8 October

Review: The Joker, Final Word

by Jon Katz

I am grateful that I saw the Joker for a second time this afternoon, and grateful also that Maria came with me. Our conversation on the way home could have been a great podcast.

(This is my first ever two-part movie review. So yes, I must have really liked it.)

Maria loved the movie, she said it was gorgeous and important. And you cannot drag her to a violent movie.

And yes, she added, it was also unnerving.

I’m happy to share this evolutionary review with you. This is a window into thinking, for better or worse.

If you love movies, go see it. You won’t be sorry, I can almost promise. I don’t like dark and scary movies either, but this one is different.

I grew up on the Joker, Batman, Comic, and Superhero culture and have watched in astonishment as our little geek/oddball passion/hobby (we couldn’t do sports) has mushroomed beyond our imaginations into the most mainstream, popular and commercial film genre ever.

Geeks and oddballs are finally in, too late for me.

If you had seen the long lines of nerds and outcasts waiting outside the comic book store each Wednesday in Providence, R.I.,  for their spotless and tightly wrapped new episode, you would have seen a lot of nerds and outsiders, many unhappy, even broken.

We were not the guys who got the girls or even knew any. We didn’t even think of trying out for football. We were the guys who wet our beds, got beat up by bullies, and masturbated frequently in the bathroom with our father’s Playboy.

We were almost always alone, even when we were together.

Arthur Fletch, our newest Joker,  might well have been in the line for the next Joker tale.

The Joker himself was the most famous and compelling of all of the characters we obsessed over, at least in my world.

I’ve watched in wonder at this little known geek literature has spawned these billion-dollar mega movies whose heroes save the earth every year or two, raking in billions of dollars worldwide.

Marketing can truly work miracles.

The Superheros, it should be said, have absolutely nothing in common with Arther Fletch, the pathetic, ungainly and despised hero of Todd Phillip’s new Joker. The Avengers wouldn’t let him in the door, let alone onto a space teleport.

So I was thrown off balance by the radical re-imagining of this comic book/movie revolution that Todd Phillips created. And by its stunning appeal. This was always an outsider art in my experience. It was not especially popular.

I was expecting a movie so dark and violent – that was the hype – that it was more akin to a horror movie than a film about one of the most interesting comic book villains ever created.

But I was wrong. It wasn’t horrific. It was creative.

This is a character study movie, not a comic or superhero movie. Phillips really took the leap of faith with this one, and his $100 million weekend vindicated him, especially by Hollywood standards.

_____

I’ll just give some rapid-fire impressions from the second and final viewing while they are fresh.

Phillips has blown open the superhero/comic film formula with the Joker, which is now a blockbuster hit. He’s also exposed its limitations. This means it is important and will change how these stories are told in the future, or perhaps create a new genre altogether.

It’s a new ball game for the comic revolution.

These movies make so much money and are seen by so many people they may be the most influential form of culture on the planet.

Phillips set out to make an origin movie, notorious for shallow and sappy tales of innocence and bravery.

The Joker dispenses with most, if not all of the gushy, faux emotional, and overblown save-the-world formulas that mark these movies. How many explosions do you really need?

Our heroes in these movies – a family, really – will save us. They might be fun and play with our emotions,  but they don’t go any deeper than that. None of them would pass for real.

Although the Joker is being criticized for promoting or encouraging violence, this is actually the least violent comic/superhero movie I have ever seen. And also the most diverse. There are black and brown faces in almost every scene, the cast loaded with women. I haven’t quite figured the central women these African – America women played in this film, but it’s worth thinking about.

The Superhero formula is by nature wildly overdone, overdue for a shake-up.

Tens of thousands of people die, but none of them bleed or seem real.  The world is in great peril, and half of it gets blown up before being rescued.

Arthur Fletch is very, very, real. This movie is so different from those others.

The big comic movies do not even try to make anyone think and are so loud and noisy as to be graphic and visual cartoons. Nobody argues about them for days after they are seen. You can blow up a whole city and it doesn’t draw much notice. Just another boom.

The Joker is very different. Phillips exposes the shallowness of the genre.  And suggests that doing something original and creative can actually make a ton of money.

This origin story really does explain where our “hero” came from and why he commits evil. We see it happening step by painful step. The real violence is to Fletch’s psyche.

By movie villain standards these days, this Joker kills very few people  – seven by my count, three at one time – and none of them were killed at random or gunned down praying or shopping.

They were all bad people in their own ways.

Every one of them harmed him or abandoned or abused Arthur.

Fletch never forgets the people who were nice to him. He never harms them. Murder is murder, but few movie monsters remember the kind people in their lives.

In fact, no kind people were killed or harmed in the making of this film.

This movie does not evoke mass murders or nightclub slaughters, There is nothing romantic or glorified about this miserable lost soul. Nobody likes him, the best he can hope for is mercy.

Phillips recognizes that Gotham City is a metaphor for the national psyche.

Our economy is said to be strong, but the ties that bind us together are weak. If times are so good, why are we so unhappy? Crime is low, but mass murders are a daily and de-humanizing reality. We don’t feel safe or hopeful.

