Joker-pun intended- is a tough nut to crack. It’s the kind of film that would be made by the fiendish prankster himself.
It defies a traditional synopsis/critique style review and demands the immediate unloading of numerous spoilers.
Like the Gotham City elite, you have been warned. It’s an origin story that is perhaps better described than summarized. So here we go. As a film, what you’re getting is a dark, bleak tribute to a couple of Martin Scorcesse’s signature depictions of alienation; those being the groundbreaking Taxi Driver, and the criminally underappreciated King of Comedy.
They’re two films, both starring Robert DeNiro, that depict a man on the fringes of society who just can’t seem to find a way in. Joker has a number of homage moments to call back to these films and give clear context to how this movie wants its’ sympathetic Joker to be interpreted. He likes to act out fantasy scenarios in his living room, with and without a gun. He constantly suffers from delusions of grandeur, with a tragically low bar set for grandeur. He is habitually misunderstood.
The continual references to these two films-one being about a slowly unravelling cab driver, and the other a more comedic depiction of an out of touch but aspiring stand-up comic-are not at all subtle. In case you’re missing it, they even put DeNiro in the movie.
They want to be recognized and when they are placed into the context of what will eventually be a world of grappling hooks and Bat signals-it’s funny in an absurdist way. It brings to mind the best parodies seen on The Simpsons, such as the Quentin Tarantino-directed episode of Itchy and Scratchy, or the musical production of Planet of The Apes. It’s some pretty weird stuff to be mashing up.
Like The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin, Joker wants to be a stand-up comedian. However, his awkward persona, resulting from-get this-a brain injury and extreme child abuse at the hands of his mother and her lovers-have put this a little beyond his grasp. Yes, this is one hell of a dark movie. None the less, Joker dreams of being able to get the laughs, even as things get worse and worse for him.
One of the key plot points in the film is Jokers’ search for his real father, leading him to a rich socialite by the name of Thomas Wayne. You know the family. There’s a pretty strong indication that despite certain documents that seem to indicate otherwise, Joker is in fact an estranged son to Thomas and-most importantly-a brother to his pole sliding son Bruce.
Once Joker flies off the handle, he is described by the media as a vigilante, unloading justice onto some pretty unsympathetic victims. This subjectivity of hero and villain is a key thing that the movie wants to drive home.
Where it gets especially weird is in its’ view of a society that doesn’t know how to face itself. In particular, the mentally ill-such as Joker-go untreated and misunderstood, simply pushed out of view with the hope of being forgotten, or in lieu of any better ideas. This is a very real and very critical issue for any film to address, but especially one that typically falls squarely into the realm of “escapist” entertainment.
Bogged down with such heavy and disturbing ideas, the movie becomes far too dark and gritty for the viewer to ever imagine this desperate and struggling human joker to exist in the same film world as his cape wearing arch nemesis.
Joker doesn’t unload his violence with squirting flowers or extending punching gloves, he uses bullets fired at close range, and with real malice. The additional problem is that this can never be a truly meaningful examination of society failing the mentally ill because “na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-Batmaaaan”!
It’s just not the vehicle for it. The changes in tone and twists in story are often intriguing, but the thing that is probably most off putting for those maintaining any expectation of a film from the Batman universe is the film’s central conceit: Joker isn’t funny. The meager attempts at humor before his transformation are gone entirely once he dons the make-up.
This is no prankster, and he elicits no chuckles. Taxi Drivers’ Travis Bickle talking about getting “organizized” looks like a regular Bob Hope next to this guy. That’s not to say this isn’t an interesting and highly engaging film, however. It is, and it will suck you in and give you much to talk about afterwards.
But its’ Gotham definitely looks like a real American city languishing in the same political, social, and economic climate as the rest of them currently are, without a hero in sight. Somewhere in the midst of all this awfulness, it’s inevitable that the viewer will step back in confusion, remember this is a Batman flick, and have to ask: “Why so serious?”
Mike is our staff film writer, mediocre guitar player, and filmmaker. He graduated from Temple University with a degree in Film and Media Arts, and continues to adore films of all stripes and other unidentified markings-but with a natural preference for ninjas and demons. He’s that guy who was downtown shrieking obscenities at the lamp post when they let Rob Zombie remake Halloween.