Joker: A Tragic But Flawed Origin


For nearly a century, DC Comics dominated the superhero scene, utterly quashing lowely competitors such as Marvel Comics. 

Batman, Superman, and the entirety of the Justice League are the brain children of DC; to this day these caped crusaders stand apart as the pioneers who began an era–the comic book era. But we no longer live in the comic book era. We live in the era of the silver screen–an era where dated things such as paper and words are abandoned in favor of lights, sound effects, and triple A actors.

 As definitively as DC owned the comic book era, Marvel owns the cinematic era. Despite this fact, DC still tries its best to crank out a decent film from time to time. Aquaman and Wonder Woman are famous for shattering box office records and putting DC back on the map. While it shouldn’t be hard for spandex-clad super icons to rake in the dough with their own origin stories(though it seems they often struggle), DC became bold enough to beg the question: why not make a story about the villain for once? The Joker…kind of answers that question. 

Released on October 4, Joker quickly became an instant box office smash-hit. Netting $96 million domestically and $151 million overseas, Joker boasts an astonishing $247 million in its opening weekend alone. The film quickly jumped the ladder to earn the biggest domestic and international October box office of all time among several other impressive commendations. 

The film provides a gritty and grizzled Gotham City like never seen on the big screen–crime runs rampant, poverty plagues the sprawling city, and seemingly everyone is a terrible person. This grounded(if a bit bleakly exaggerated) version of Gotham’s underbelly acts as the perfect hell-hole for a twisted man such as the Joker to crawl out of. The grime and grit surrounding Phoenix felt shockingly grounded in reality and really brought the film’s namesake to life. 

Joaquin Phoenix shines in what will certainly be his defining role. If this movie did anything right, it was giving this iconic role to the astonishingly committed Phoenix. Start to finish, Phoenix captivated the audience with his tragic upbringing, horrible emaciation, and rapidly deteriorating mental state. No one could have displayed the unbearable misery and frantic mental decline of the Joker like Phoenix–he did this so well in fact that he somehow made the audience feel sympathy for a psychotic murderer. If that isn’t talent, I don’t know what is. Phoenix sold the deranged character so convincingly that it’s a wonder he hasn’t gone mad himself. 

Though they are deliberately depicted as dislikable people, the majority of Joker’s  supporting cast played fantastic roles as well. Robert De Niro was especially entertaining as talk show host Murray Franklin–an unchanging focal point in the decaying (and often unreliable) mind of Joker. Though he was essentially just playing himself, De Niro was captivating as always. 

Another obvious standout, Brett Cullen played a very compelling Thomas Wayne. Cullen absolutely killed the corrupt smile, insufferable smarm, and unnerving confidence that define Thomas Wayne. Over the course of the film, you come to hate billionaire tycoon–yet he seems to fill every scene he’s in with such a domineering presence that one can’t help but hang on to his every word. 

That all being said, Joker was far from a masterpiece. The pacing is off at its best and infuriating at its worst–at certain points in the film you find yourself begging for some action instead of more silent insanity. When a bit of action did finally occur, it was brief, horribly shocking, and then left alone for another unbearable length of time. Maybe the sporadic and hyper-violent nature of the action sequences were supposed to mirror the Joker’s own unstable mind, but regardless, it didn’t land well on screen. 

Another fundamental issue with this film was the utter lack of direction throughout. The story was obviously building to the Joker’s full blown spiral into insanity, but to what end? Jumping from scenes in a comedy club, to vicious murders on a train, to dancing in a children’s hospital, the movie just lacked any sort of consistency. The audience spent so long on the downward spiral and such precious little time on the actual Joker that the film just felt completely imbalanced and a bit awkward. Early on, an entire several minute scene played out, only to be revealed it was nothing more than a fabrication of the Joker’s own slipping mind. This sort of sequence persisted several more times throughout the film. While it provides an insightful look into a damaged mind, this storytelling technique threw viewers for a loop. What’s even real? How can you trust anything on screen after figments of imagination are presented as fact? It completely undercuts the entire third act and leaves the audience wondering if what they saw was even the real deal. 

Theatrics aside, this film was…unsettling. For perhaps the first time, a film puts viewers in the perspective of a truly sick man. Unspeakable thoughts, erratic actions, and, the worst part: wholesale neglect. Joker shines a damning light on the way mental health disorders are processed and treated in the U.S. The product of a broken home, fed lies and sickening delusions his entire life, and cut off from medication, funding, and anyone to confide in, the Joker was screwed from the start. Phoenix’s portrayal of this tragic villain bears an uncanny resemblance to Nikolas Cruz, the Stoneman Douglas shooter. Perhaps I’m reading a bit too deeply into a comic book film, but regardless of intent, the message resounds loud and clear: we create these people. In my mind, Joker was a disturbing and morbid cry for help, and a call to action to rehabilitate our sick instead of neglecting them.  

Joker is a poorly paced, deeply unsettling film carried by a fantastic setting and an even more fantastic star. Regardless of opinion, this was the boost that DC needed to keep grinding out new films for another year. If you can bear the monotonous pacing and shockingly brutal acts of violence, Joker provides viewers with an insightful look into the minds of the mentally deranged, and is certainly worth a watch.

The official movie poster for Joker. Joaquin Phoenix beautifully portrays the deranged clown and does justice to his origin story. (photo public domain)


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