Original Joker victim of murder in new film, replaced with pitiful clown

Ysabela Golden, Laker Life Editor

Long before the controversy over incel violence or political correctness, comic fans in 2016 had an entirely different concern when Warner Bros. Pictures announced that they were making a “solo Joker origin movie.”

How do you make a Joker movie without Batman?” Since the villain’s evolution from impish comic relief to homicidal arch nemesis, his character and Batman’s have been closely intertwined. Joker’s cunning and creativity, as well as his dark but often hilarious sense of humor, is sharpened by his obsession with the “Dark Knight” (though whether he wants to kill Batman or just prank him into insanity depends on what side of the bed he wakes up on). Comic fans had to wonder — how was director Todd Phillips planning on making Joker his classic villainous self with no Batman to spar with?

Three years later, the answer is simple: he wasn’t.

Joaquin Phoenix gives a brilliant performance as a Joker who has no cunning, no creativity, and (perhaps most insultingly to the original character) no sense of humor. Phoenix’s Joker only made me laugh once, five minutes into the movie, and judging by the looks I got from the other theatergoers, the scene wasn’t actually supposed to be funny.

Far from a diabolical mastermind, “Arthur Fleck” has barely any agency in his own story — the only actual “plan” he makes over the course of the film is to kill himself, which is… well, just sad, really. Even more depressingly, his dimwitted nature is heavily implied to be caused by childhood brain damage.

If not for his menacing interactions with the only characters in the movie more vulnerable than he is — Gary, a clown with dwarfism who is his only kind coworker, and Sophie, a struggling single mother who makes the potentially fatal mistake of smiling at Arthur in an elevator — it would be impossible to fear this Joker instead of simply pitying him. 

Some have argued that this is the actual point of the movie: a call of action to rise up in defense of the poor, underprivileged Jokers of the world. Micheal Moore, an infamously leftwing filmmaker, wrote in his review that Joker’s only crime is being “the butt of a joke played on HIM by the rich,” and that when he breaks under the burden of that oppression viewers can’t help but root for his cause.

Much like he inspired the clowns in the movie, Moore claims Joker inspires in audiences “the resolve” to “focus your attention on the nonviolent power you hold in your hands every single day.” Many with anti-Republican views have echoed this praise, arguing that the film is making a powerful statement about the need for affordable housing, public health care, and taxation of the wealthy. 

Joker himself makes the best argument against this interpretation. In the climax, an interviewer accuses him of starting the anti-rich riots that are destroying the streets of Gotham. “I’m apolitical,” Joker replies. “I killed those men because they were awful.”

It’s true — Joker’s only crusade is against those who have personally wronged him. If the underprivileged minority children who beat up on him in the opening had been the ones to attack an armed Arthur on the subway, he would have preened from the attention of whoever approved of executing them just as easily as he did with the anti-rich crowd who applaud the murder of Wall Street employees.

By the end of the film he’s killing random psychiatrists because he’s developed a Pavlovian response to the attention he gets from violence, while the have-nots who worship him riot in the streets because their peaceful protests were only ever a step away from meaningless violence. Hardly a flattering depiction of the left, Micheal. These arguments usually also come alongside a dismissal of the “incel” criticisms that have been leveled at the film — after all, it was left ambiguous whether he murdered the single mother and her daughter after very unambiguously stalking her across the city and breaking into their apartment. Clearly nothing to talk about there.

It’s not unheard of for movies to be incredibly well-crafted but conventionally unenjoyable because of how stressful they are to watch — horror genius Ari Aster achieved this to terrifying effect with “Hereditary” and last summer’s “Midsummer,” and the legendary “American Hustle” kept audiences on their seats within the same crime/tragedy mashup genre “Joker” seems to be going for.

Although, notably, “American Hustle” is funny. “Joker” isn’t that either. Early in the film, viewers might expect the miserable pacing to pick up after Arthur “snaps” on the subway in a scene seemingly designed to kickstart the plot of the movie. Instead there’s at least another hour of self-pitying malaise before there’s any noticeable rising action, because Joker being pathetic while bad things happen at him IS the plot of the movie. The last thirty minutes or so are exhilarating in comparison, a brief glimpse of a more interesting “Joker” where the titular character actually does things.

I have a friend who liked this movie on its own terms, so it’s clearly possible to enjoy without projecting your political ideals onto a serial killer. But as someone with a lot of fondness for the original character, the director’s lack-luster interpretation of the Joker prevented me from getting what enjoyment she did out of the film.

Leaving the theatre, I could understand why Todd Phillips had been so adamant about Batman’s absence, even if having a main conflict between a “have-not” supervillain and a “have” superhero probably would have been more interesting than the movie we ended up getting. If Batman had been in “Joker,” its floundering mess of a protagonist wouldn’t have made it to the second act.