Review: ‘Joker’ Is a Disturbing Look at a Broken Man

Chris Slater

Journalist. I have an unhealthy obsession with The Simpsons and professional wrestling. I like to read biographies in my spare time.

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25 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    With one notable exception, every murder the Joker commits can be justified.

    See, this is where I disagree. There were wrongs done against Arthur, sure. Only the ones that happened in the middle of a beating could really be justified (and only the first two qualified if you’re a fan of Stand Your Ground.)

    The other murders? (Excepting the indefensible one… and this one had to be pointed out to me after the movie.) We can hem and haw over whether or not this person or that person was a right jerkface and whether they deserved a good chewing out… but murder? I can’t get on board with that. Even the scene with the co-worker was portrayed as monstrously as possible.Report

    • North in reply to Jaybird says:

      Agreed. Other than stand your ground arguments for the first trio of murders none of the killings are remotely justifiable.Report

    • Chris Slater in reply to Jaybird says:

      Well, I’m obviously not saying that murder is okay. I’m saying that we see why he exploded in such an awful way. This person affected Fleck’s life in a negative way, so he snapped and killed them. There is a cause and effect aspect to it.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Chris Slater says:

        Please understand, I’m not arguing against the argument that murder is okay.

        It’s more like, um… have you seen The Daredevil series on Netflix? In Season Two, they make a big deal out of explaining how the people Punisher kills are scum. The guy in the pawn shop, for example, that sells him the police radio then has the guy behind the counter offer him underage girls. We see the Punisher flip the sign on the door to closed, grab a baseball bat from the stand, and the scene ends.

        Those of us who are bloodthirsty jerks who would say “well, I don’t *APPROVE* of beating that guy with a baseball bat but you have to understand…” and be able to go on to give a half-hearted defense of anti-hero morality in a world with cardboard prisons and corrupt institutions. If they were inclined to do so. They had cover to make that argument.

        The Joker-associated deaths did not give any cover to people who wanted to argue for anti-hero morality in a world with broken institutions. Sure, the people who he killed wronged him on one level or another, but the movie doesn’t let him (or the audience) off the hook.Report

  2. Would you recommend this movie for a mild Batman fan like me? I saw Batman Begins and liked it and I saw the Dark Knight and kind of liked it. (I never saw part 3). I saw the one with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson and thought is was meh. (And of course, I saw the kids show growing up.) Otherwise, though, I’m not really knowledgeable about Batman and the Batman world: I never read the comics and I haven’t watched the animated series (yet).

    Another way of asking the question is, how much do I have to know about how the Joker fits in the Batman world in order to enjoy the movie. The three reviews I’ve read about Joker (all here at OT) make it seem like a movie I’d want to watch. But I’d just like your (and others’) take on whether a casual Batman fan like me would like it.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      This is one of those wacky questions that haunts the dreams of ultra-fans.

      Let’s say that someone comes up and says “let’s say that I want to dip my toes into this art thingamabob you won’t shut up about… what should I start with?”

      Because there is some *SERIOUSLY* awesome stuff out there. There is also some seriously atrocious crap. There’s also some really, really, really good stuff that you might think is okay but it’s not merely okay. If you had the backstory that *I* have access to, you’d see that there are tons of little gems and callbacks and some seriously rich stuff under the surface.

      But if someone wanted to sit down and read a whole graphic novel, I’m not sure that they’d be well-served by starting with Watchmen. Is that probably one of the best ones ever written? You betcha! But I’m hip deep in it.

      So when it comes to Batman, I’d say that if you’ve seen Batman ’88 and Batman ’08 and have that as your starting point for Jokerdom, then I’ll say that you’ve probably got enough Joker Theory under your belt to see that Joker has evolved to be some variant of what scares Modern Society. In the 80’s, he represented the Drug War and Crime. In the oughts, he represented Terrorism.

      In the now, he represents violent alienation.

      You don’t need to be more than a casual Batman fan to enjoy the movie. They’ll call the city “Gotham” and you’ll recognize that the news stations have callsign letters like GNN and you’ll hear the name “Wayne” thrown around from time to time. There will be a handful of faces that you’ll recognize and I think they’ll do more to pull you out of the movie than immerse you more deeply in it.

