Warning: Spoilers for the movie Joker follow.
Joker is a lot of things, but it is not a comic book movie. But Joker is, of course, a comic book movie, and this is where people deciding that one type of film genre is considered cinematic but another type isn’t really starts to break down. Just like comic books themselves, movies based on the medium are evolving and changing rapidly. It doesn’t matter what kind of film you label Joker as, because that doesn’t change the fact that it is still a dark, violent, shocking film. Joker finally shows theater audiences what comic book nerds have known all along: there’s a lot more in those pages than just a cartoon and a speech bubble.
We’ve had decades of twenty-somethings in bright spandex outfits jumping around in front of a green screen while amazing special effects and massive orchestras take us through an amazing fantasy world. In other words: incredible cinema.
Then The Dark Knight Trilogy came along, shifting the bar towards a gritty realism while containing the action and special effects of the established genre in a PG-ish rating for the whole family to enjoy. Deadpool and Logan would again push the genre in new directions while remaining distinctive comic book action films.
Joker throws out the comic book action and special effects entirely, instead taking a Raging Bull approach to the study of a character: Arthur Fleck, a man full of delusions and anxieties from a childhood of abuse. This is the rare movie that forces the audience to live with a character with a serious mental illness and experience with him his day-to-day interactions with the public, co-workers, and family. Arthur is a difficult protagonist to watch on screen; here is a man who wants to be part of society but is rejected by it.
Arthur has a simple goal in life: to make people laugh. The problem, of course, is he isn’t funny. Joaquin Phoenix plays the part with humanity and empathy for Arthur. Phoenix’s slow, eventual transformation from Arthur into Joker is a remarkable affair to watch. The performance is at once disturbing and honest. Phoenix and director Todd Phillips keep the characters and city of Gotham grounded in our reality, despite the world being torn out of a comic book. This is not a world of cool gadgets or incredible acts of bravery. Arthur’s world is painful, unclean, and smells awful.
Gotham is a world deeply divided by class: the ultra rich and the ultra poor. Arthur lives in the ultra-poor, struggling as an employee of Ha-Ha as a clown for hire. His medical condition, uncontrollable laughter at inappropriate moments, leaves him with few friends; he spends most nights with his mother watching the late night talk show (hosted by Robert De Nino). When he’s given a handgun for protection, he quickly finds use for it against three suit wearing thugs on the subway. Arthur finds a disturbing zen-like inner peace from the killings, slow dancing with himself, more himself than he’s ever felt. The gruesome killing of the business-class employees sends a riotous ripple out across the city. The ultra poor find a hero in the unknown murderer. As Arthur watches a man in a clown mask drive past, he smiles in self-satisfaction.
Arthur has been violently attacked, fired from his job, mocked in front of thousands by his late night TV idle, dismissed by the man he believes to be his father, lied to by his mother; alone in a world that rejects him, the last sane part of Arthur Fleck dies. A ringing phone and an offer to appear on the late night talk show he so admires is answered by The Joker. In full Joker makeup — white face, green hair, big grinning mouth, and bright orange suit — his persona complete, he confronts a world that has hurt and harmed him, and to which he will soon do the same.
As the film ends, Joker rises above his minions, finally finding the acceptance he has longed for. As Joker, both Arthur Fleck and Joaquin Phoenix are unrecognizable.
Joker is not a comic book origin story. It’s a study of a man with a mental illness and his place in society. We feel sympathy for a protagonist who can commit murder without remorse. We have complex feelings and contrasting emotions for a man who doesn’t deserve them. We reject and accept his actions. By the end of it, we leave our theaters and re-enter a world we recognize as having just spent the last two hours inhabiting.