Build-up to the release of the new "Joker" movie was met by a flood of controversy. Concerns that the film's content and titular villain would incite violence prompted warnings from local law enforcement, the United States Army, the FBI, and CIA. Extra security precautions were taken at movie theaters.
As the opening weekend of the film passes us, were the extra measures necessary? Fortunately, no. At the end of the day, "Joker" turned out to simply be a movie with no reported violent incidents anywhere, outside of a false shooting report evacuation in California.
"Joker" is a character study of Batman's most notorious and critically popular villain. The Clown Prince of Crime, which made his debut in the 1940 issue of Batman No. 1, has never had a clear or definitive origin story as the tale has always been told by an unreliable narrator: The Joker himself. As the character puts it in the one-shot comic "The Killing Joke:" "If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!"
This "Joker" keeps to the theme of not being the origin story. It is simply an origin story. It might not even be the Joker Bat-fans know. Outside of a few passing references to Gotham City, Arkham Asylum, and the Wayne family, this film has little relation to that world. What Easter eggs there are, however, are fun nods for Batman fans.
Arthur Fleck is a lonely, depressed man who lives with his mother. He has a physical illness that causes him to laugh uncontrollably (a real-world neurological disorder known as pseudobulbar affect), making him more of a social outcast. The city Fleck lives in is impoverished, cruel, and crime-ridden. Arthur's condition, coupled with this boiler plate of a world he lives in, ultimately takes him down the dark path that leads him to embrace nothing at all.
Unlike the comic book Joker who asserts that all it takes is “one bad day” to transform into a monster, Arthur's journey takes about two weeks. In reality, however, this change was always waiting to happen.
There is a checklist manner to Arthur's initial descent into insanity: Social services fail him, he loses his job, he has dreams about his life that may or may not be true, playing into that “unreliable narrator” theme. His breakdown doesn't take place in an instant. It comes in very measured beats.
Once the checklist completes, they start exploring some other elements of the character, which does make it more interesting as a character drama. Joaquin Phoenix's performance is exceptional as a downtrodden man who who scraping for something that is just never provided to him until he simply stops caring. People will undoubtedly argue if this is the “best” version of Joker yet, comparing him to Heath Ledger's version in “The Dark Knight” (my version remains rooted between Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill's performances – a dapper charmer whose “innocent” look leads to the victim's downfall).
Robert De Niro has a small supporting role as a talk-show host, and also puts in a good performance, as does supporting actors Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, and Brett Cullen. Regardless, this is almost exclusively Phoenix's film.
Visually, the film looks great. It evokes the gritty era of late 1970s-early 1980s cinema, right down to that era's early version of the Warner Bros. logo. As ugly as the city is, there are some wonderful camera angles and visuals that you don't really see as much in the ultra-slick films of today. Love this film or hate it, it's expertly shot.
Ultimately, is the film worth the controversy and hype that it has received? On one hand, this is a dark but solidly driven character piece with excellent performances. It's strange trying to build a level of empathy for a character that, however he's presented, is destined to become a monster. The film tries to be a commentary about modern society despite its set era, but neither the wealthy or the poor are innocent in this tale. In this film, everyone is awful on some level. It's a commentary that doesn't provide full answers.
If this film was ever destined to incite people to take to the streets in riot, that time has passed. Ultimately what “Joker” is was an opportunity for director Todd Phillips to make a “Taxi Driver” style movie that used the Joker license to tell this story, and ultimately make a profit at the box office. I personally find it troubling that we've reached a point in movie making that current audiences won't support a film unless there's a comic book character attached to it.
The Joker has never been a character that is meant to be emulated or admired, and the film respects that overall. He is a character that has been lost in the system, a cry for validation or recognition, and while he finds it in his way, it never makes him better.
“Joker” is a great character piece with solid acting that is worth seeing, but doesn't reach the hype that has been pushed for months that it will create “Jokers” out of the audience. While there are some nice subtle references for Batman fans, those are ultimately superficial window dressing to tell a larger story.