Origin stories are a tough nut to crack. Trying to bring people up to speed about what came first for a character we know is more of a challenge than meets the eye. In the film Joker, we get a look at one possible story for the creation of one of the biggest nemeses Batman faces.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives a quiet life. Caring for his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and working a variety of gigs for a clowning agency, Fleck is an unrecognizable individual walking the streets of the behemoth of Gotham City, but that slowly will change.
After getting jumped by kids while twirling a “Going Out of Business” sign, Arthur is given a gun by a coworker. Though he knows he shouldn’t have it, Arthur carries the weapon to a variety of assignments. It’s the last thing you’d expect a clown to be carrying, and the beginning of Fleck’s metamorphosis from quiet, unassuming clown to the over-the-top “performer” Joker.
Throughout Arthur’s evolution, we see all the little dark and disturbing moments that occur within the cocoon of his life. The experiences that hurt him, the thoughts he has, the actions he takes and the revelations that percolate to the surface all expose his internal mental illness. We get Joker’s first meeting with one Bruce Wayne (the future Batman, in case you weren’t aware) as a boy, and the structure is there to integrate this story into the Batman storyline.
Please be aware that there is nothing fun or comical about Joker. Phoenix does an amazing job of bringing the internally tormented Fleck to the screen. I feel all the jabs he takes like little gut punches throughout the film. I empathize with the character about his treatment, whether real or perceived. But that treatment does not excuse bad behavior and at the point Arthur changes, I stepped off and rather loathed the villain. All of this is made possible because of Phoenix.
This is not my father’s Joker (Cesar Romero) or my Jokers (Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger). Phoenix develops a Joker who is much more similar to that of Ledger in his madness, but even darker and more real, which is something I didn’t think was possible.
Slower and more methodical than most films within a superhero universe, Joker will shock and disturb some to no end. If you are like me, you feel it’s a great entry to have a much different and frank discussion about mental illness and how we treat one another in a social-media-driven world. We are quick to belittle, quick to criticize and quick to attack. Maybe it’s time for more discussions, deeper dialogue and a touch of heart when dealing with one another. There is help for all of us, even Arthur Fleck. Hopefully more individuals will take that away from Joker rather than simply glorifying the violent actions of the madman. One thing is clear, though — madness and mayhem reign in Joker.
Joker is available On Demand and on DVD beginning Jan. 7. Check your cable system for availability