Joker isn't a bad film, but it is a bad Joker

This review tries to stay clear of significant spoilers, but it's nearly impossible to discuss Joker without delving into the mythos it portrays.  If you don't want even themes and characters spoiled, then stop here.  Suffice to say you should watch it, but try to ignore it has anything to do with Batman and his archnemesis.

His physical transformation for the film is amazing.
Let's just start with the obvious: the reason to see Joker starts and ends with Joaquin Phoenix.  He's shown he can play crazy (The Master).  He's shown he can play vulnerable (Her).  He's shown he can play broken (Walk the Line).  He's shown he can play malevolent (Gladiator).  This Joker is all four.  Arthur Fleck (yes, this film gives Joker a real name) manages to be pitiable and despicable at the same time.  It's a role that gives an actor a lot to work with, and Phoenix knocks his performance out of the park.

But sadly, it's not a very good Joker.

It's difficult to picture Arthur as the kind of villain
that gives heroes nightmares.
The movie traces Arthur's fall into madness, which is driven by a number of factors, including his existing conditions, his history, and the always popular Really Bad Day[TM].  This makes for an interesting exploration of mental illness, but it doesn't feel organic for a monster like Joker.  Arthur's story seems appropriate for a real-life psychotic killer, but the Joker needs an almost mythical origin.  Moore obviously came the closest in The Killing Joke, and few have been brave enough to even try.  This movie makes a solid attempt, but it falls far short of establishing an origin for Batman's greatest nemesis.

In fact, the film falls short in establishing someone worthy of being Batman's greatest nemesis at all.  The Joker is a madman, but he's a brilliant madman.  He is so dangerous to Batman because he's a creative tactician unfettered by logic or concern for self-preservation, as so successfully brought to life by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.  This Joker is a relatively regular schmo who's had a hard life.  He makes very little of the action around him happen, instead reacting to situations as best he can.  It's difficult to picture this Joker posing that much of a threat to Batman.  From that perspective, Joker is a poor origin for the supervillain.

Seriously, does every DCEU parent have to be a dick?
Joker also does a disservice to the Batman mythos directly.  Thomas Wayne doesn't have to be the most lovable character, but making him a real jerk is not a good move.  The death of the Waynes was supposed to rob Gotham of its last hope for decency, sending it into a final spiral into chaos that Batman dedicates his life to ending.  It's difficult to believe that this Thomas will be mourned all that much by the city.  Instead, this Thomas is relegated to the DCEU's growing list of poorly done superhero parents, with a seat right next to Kevin Costner's Pa Kent. 

Ultimately, having Joker be connected in any way to Batman's origins is a mistake.  Batman's origins work best when young Bruce is left with a vendetta against crime itself and its faceless perpetrators rather than any specific killer or cause.  It's part of why the tv show Gotham, while being an interesting take on many of the characters, makes for a weak origin for Batman.  Joker, by pulling the Waynes into its story, muddies things far too much.  The film would have been better served staying away from Batman and the Waynes altogether.

As a non-supervillain, Arthur is compelling
and just a tad frightening.
But really, Joker would have benefitted from staying away from the comic book character Joker to begin with.  Had it not had ties to this character and its almost 80 year history, Joker would have been an interesting portrait of a sick man, the darkness in the world, and the failures of the system to stave off the darkness.  It would be a fascinating turn of tone by Todd Phillips, known for his comedy work like the Hangover series.  Instead, I spent far too much time thinking that this is not really the Joker I'm watching, an unwelcome distraction to an otherwise interesting film.

Joaquin Phoenix may very well receive an Oscar nomination, and it will be well deserved.  The movie sets his Arthur up as a complex, broken man with dreams and delusions, hopes and despairs, love and anger, charm and oddity.  Arthur's madness is compelling and alarming at the same time.  It's a rich tapestry, and Phoenix inhabits it like the master craftsman he is.  But it will be unfortunate that his portrayal will be compared so much to Heath Ledger's (and others), since Arthur is sufficiently far away from the comics Joker that he may as well have been renamed entirely.

JL Franke is a fan of both hard science fiction and hard fantasy.  He has been collecting comics for over 40 years and has been an on-and-off active member of online fandom for 25.  Those interested can find other writings at his personal blog,  When not geeking out, you may find him at a baseball park or cheering on his favorite college and pro football teams.  In his spare time, he is chief scientist for a research and development laboratory somewhere in the Washington, DC greater metropolitan area.
Joker isn't a bad film, but it is a bad Joker Joker isn't a bad film, but it is a bad Joker Reviewed by JL Franke on Friday, October 04, 2019 Rating: 5
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