      It’s a Batman movie that isn’t a superhero movie. It’s a movie about the guy who became The Joker and you’ll get some sort of idea of what he was like before he closed his eyes to have The Joker open them.

      I wouldn’t call it a particularly pleasant movie. It’s not one that I’m going to go back and watch again (and I saw The Dark Knight knowing that I’d see it multiple times).

      If you like it (or will be glad that you watched it instead of choosing to not watch it), it will have nothing to do with your opinions of Batman.

      If you hate it, same thing.

      If you say “I was into the story but then they showed Wayne Manor on Gotham News Tonight and I got yanked out of it again”, it’ll be, 100%, because of the Batman stuff.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Jaybird says:

        Thanks, Jaybird. I think I probably will (or might) like the movie, because it seems like the kind of movie I’d like, Batman or no Batman.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Jaybird says:

        Is being even a casual fan necessary? I haven’t seen it, but based on interviews with the director, it sounds like he was trying to make Batman for people who hate Batman, or to trick comic book nerds into watching a serious film, or something like that.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Brandon Berg says:

          While I suppose you don’t *HAVE* to be a casual fan to see Joker, I don’t see the market for Comic Book Movies For People Who Hate Comic Book Movies as being particularly rich vein to tap. (I mean, outside of the comedy template.)

          If he pulled that off, he pulled that off, I guess.Report

  3. Mark says:

    I haven’t seen the movie, and I generally don’t care for comic-based movies. This film has created a big splash all over the internet and is bringing a large audience to theaters. Is it this because the movie is that good, or are the people who generate publicity doing a superb job? “Both” is a reasonable response.Report

    • North in reply to Mark says:

      I saw it last night. It’s very well acted and the writing is -very- tight and good for a DC movie. Easily the best in the DC film stable though I grant that’s a bar you would have to dig into the ground to fail to clear.
      It’s also cleverly written so that anyone, left or right, who isn’t an elite plutocrat, can project onto the upheaval that Gotham is suffering and thus is appeals to both the right and left which is an impressive feat.Report

  4. North says:

    I watched this Joker film last night (husband was eager to see it and I was curious so I tagged along). I’m gonna start on the surface and then work my way down.

    Surface impressions: this is a good movie but it is emphatically not a fun movie. I was keenly aware of the passage of real life time. The adjective I would apply to this movie is relentless or grinding; it is a relentless spiral of steadily mounting ruin heaped on the shoulders of the titular character. I would not relish watching it again but I am glad I watched it the first time.

    As comic book nerdery goes it was pretty well done. There are a number of Easter eggs- the one that stood out for me was Dr. Sally which struck me as a direct callout to The Dark Knight Returns talk show scene, “Zex und zex”. The character in the film was lifted, dressed, and even positioned –straight- out of her comic book equivalent though she had a better time than her comic version did.

    The writing is very tight, indeed it’s a sea change in writing quality from the previous DC films I’ve seen. Every previous DC film I’ve watched has had, at best, a vague nodding acknowledgement of narrative logic or plot coherence. This Joker film is written tightly- perhaps because it’s only very barely a super villain film at all.

    Others have observed, quite rightly, that this Joker film is very much a narration of our times. Joker himself is presented almost in a Trump like form in that the titular character is not so much an instigator or mastermind of the current state of affairs but rather a symptom of it. Joker in this film grows up, like a fungus, from the social fissures rotting the body politic of Gotham just like Trump is an opportunistic parasite who has invaded the gaping wound between the GOP’s elite and their voting masses and then has thrived on the gap between the more wealthy urbanists and the resentful less prosperous hinterlands.

