Joker [TIFF19 Review]

Growing up, DC comics meant a lot to me. They were what I read and loved, those nights spent in the dark, hiding and reading what I had bought or found are memories I will always cherish. DC films haven’t always been the best but I stick with them because they stay linked to these childhood memories that I will always remember. The thing about Joker is that we are asked to sympathize with a character that has always just been evil. The Joker never had any reason to be the way he is, he simply was and that’s what made him so scary and such a foe to Bruce Wayne’s Batman. But with this film, Todd Philips tries to make the figure a man that is broken and bullied into becoming the formidable foe. This brings us a film that is slow-paced and frankly boring. In the end, it simply doesn’t work.

(Please note that this review will not be spoiler-free as it is necessary for me to go in some detail to explain my point of view.)

Arthur Fleck never feels like The Joker even when he becomes him. It’s nothing against Joaquin Phoenix who delivers a pitch-perfect performance and will likely be an award contender when award season comes around. The Joker should be a character we are afraid of but the thing is we aren’t afraid of him for the right reason. The film wants to be an origin story for a character that didn’t need to get one. The film wants us to think that The Joker isn’t evil, that society made him evil and if that isn’t the root of today’s world problem, I don’t know what it is. The scariest part of Joker is the fact that so many will watch this and think that Arthur Fleck is them. A white man who believes he should be veneered and when he isn’t, he turns to violence. His mental illness makes him evil and the root of his problem and that is so wrong. Even Arthur’s mother, Penny Flack’s (Frances Conroy) mental illness is treated as an evil thing. She is the reason why her son is that way and that is all because of her mental health.

The film’s treatment of women is something that can’t be overlooked. Women in this film are simply disposable, a way for Arthur to kill and descent into madness even more. They never feel fully realized and even when we get a little bit more information about them, it simply becomes a vehicle for Arthur’s transition into the killer we know. Zazie Beetz’s Sophie is nothing more but a prop for Arthur. She is nothing but a figment of his fantasy and is there only for him to see what he will never get. She’s simply an object for his story, never really feeling like a character and more like a prop. Even Arthur’s mother, Penny, is there to be a problem for Arthur. She is the only reason why Arthur is this way, her mental illness is used as a prop for Arthur to finally completely break. Both of them are really the only two female characters in the film that are somewhat developed and both of them are discarded like nothing, killed and forgotten. While Penny does get a mention or two after her death, Sophie is forgotten, killed off-screen, never mentioned again. She is the first personal kill for Arthur and the one that doesn’t even get the treatment of being mentioned one more time. And I get it, this is Arthur’s story but female characters shouldn’t be just a vehicle for a man’s story, they should feel developed and important, and Joker fails them completely.

The film tries to be a statement for today’s society, about the 1% of society. Arthur feels abandoned by everyone and his feelings are reciprocated by a large portion of Gotham’s population. Arthur’s action incites the population to revolt and goes against the 1% of the society. With Thomas Wayne at the head of it all, Joker tries to be a political statement and instead of being what it wants, it becomes a simple window to what a lot of white men wrongly feel. Arthur’s internal conflict is never centred around the political climate of the city. Yes, he feels abandoned by everyone and not seen but he says it himself, he doesn’t care for politics. So the film’s message about how society is the reason why Arthur becomes who he is doesn’t work. He feels abandoned by everyone and the film tries to drill into you. But the film never feels like it’s trying to hammer down on its point of view of the world, instead, it’s more interested in showcasing a world where the greatest foe of the cape crusader becomes a hero of the people. His actions are the reason why the poor revolt against the wealthy and Arthur finds himself as the leader of a group, The Joker becomes their hero.

On top of that, Joker tries to draw parallels between Bruce and Arthur. The film serves as an origin story for the Cape Crusader too or at least tries to. Arthur’s actions are the cause that Bruce will one day become Batman. His killing and the start of the riot led to Thomas and Martha Wayne’s murder, but it just feels like it was something that was added to just have Batman’s origin story. If Phillips wanted to do a parallel story for both of them, then more time should have been spent on Bruce. Instead, Bruce is made to be simple collateral damage, a kid who’s wealth caused him to lose everything. And that element of the story is introduced so late that it feels like an afterthought. Every mention of Thomas Wayne or the Wayne name never feels earned, just like it was needed to anchor the film into the Batman universe. Bruce Wayne’s life becomes a simple device for Arthur’s downfall and it shouldn’t be that way.

Joker could have worked at it not been so focused on trying to make us feel sympathy for its main character. The Joker isn’t an anti-hero like the film wants us to believe, he’s a villain. We could have enjoyed an origin story where it doesn’t try to make the white man a victim of the world. The Joker has never been a victim of anything, he always felt scary because he simply existed to do bad things, he was there to be the exact opposite of Batman. An origin story wasn’t necessary but if we had to have one, then one that tries to make the villain into a well-intentioned man who gets bullied into becoming a mass murderer wasn’t what we should have gotten.