BEIRUT: The Joker is, was, and will always be an iconic DC character, and more specifically villain; a character that has seen himself portrayed countless times, many of which as memorable as the 2D drawings on comic book pages.
After Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, it seemed no actor could upstage the late Heath Ledger’s personification of the clown-faced socio-path.
That is until Joaquin Phoenix dawns the white paint and green hair in filmmaker Todd Phillips’s JOKER.
It’s the early 1980s, and Gotham City is in turmoil and is teetering on the edge of utter collapse; there's only the city and those who oversee it.
This is not the Gotham that any of us would recognize from 80 years of established storytelling depicted on the page or screen. Rather, this is an original, standalone origin of this infamous city and the tragic tale of a man on his way to becoming the city’s most feared villain.
If you’re expecting to go and watch what has now become a stereotypical comic-book genre film, you are going to be disappointed.
This is a character study on the complexity of the Joker and the exploration of his origins: the complicated rise and fall of a bullied mentally unstable man living in a city filled with unrest and injustice.
The film features just enough Gotham landmarks, deftly woven into its grimy landscape, to situate the audience and allow star Joaquin Phoenix’s hypnotically raw performance to evoke the requisite emotions to take this journey with Arthur through the city’s—and eventually his own—darker side.
The problem here is the film’s insistence on wanting the audience to empathize with what is clearly a villain. Arthur, the Joker’s real name, is caught in a cyclical existence of misread cues.
His uncontrollable, inappropriate laughter, which gains momentum as he attempts to contain it, garners no sympathy from those he encounters in his daily life, exposing him to further ridicule and alienation from Gotham society.
Victimizing this character, then allowing him to rise via chaos, anarchy, and violence which at the end of the films grants Arthur acceptance, the one thing he’d been seeking all along, is not only an irresponsible message, but also one that promotes violence instead of empathy.
Many have brought up the idea that the John Wick franchise is just as, if not more violent than JOKER, but something in the way JOKER is represented, the way the story is structured and the amount of realism that is implied leaves this film more open for criticism.
Visually, the film is extremely grounded, and it almost feels like the filmmakers ran everything through a ‘real-world lens’ that makes Nolan’s Gotham feel a bit more fictional.
The dysfunction, the disconnection from the powers that be, that’s the New York City of the 1980s. It’s dirty, every city agency on strike and the ones that weren’t are corrupt - a Gotham that is not New York but is its own dark, gritty, tough urban city with roots in our collective past.
The city, however, is not the only thing that grounds the film.
The Joker’s wardrobe, make up, and character arc are so meticulously crafted to ensure believability and humanity - a tool to further push empathy.
At the end of the day, this film does deserve the accolades it has been receiving for its technical achievements, which include Joaquin Phoenix’s performance.
However, should the criticism dig deeper and consider the film’s dark and provocative ideology, then caution is very much needed.
With the volatile political climate that we are constantly surrounded by and the speed at which people are choosing violence and chaos to be heard and noticed, a film like this is all they need to feel justified in their own views of the world and justice.
An-Nahar is not responsible for the comments that users post below. We kindly ask you to keep this space a clean and respectful forum for discussion.