    What I’d like to muse on especially is how cleverly the Joker is written to allow BOTH the right and the lefts populists and disaffected to project and identify with, not the murderous and deranged Joker himself, but the grievances that the movement his spark ignited nurses. Right wingers can point to this, obviously declining Gotham and mutter about the decaying moral fiber of the populace, the obvious oppressive regulatory environment and the clear social disdain that the elite and upper class hold for the working stiffs. The visual cues are all lifted directly from late 70’s and early 80’s New York which was the time of decaying old school liberalism that was festering in wait for the scythe of Reagan era conservativism to sweep down upon it.
    For left wingers, of course, the cues are even more overt: towering income inequality; police brutality, the obvious smug superiority of the very wealthy who jabber about the poor needing to lift themselves up by their bootstraps while cutting taxes for themselves and slashing safety nets and social services for those same poor.

    The remarkable thing about The Joker is that its core theme is cautionary; “Beware you moneyed and comfortable elite for if you neglect and scorn the masses below you overmuch they can and will rise up and hang the lot of you from the lamp posts”; but it’s written in a way that those words could be coming from the mouths of a BLM left winger or a MAGA hat wearing right winger and both would sound entirely sensible. That is a very clever hat trick indeed.

    As for the Joker himself? The concept of the Joker is diminished by this film but I have softened on this. It is highly likely that the Dark Knight Rises Joker was simply over-elevated to a super-human power of chaos and malevolence. There’s no way to do an origin story for that creature of nihilistic randomness paradoxically spinning exquisitely timed sprawling plans without diminishing him. But this film never claims to and the Joker is, perhaps, better used as a symptom as he is portrayed in this film, than an otherworldly blight as he is portrayed in BKR.

    Also I felt bad for Phoenix; the things he must have had to do to his body to look like he did in this film are not going to be fun for him to reverse. But he spun his craft extremely well and he deserves praise and rewards for this terrible impressive piece of work.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to North says:

      The movie the Waynes were coming out of at the end of the film was “Zorro The Gay Blade” rather than “The Mark of Zorro”.

      The Gay Blade came out in 1981.Report

      • North in reply to Jaybird says:

        Yes, a time shift. And that did highlight for me one time element I am struggling with. The Joker movie very clearly notes that Fleck was adopted by his mother 30 years prior to the film and Bruce Wayne is, what, 10 in this film? That puts Fleck at 30+ years of age and Bruce at 10 which is a pretty huge gap. That means once Wayne is a 30 year old Batman he’s chasing around a 50+ year old Joker? That kind of strikes me as nuts.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to North says:

          Well, in the comics, the Joker is pretty much always portrayed as only able to physically defeat the Batman because of being inside of Batman’s head.

          Like, Joker knows where to stand so that when Batman comes crashing in, he’ll land in exactly the place where the 50 pound bag of sand will hit him in the head.

          At which points Batman in stunned, Joker can take out a knife, etc.

          When it’s time to only “put up yer dukes”, Batman takes him out with one punch. Joker says something from on the ground that is exceptionally cutting/insightful, Batman punches him a second time into unconsciousness.

          So Joker being 50 isn’t necessarily a stretch. He just has to have more insight than Bruce.Report

          • DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird says:

            although there was the one time that Batman got himself appointed as Iran’s ambassador to the UN and Superman had to stop Batman beating him up and causing an international incident. The geopolitical implications of this didn’t really get explored because it turned out the Joker was doing it as a plan to kill the UN with toxic laughing gas; Superman saves the day by basically doing the mother of all bong rips to suck all the gas out of the building.Report

          • North in reply to Jaybird says:

            He is a lively 50 year old, which ok I know some lively 50 year olds, but that’s with a relatively youthful Batman. Put Batman at a more Batmanish age: 40 ish… and then Joker is in his 60s…Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    There are now debates over whether Joker should get awards.


  6. Brandon Berg says:

    ‘Well, I’m not racist ’cause I don’t have a Confederate flag or go with this protest.’ It allows us to feel that way, but that’s not healthy because we’re not really examining our inherent racism that most white people have, certainly.

    Quick reminder that this is brought to you by the star of a movie which many Very Woke People warned us was probably going to be Nazi propaganda.Report

  7. Mike Schilling says:

    The Joker may be broken, but he’s still his own man. Still worse off is someone who’s broken and merely a puppet.