*cking deserve” (meaning death) is a little too dark for some, making parents question the age 15 rating. Will Joker’s attack on a corrupted culture inspire chaotic street protests? Probably not. But many have still found the films overall depiction of crime fairly damaging.
It’s Not All Bad
Among this buzz of outrage and controversy is Phoenix’s storming out of a Telegraph interview. Not to mention the name change from “The Joker” to just “Joker”. All this said, there still remains a tidal wave of admiration for Phillips daring tragedy.
A troubled protagonist that loathes the world around him is the premise for other notable character dramas. Joker inhibits streaks of Martin Scorsese’s hit 1976 film Taxi Driver, starring Robert DeNiro. Both films share the same subtle quality for character development, focusing the entire plot on one individual. Similar to Taxi Driver, Phillips accomplishes an unnerving perception of society from a dysfunctional source. After an intensive exploration of our protagonists’ psyche, the film erupts in build-up violence. A detached yet personal movie experience, Phillips nears the same level of rigorous character analysis as the legendary Scorsese himself.
It’s hard to tread old ground with originality, but Phillips pulls off a creative investigation into a world-famous villain. Beautiful cinematography, clear thematic patterning and a beyond impeccable performance from Phoenix match Joker against its abundance of criticisms. Phoenix is noted to have lost 52 pounds (3.7 stone) to fully invest his method acting abilities into the role. He spoke on the severe psychological effects he suffered during filming – ones that definitely come through when playing the withdrawn, despondent villain.
Joker is a stand-alone film that – despite its references to the Wayne family – has little connection to the DC franchise. However, rumours of a sequel have begun to spread since Joker’s release earlier this month. Phoenix has expressed interested in revisiting The Joker, regardless of the gruelling filming process. Nothing has been confirmed as yet, but the ambiguous cut to black has opened the door to continuation. And with a new Batman remake on the way, who knows what could happen.
Ending and Theories
The ending of Joker was cryptic to say the least. When The Jokers iconic laugh creaks through the speakers, Phillips abruptly cuts to black. But what does it mean?
Some fans have suggested the typical “it’s all in his head” theory. Phillips has tricked viewers throughout the film, only revealing parts of Arthur’s imagination towards the end. But could there be more to Arthur’s unreliable storytelling? After cutting to a suddenly incarcerated Joker, it’s not hard to believe his TV limelight to be a wild fantasy after all.
Others caught on to Arthur’s final ambiguous laugh, noting how he found “something funny” but doesn’t explain what. During this scene, we cut to Bruce Wayne’s murdered parents, perhaps making some connection to The Joker causing the birth of Batman.
Viewers have offered a multitude of different interpretations. From flashbacks to flashforwards; everything being a dream to half of the movie being the afterlife, or time jumps we’re completely unaware of. Joker is a multiple-choice movie for sure. Phillips explained how Arthur has “different laughs” throughout the film, one deriving from his neurological disorder, one being fake and the last a genuine one.
Either way, the ambiguity of the story is part of Joker’s beauty. We can’t trust Arthur’s version of events because he is…well…a Joker. And the jokes on the audience who can’t decipher dream from reality.