Disclaimer: the following review contains spoilers for Joker!
After a series of lackluster films, Warner Bros. and DC Comics have released Joker, a standalone film in the DC Extended Universe, which was of a disturbingly satisfying quality.
Joker, contrary to other action-packed and allegedly shallow DC films, is a character study that delves deep into the perplexing origins of Joker himself. The film follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a loser clown and stand-up comedian who lives with his mother in the collapsing Gotham City. Arthur Fleck suffers from mental instability, dwells only on negative thoughts, and is afflicted by a medical condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably. His only grip onto sanity is perhaps his sick mother who continuously reminds him of his purpose in life.
Arthur’s transformation into Joker is even more disturbing when considering the root causes of his change. Despite his instability, Arthur was a good-willed man, portrayed through the scene where he tried to make a young boy laugh on the bus. However, his decency was rendered futile each time by those around him. The mother on the bus called Arthur out to stop bothering her child, his coworkers did not side by him when he lost his job, and his psychiatrist remained indifferent to each of his concerns. The accumulation of these acts of hostility gradually pushed Arthur towards a state from which he would never return. Arthur was by no means stable to begin with, but he was also a victim. In this aspect, the film is a jab at the crippling indifference of society.
The film thoroughly explores the Joker drama with striking ambiguity. We are caught off guard when it is revealed that Arthur’s romance with the single mother from down the hall was all the makings of his delusional mind. The sheer fright in her eyes when Arthur enters her flat in reality makes us question the reliability of other parts of his story, and reminds us who the narrator really is. Moreover, the mystery of Arthur’s parentage is introduced. While it is explored in Arthur’s confrontation with Thomas Wayne, the film provides no satisfying end to the puzzle. It is faintly implied that he is not in truth related to the Wayne family, as Arthur kills his own mother after discovering evidence of her derangement. Arthur’s insanity, however, discredits any drawn conclusions. Could this be another delusion to justify the murder of his mother?
"The film is a jab at the crippling indifference of society"
Arthur’s shooting of Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) is a moment of catharsis and transformation. Arthur’s murders were always for a reason. His murder of three rich Wayne employees on the train was to stop their attack on him, or perhaps even for the heroic purpose of saving the woman they had been harassing. Arthur violently stabs his former co-worker Randall as revenge for losing him his job. While some may question his sanity considering the violence of the murder, he does let his other co-worker Gary go. Arthur’s murder of Franklin is one of revenge too, but also one of transformation. When the Joker wakes up after being intercepted and freed by his fanatics, he relishes the attention he receives from the horde of clown masks. At that moment, there was no more Arthur.
Comic book fans will be satisfied with the homages to Batman throughout the film. Thomas Wayne plays a major role in the development of the plot. The murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne is also shown. A young Bruce Wayne also enters the big screen when Joker pays the Wayne mansion a visit. The striking contrast in the fates of the then-supposed half-brothers leaves a lasting impact on all DC fans. Batman fans would have noticed Bruce Wayne’s motivation as Batman when his young self was shown right after the murder of his parents. This is the perfect amount of Batman references: satisfying yet not excessive. The film keeps its identity as the story of Joker told by Joker himself, while leaving it open to the possibility of a sequel.
As stated by director Todd Phillips, Joker is “not really connected to that [DC Movie] Universe and it was really intentionally not.” Its style suggests so too, and we should be thankful for the decision. While this direction for DC may not be a money-spinner in the same way as its Marvel Cinematic Universe counterpart, it will be a chance for redemption of DC’s fan-favorite characters. The depth of this character study film provides DC a solid direction for more quality films to come.