Not all great movies are fun to watch. Any movie can deliver a narrative so good as to be instantly recognizable as excellent, but so harrowing or cringe-inducing as to discourage its fans from seeing it more than once. Such movies are the kind of thing that stick with us after the end credits finish rolling, staying in our head, residing under our skin. They refuse to be forgotten, forcing us to acknowledge that what we just saw was worth seeing, even if we almost wish we hadn’t. Comic book movies don’t often produce this kind of film, especially epic blockbusters of heroism and villainy. But one comic book movie disregarded the conventions of the genre from which it came and crafting a tale of mental illness, desperation, pain, loneliness, cruelty, apathy, empathy and the boiling point between the wounded many and the privileged few. The movie has been one of the more polarizing blockbusters of recent years, simultaneously exceeding and ignoring expectations, and creating one of the most memorable character studies the world of four-color panels could have ever produced. It’s a movie with no heroes in it, where the only currency that matters is pain, and where the notion of heroism is enough to make one laugh. Joker.
He story takes place in Gotham City, 1981. Arthur Fleck is a mentally ill and impoverished party clown and stand-up comedian prone to fits of uncontrollable laughter. Arthur is a walking exhibit of emaciated torment and anguish, caring for his delusional mother while harboring delusions of his own: to become a successful comedic talent, to make the whole world feel happiness, to enjoy a passionate relationship with the lovely young woman living down the hall, and to prove that he is, in fact, the illegitimate sone of Gotham’s billionaire mayoral candidate, Thomas Wayne. But Arthur’s dreams, as out of touch with reality as they may be, are only the least of his troubles. Gotham is a crumbling city of great inequality, cynicism, filth, violence and despair. It is the kind of city full of predators who chew up people like Arthur and spit out the seeds. Only there is not enough meat on Arthur’s psychic bones to make much a meal from, so he just gets kicked around enough to go home and lick his wounds while his illness metastasizes into something more than he can handle. Eventually, Arthur will hit the point where Fleck the failed comedian will be no more. And standing in his place will be a creature reborn with malign strength, fiendish clarity and sinister intent. And nothing will withstand his arrival and emerge unchanged. Not the people in Arthur’s life, not Gotham City, not anyone.
This movie draws so heavily on two of Martin Scorcese’s movies that Scorcese nearly became its co-producer. And it is no small irony that a movie about a character from the DC Comics Extended Universe of superhero movies so openly rejects that shared universe and, in doing so, became a far greater success than any of its more straightforward cinematic brethren. This is a movie that almost feels like it went out of its way to offend and reject, but none of that matters because the heart of the movie—Arthur Fleck—is utterly mesmerizing, no matter how dark his darkness gets.
Played with absolute virtuosity by Joaquin Phoenix, we see from the outset just how deeply damaged Arthur really is. He cannot stop his hideous outbursts of laughter, even when we can see his tears of anguish through them. He is so bewildered at his own inability to fit into society that he can’t understand why the bullies of Gotham keep seeing him as the weak one to go after. And he is so uncertain of his own self that his mission to care for his mother becomes a quest to discover the identity of his father, which comes back to even more questions without answers. By the time it is all over, even Arthur can’t say for sure why he is so less-than-unwell. Is it because he inherited mental illness from his clearly mentally ill mother? Is it because he suffers from traumatic brain damage? Is it both? Is it something else entirely? Is it because he just isn’t getting the care he needs? The answer isn’t exactly yes, it’s more like: Stop asking so many questions, Arthur. And for a guy in such dire need of answers, living with that is paying for crime he didn’t commit.
Which, of course, results not just in a life of crime, but a life of heinous crime. It is almost impossible to go into this movie and not know who the Joker is. He is one of the most widely recognized villains in modern pop culture. He has a grotesque smile. He is the nemesis of Batman. He does really bad things to people who don’t deserve it. And as we see Arthur’s transformation into his white-faces alter-ego, we see those things emerge, sure. But they do so in a narrative where there there may be rich orphans willing to exact eternal vengeance upon the criminals of the world, but they’re not going to dress up in costume to do it. The only one in costume here is the Joker, and it’s only because to him, it’s no costume at all.
The moment of truth comes when we see Arthur’s first senseless crime, a murder that is as savage as it is unprovoked. One that suggests an infernal power in Fleck that channels pain and rage into pure strength. It is a brief act of bloodshed that is horrifying to behold, and when it’s all over, Arthur’s lone witness, terrified that he is next, asks Arthur why he did what he just did. There is no good answer in the world to that question. To even try is to play a kind of sick joke on the world. And that’s the point.