Joker is not only one of the most grounded comic book adaptations ever put on film, but also one of the most disturbingly timely. Seven years after a psychopath killed twelve people at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, Todd Phillips’ film reminds us that mass shootings have shown no signs of slowing down. Two years after the Unite the Right rally, the movie reminds us that some evils in this world never go away. Above all else, Joker reminds us that it only takes one sick human being to spread madness like the plague. Some will say that the film feeds into the hate that’s turned this world upside down. Others will say that it forces us to finally tackle the problems we’ve continually ignored. I say it’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking that people will be dissecting until the end of time.
If Joaquin Phoenix wasn’t already the greatest actor of his generation, Joker cements his status in the record books. Phoenix is the embodiment of anarchy as Arthur Fleck, who shares several traits with Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. Where Pupkin actually had talent, though, Arthur wouldn’t know a good joke if it hit him in the face. Speaking of which, the film opens with Arthur getting his face bashed in by a group of thugs who steal his sign while working. Although the world is seemingly against him, Arthur simply wants to make people laugh. What Arthur doesn’t realize is that he himself has become a literal punchline, as well as a human punching bag.
When Arthur isn’t bombing on stage or trying to cheer children up in a clown outfit, he’s stalking his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) or tending to his elderly mother (Frances Conroy). The only time of day Arthur is able to escape his constant negative thoughts is while watching a late-night comedian named Murray Franklin, played Robert De Niro in a clear homage to his performances as Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle. As he plunges himself deeper into depression, anxiety, and rage, however, Arthur finds that those he once looked up to have made him the butt of the joke. His mother hasn’t been entirely honest with him and Murray criticizes his comedy routine on live television. With nothing left to lose, Arthur is prepared to play what he considers the ultimate joke on Gotham.
Heath Ledger won an Academy Award for his immortal portrayal of the Joker and Phoenix may be on the same trajectory. To compare Ledger and Phoenix is apples and oranges, as both turn in performances that hit their own personal bulls-eyes. Ledger played a winking devil we simultaneously hated to love and loved to hate. With Phoenix, we never know whether we should despise Arthur or emphasize with him. All we know for sure is that we fear him intensely, primarily because society is at the root of his mental illness. Nobody appears to care about Arthur, that is until he starts hurting others. Only then can people no longer look away.
Joker is also sure to inspire plenty of comparison to “Trump’s America,” as it’s called. The film has something of a Donald Trump figure in Thomas Wayne, whose son will inevitably grow up to become Batman. The lower-class view Thomas as a fascist who will only make life harder for the poor if he’s elected mayor. However, it’s Arthur who emerges as the true Trump figure. Arthur doesn’t come from a political background, but as anger floods the streets of Gotham, people begin to gravitate towards the crazy guy in clown makeup. With all eyes finally on him, Arthur can’t help but soak up the attention and encourage the insanity. In the end, though, we can’t place all the blame on Arthur because everybody allowed this joke to get out of hand.