Warning: This review contains spoilers for both “Joker” and seasons 2 and 3 of “Gotham.”
Recently, I’ve been asking myself whether DC movies are getting better, or if “Shazam” was just a beautiful freak of nature. And after seeing “Joker,” I’m more inclined to go with the latter. Although it was pleasantly stylistic for a superhero movie and offered up an interesting interpretation of the clown himself, the plot was extremely disjointed and confused. And overall, I just don’t think “Joker” needed to be made at all.
Before I get into this, I want to acknowledge Joaquin Phoenix’s excellent performance (really, he’s what made this movie worth watching). He did this great thing when he laughed that made him sound a bit like he was crying. At first, I thought his laughter-related quirk/tic was a sort of coping tactic; that his therapist told him to laugh whenever he wanted to cry, or something like that. I was a little disappointed when my guess didn’t turn out to be true. The portrayal of the Joker as a socially awkward mentally ill person with a neurological disorder was interesting to me; not because I didn’t think the Joker had mental issues, but because the way said issues were portrayed was overall pretty sympathetic. We feel for the guy who wants to be a comedian but never laughs at the right times. But for a movie like this, I don’t think it makes much sense. This Joker is interesting, but he’s overwhelmingly portrayed as a victim; of his history, of society, of his own mind. He gets bullied and beaten an absurd amount (and I mean a RIDICULOUS number) of times, to the point where I was almost jaded about it.
Now, as far as my Joker background knowledge is concerned, I only have the Cristopher Nolan “Batman” trilogy and “Suicide Squad” to work off, so my opinion is based on that knowledge alone. With that in mind, to me, the Joker is someone who knows exactly what he’s doing; he’s deluded, but not so much that he is properly delusional. And aside from garnering sympathy points and gaining a new plot device, I had to wonder how interested the writers really were in writing a story about a mentally ill man, or a story about a man suffering from brain damage. At times it seemed as if his symptoms weakened or disappeared when they were inconvenient, like when he made his speech on the Murray Franklin Show. (In the long run, if anything was going to be a delusion-driven plot point, the TV show would have made the most sense. That, or the Joker should have assumed his villainous identity immediately following the realization that his failed comedy routine has caused him to become a massive meme.)
And despite the Joker literally presenting his own theme on the Murray Franklin show, I was still completely confused. Is “Joker” a movie about class disparity? Is it about mental illness? Is the Joker apolitical, or does he support the movement he accidentally began? There were times when I wasn’t even sure if we were supposed to have sympathy for our main character or not, so any theme they were trying to push went right over my head. It was the kind of bleak, dark-lit “we live in a society” story that I expected, if I’m being totally honest.
So, back to my title point. Why was this movie made? Well, money. And to an extent, I’m sure, popular demand. Personally, I feel the same way about the demand for a Joker movie as I do about the inevitable demand for a sequel every time a good original film is released. Why can’t we leave anything alone? Why are we squeezing every bit of content we can out of a character just because he is recognizable? I know this isn’t the first Joker origin story that’s been put to film, but I’ve never been a fan of the concept in the first place. I don’t want to know his name. I don’t want to know his backstory. To me, the Joker’s greatest asset is not his ideology but his mystery. No one really knows who the Joker is; outside of his evil persona, he has no identity.
The one exception to my distaste for Joker origin stories is probably an early Joker-centric arc of the Warner Bros. series “Gotham” (I’ve heard that a lot more convoluted Joker shenanigans happen in the later seasons, but for now I just want to focus on what I thought season 2 did right). At first, I was disappointed in the show for ruining the character’s mystery, until they promptly killed off their Joker-to-be. It was the ultimate bait-and-switch; turns out, this Jerome Valeska was never the villain we assumed he was. And after his death, we see a succession of eerie shots from all over Gotham, featuring men of all ages and backgrounds, each of them with their own bizarre laugh, all of them framed as potential Jokers. Years later, that scene has stuck with me, and today, it shapes the way I think about this character, and what I imagine is the “correct” way to portray him.
But I’m not writing this article to commend “Gotham” for its Joker content (especially since they literally resurrect Jerome in the very next season). I’m here to complain about “Joker,” and inevitably call attention to how they managed to kill Bruce Wayne’s parents onscreen again, after all the flak they caught for doing it in “Batman v. Superman.” I am astounded.
In all seriousness, though, I don’t think “Joker” is the worst movie DC has ever made — in fact, I think it’s pretty decent, especially compared to the likes of “Batman v. Superman.” It had some great visual elements, and I found Phoenix to be a much more compelling Joker than Jared Leto in “Suicide Squad.” But aside from not needing to exist in the first place, it also fell victim to that classic DC try–hard grittiness that, for some reason, I keep paying money to see… Why so serious?