As you’re no doubt aware if you’re reading this, Joker, one of 2019’s most highly-anticipated (not to mention polarising) films is now in UK cinemas.
The film centres around the famous Batman villain who, in recent years, we’ve seen in multiple incarnations – most notably Heath Ledger’s chilling interpretation in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Jared Leto’s high-energy manic version in Suicide Squad.
This time around, it’s Joaquin Phoenix stepping into the role in a reimagined version of the character with a new back story and some creepy new personality traits.
After debuting to rave reviews at the Venice Film Festival in August, where the audience gave it an eight-minute standing ovation, the film has proved to be a little more divisive since subsequent reviews started rolling in. Empire, for example, called it their “film of the year”, while film magazine Little White Lies’ review was considerably less glowing, questioning whether the filmmakers “even know what they’ve made”.
Having watched Joker shortly before its cinema release, I’m afraid I have to agree with the latter. Not only is the film completely lacking in both joy and anything close to subtlety or nuance, it’s the first film I’ve seen in a long time that I don’t just wish I hadn’t watched, but wish hadn’t been made at all.
Why? Because it doesn’t feel like much of a leap to imagine Joker – a film which, in essence, is about a hard-on-his-luck loner who gradually becomes more and more empowered as he dives down a rabbit hole of… erm… killing people – could embolden real-world viewers with similar sentiments to potentially follow in the character’s clown-sized footsteps.
What makes the film’s brutal violence all the more depressing is that there doesn’t seem to be any consequences for it
Of course, those involved in making Joker have repeatedly dismissed the suggestion their film puts both its lead character and his violent actions on any kind of pedestal. Joaquin Phoenix – who plays Arthur Fleck and slowly develops into his Joker alter-ego over the course of the film – famously walked out of an interview when one journalist asked whether this was a concern that had crossed his mind. And production company Warner Bros said in an official statement: “Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”
Having seen the film, I’m not sure this argument holds much weight. After all, do we not see Arthur Fleck immediately becoming more confident as he’s gifted a gun, and only becoming self-assured enough to pursue a romance with the neighbour he’d been essentially stalking (gross) once he’s completed his first triple-shooting towards the halfway point of the film? Do we not then hear him tell his therapist that he suddenly feels seen once he’s committed his first murder? And is a scene in which Arthur murders a former colleague with a pair of scissors not immediately followed by what will no doubt go down as the film’s most iconic scene, showing him gleefully smoking in full Joker regalia while dancing down some steps to – wait for it – Gary Glitter?
What makes the film’s brutal violence all the more depressing is that there doesn’t seem to be any consequences for it. After shooting someone in the head on live television, Arthur is rescued from arrest by one of his many followers. He then laps up the applause and cheers of a crowd of people trying to emulate him in clown masks of their own, who then commit their own acts of violence, including the copy-cat killing of Bruce Wayne’s parents elsewhere in Gotham.
And even after landing in Arkham hospital in the very last scene, it’s heavily suggested that he’s murdered a completely innocent psychiatrist, for the simple reason he has the means to do so and – as he says in an earlier scene – “nothing left to lose”.
Joker is doing all of these terrible things not out of any moral outrage or to defend anyone else, but because he’s bored and he can
This is one of the film’s main problems. Its protagonist is doing all of these terrible things not out of any moral outrage or to defend anyone else, but because he’s bored and he can. This contributes to a sense of nihilism which I expect was director Todd Phillips’ aim, but it also means the film’s protagonist is almost impossible to root for and too far gone to be a character worth trying to understand, which makes it a particularly bleak watch. It also goes against what has made the character of the Joker so popular over the decades.
Whether it’s in the Batman series, James Bond or even classic Disney films, we all know that sometimes we can find ourselves rooting for the baddies. Dipping our toe into the dark side is often fun for film viewers, particularly when you’re doing it with theatrical and over-the-top characters such as the Joker. It’s a shame, then, that in trying to make something edgy and provocative, this film also strips away the sense of fun that has made the character so enduring since his debut in the 1940s, leaving behind what is at best tedious, and at worst problematic and potentially harmful.
When the character is inevitably revived and reimagined for yet another big-screen outing, it’d be great to see whoever ends up in charge lean into the Joker’s playful side. I’d advise looking to Glenn Close in 101 Dalmatians or even Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s Batman for inspiration. Those actors never tried to downplay their characters’ evil and villainy, but still managed to bring a cartoonish side to them that were enough to raise a smirk, without reminding us too much of real-world dangers.
As one joker once famously said: “Why so serious?”
Daniel Welsh is an entertainment reporter at HuffPost UK