‘Joker’ Movie Review: Compassion, Not Condoning

Joker has caused quite a stir for making the legendary Batman villain the protagonist of his own movie. Some have expressed worry that the film glamorizes a character lashing out violently against an unforgiving world. In an age when killers commit mass shootings and justify themselves with manifestos, that would be an irresponsible message. 

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker | Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures

Joker is not irresponsible in its message. While Joker is intensely frank about the circumstances that can lead social outcasts to commit violence, its message is clearly that we should take better care of people in need before it gets that far. 

The Joker wasn’t born in a vacuum

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a sign twirling storefront clown next to a porno theater circa 1981, judging by the titles on the marquees of other legitimate cinemas. He sees a government social worker and has a disorder where he laughs uncontrollably. Gotham City seems to be a world without compassion for people like Arthur, which is not too dissimilar from the real world of the early ‘80s and even today.

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker | Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s not to say that compassion could prevent violence altogether, but it couldn’t make the world any worse. Joker has empathy for Arthur. The film understands the circumstances that can create a Joker. Arthur slips through the system due to budget cuts, so now he’s off his medication too.

If a comic book movie can raise awareness for the negligence of mental illness, then great. Have incidents of texting and driving declined since Doctor Strange? Someone should study how these movies are saving society.

Joaquin Phoeniz in Joker
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker | Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures

The filmmakers led by director Todd Phillips create an intense descent into Arthur’s madness. He worships talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) and fantasizes about Murray being his father figure. Arthur’s laughing becomes exhausting to witness. Imagine actually having that condition. Phoenix does the creepiest dance since Buffalo Bill. 

This Joker didn’t dance with the devil by the pale moonlight

This is one possible Joker origin. There have been others where he’s just a violent anarchist. There are others where he’s named Jack Napier or Jeremiah Valeska too.

Joker makes interesting use of Batman backstory. There are things we always see from Bruce Wayne’s point of view. From the outside they could have very different meanings. Also see if you catch the Due Date Easter Egg. That sets Due Date in the DC Universe, although it takes place 30 years after Joker.

Joaquin PHoenix in Joker
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker | Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s remarkable to see a comic book movie that’s not an action movie. And don’t say Ghost World or American Splendor. You know what I mean. Joker is a Batman adjacent movie that’s total character drama. It would be great to see this Joker in a Batman movie.

Joker looks like a film from the ‘70s. The tint is yellowish like film stock used to look, and Gotham City looks like a pre-Giuliani New York. That seems like a much longer ago but it was only in the mid-’90s that New York became more touristy. Joker’s Gotham City looks like the New York that drove Travis Bickle to violence too. 

The last laugh

Joker is a cautionary tale. It’s saying, “Don’t create Jokers. They won’t just go away if you ignore them.” There are surely viewers who misread it, just like there are soldiers who cheer Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker | Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures

The movie was never going to help those viewers anyway. Joker is for the people standing on the sidelines acting like there’s nothing they can do about it. We can and if we don’t, this could happen.

If that’s too deep for you, it’s still a gripping drama about a character unraveling. It’s the kind of daring, intense movie that only sneaks through the studio system anymore when it’s attached to a major franchise like a comic book, so I celebrate Joker.