The  Apocalyptic mess that is Gotham City in the movie is appropriate for a rich nation where many thousands of people live in the streets. The movie is a warning about where we have been and where we might be going. The rich and the poor hate one another there, and perhaps, here.

And in Gotham City, they blame the poor for being poor, just as do we.

Bruce Wayne’s father wants to run for mayor to make Gotham City great again.

Definitely, there is something disturbingly timely about this movie.

Cable news is much more violent every single day than this movie is, and no one is howling about them enabling the murder of innocents or because of their cowardice and denial or the hypocrisy of our corrupt elected officials.

This film speaks of our abandonment of the vulnerable and mentally ill, and our indifference to their suffering, and our refusal to help them, rather than toss them in jail.

It evokes the political greed and cowardice that enables us to blame them for being sick and imprison them when they fall apart or leave them to the streets.

Thousands of people gather in America’s stadiums to recreate the Roman Coliseum at its worst, mobs howling for blood and vengeance.

We do it in politics, why can’t draw from that in a movie? Perhaps the controversy is about seeing ourselves in this awful mirror. Ouch.

In the movie, Arthur Fletch seeks help, not trouble. Violence becomes his salvation.  He complains that nobody is listening to him. He’s right.

He wants help desperately but his therapist tells him early on in the film that the city is cutting back on social welfare budgets, and there is no longer any help for him or medication for his illness. “I’m sorry, “Arthur,” she tells her patient:

“The city doesn’t give a shit about you.”

It’s true, Arthur knows it. If nobody cares about him, how would he learn to care about anybody else?

Free of pills, the monster is born.

The film is dark, but it is beautifully dark and creatively dark. I take back what I said about not bring children to see it. I think they ought to see it if they wish, especially teenagers and adolescents.

The other thing I saw today was that the movie is just wonderfully shot – gorgeous is the word that keeps popping up in my mind, that I keep repeating – and the acting by Joaquin Phoenix was so deep and powerful that I needed to see it again, because I may not ever see it again.

It was truly outstanding and very special.  As a movie lover, I would not want to have missed it.

The cinematography in the movie was almost eerily evocative.  But the ending was really special.

I was somewhat distracted and perhaps drained by the ending when I saw it yesterday. It blew me away today.

Arthur Fleck is a broken human who needs help and wants help and learns what so many Americans know – there is no help, we are the richest country on the earth and hundreds of thousands of people now sleep on our streets while the pundits gush over our “strong economy.”

Strong for who, exactly?

As an origin movie, its purpose is to explain the life and events of the character we called the Joker. The original origin films in this genre are notoriously shallow and manipulative.

This one was very real. There is nothing cartoony about it, Phillips tells us all those explosions and epic battles are not really necessary, at least all of the time. It rings true enough to ring in my ears. The special effects in the comic-inspired movies distance us from the violence in them, there is nothing between us and suffering here.

It’s right in our faces, which has unsettled a lot of people.

Huzzah!

The words that come to mind in summing up the movie are devastating and beautiful – unnerving, too.

This psychopath was not born but made. We ignore the broke ones at our peril, a booming economy does not make us safe. We are complicit.

So what I saw clearly today, and was lost in my fog yesterday – this stuff is important to me – is that this is a story of rebirth and redemption.

Our sometimes cruel and uncaring world made Arthur Fletch, and when he was beaten and crushed nearly to death, the Joker emerged to become a kind of hellish triumph. When the Joker himself finally emerged out of Fletch’s smoldering ashes in his landmark red suit and Joker make-up, dancing for joy, I came close to crying.

It was a moment.

Joker, as he now called himself,  found himself in hate and evil, but he did find himself.  He rose out of his miserable life and survived. He found his peeps in the angry and howling mob, aggrieved and out of control. They got him.

Frankly, I  thought of the mobs that rage unchecked all day on Twitter. I suspect Phillips was reminding us of the cesspool of hate, bullying, and argument that so much of the Internet has become, along with our Congress.

Fletch said several times in the movie that he had never had a happy day in his life. But when the Joker emerged from his psychopathy, he was happy at last.  He danced down some concrete stairs. And that was beautiful.

He got his wish. People got him at last.

He had found his meaning, he finally liked himself and accepted his new identity without shame. The days of being picked on and humiliated were over.

This is where I was rooting for the monster, I couldn’t help it. This was the first Joker who broke my heart.

Fletch was literally reborn, he is the Joker now. We understand the origin of him.

His resurrection came not in being a victim, but in making victims. And in this Joker as in the others, he never took himself seriously.

Did he really find it funny that he killed people, one of his victims asked shortly before dying?

“No, not really, not at all,” he said, “it’s kind of a joke. It’s funny.”

Thanks for bearing with me through this process. I love doing it.

3 Comments

  1. thanks for this view of it. I had totally dismissed this movie as an unneeded idea. Oh, and you are incorrect about the big comic movies. they are actually quite political and current.

  2. My husband & I saw this movie on Monday & we loved it, too. Your review expresses my thoughts & feelings much more clearly than I ever could, & also gave me a few insights that I missed. I felt so bad for poor Arthur in some scenes that it nearly brought me to tears. The Joker is Academy Award worthy, as is the performance by Joaquin Phoenix!

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