After hearing Todd Phillips making waves recently about how today’s woke culture has killed comedies, I was a little put off by his attitude. So much so that I didn’t want to watch Joker simply out of protest. I didn’t wish to watch a film that Vanity Fair described as about “an alienated white guy whose failure to be funny drives him into a vengeful rage”.

But the more I thought about it, the more his words intrigued me. Here was this movie based on the well-known DC villain and based on the trailers and stories of how Phillips had Joaquin Phoenix already in mind to play the titular character, I felt like I needed to watch the film to find out why Phillips said what he said.

Plus, “Joker” was a real hot topic these days especially when talks of violence and caution surfaced. It got so bad that even the U.S. military got involved, warning people about “the potential for a mass shooter” during screenings of the movie. Phillips understood why but argued that the judgments were very much influenced by “a small group of critics and festival attendees with drastically varying opinions”. He asked that people would watch it and to do it with an open mind.

While it’s hard to say about that, I got more curious to see the film because it has suddenly become more than just Phillip’s version of a Joker origin story. Before the movie’s premiere at the 76th Venice International Film Festival this past August, DC fans had already been speculating about how much violence would be portrayed in it because of the disturbing nature of Joker’s character. And with America’s current state about gun violence, it’s no surprise why many are concerned about the effects of watching this psychological thriller that features one of comics’ most popular but violent supervillain.

Don’t worry, no major spoilers ahead. πŸ™‚

The plot

It’s the 80s in fictional Gotham City where Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his ailing mother Penny. Arthur works at a clown agency and is either working as a sign spinner or entertaining hospital kids.

His life is simple but miserable as he himself is mentally ill, for which he takes seven different types of medicines. On top of that, he has a condition where he would uncontrollably laugh, which happens quite a number of times throughout the movie.

Despite his overall bleak attitude towards life, he dreams of being a stand-up comedian. But his jokes aren’t well-received, especially by talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) who makes fun of him on one of the episodes.

As Arthur feels more alienated by society, he grows more violent. Meanwhile the city descends into crime and chaos, as if mirroring Arthur’s state of mind.

The takeaway

It was a very straightforward movie with a clear plot. Yet it contains hidden references that is very much a social commentary on real-life events.

Thinking back to what Phillips said about woke culture, I can see how that shapes the narrative and finally understand what he’s getting at in the first place. As you know, calling out the rotten from the bunch is something that society is actively doing now which is part of the woke culture. But at the same time, there is a percentage of those people who do it with a mob mentality.

That’s why Phillips told Vanity Fair, “It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter”. It’s cancel culture. Once someone is found to make a mistake, those people would make sure they get fired from their jobs, harassed and shamed online, chased out of their homes and even the country etc. That mob mentality makes them think that this is a victory. So as it gets perpetuated, it becomes celebrated. This means that whoever begins targeting the next “bad apple”, they become society’s new hero.

And so that’s pretty much what happens to Arthur in the film. When he turns to the life of crime, he is deemed as a hero, though not at first because nobody knows him yet or how he looks like without the face paint. But Gotham City celebrates their mysterious hero by wearing clown masks and breaking out into street riots.

Even though Arthur doesn’t specifically commit crimes to be admired, he welcomes people’s new perception of him. For someone who has felt rejected by society all his life, being celebrated and admired is something he’s been yearning for.

But perhaps what had ticked off Phillips the most about today’s woke culture and prompted him to say what he said is that people who go about it with a mob mentality seem to be no different from the people they targeted. Because they take advantage of the situation to satisfy their own desires to mistreat others and feel better about themselves.

This is clearly represented in the film when Arthur puts on a clown mask even though his face is already painted like a clown too. This action shows the hypocrisy of those who pretend to be “woke” when in reality, their actions are morally wrong.

Arthur’s transformation is amazing. Phoenix portrayed the character very well, from being a recluse to a very confident “someone” in society.

Unlike the clown masks, Arthur uses face paint so that the clown face looks like it’s part of his skin. He even brushes the paint across his tongue, a picture of both confidence and desperation. Confidence because he believes that he can be anyone he wants when hiding beneath the face paint. Desperation because he’s really giving everything he’s got into trying to be accepted by society so he wants to embody the version of himself that he envisions.

Even though Arthur remains skin and bones throughout the movie, he uses the face paint to physically change his body and as a way to gain confidence and be accepted into the society that already accepts his crimes.

With the face paint, he’s able to shift his mindset and focus away from the fact that he’s lonely and depressed.

Photograph by Niko Tavernise (via The New Yorker)
Photograph by Niko Tavernise (via The New Yorker)

[Mini spoiler!] Arthur’s obsession with his face starts from the beginning of the film where he tugs at the corners of his lips, up and down. The expressions are a reference to the comedy and tragedy masks or Greek theatre masks. Even Arthur said at one point, “I used to think my life was a tragedy. But now I realise it’s a comedy.”

Another instance of comedy and tragedy is the one on the bus with the African American mother and son. While making funny faces that cause the boy to laugh, Arthur is accused by the mother of disturbing her son. Arthur starts to apologise when he suddenly breaks out in laughter, his condition kicking in. Even though he shows her his medical ID card that explains, she refuses to give in and instead gives him dirty looks. Arthur, unable to suppress his pathological laughter, cries tears of humiliation and rejection.

Once again, Phoenix does a terrific job at expressing Arthur’s pain through his smiles.

But the obsession with faces isn’t just limited to Arthur. In fact, the movie continues to show it in Murray. Notice his facial expression with his mouth to the side. It looks odd but it perfectly portrays someone making a snide remark about another with a friend and trying to be discreet about it.

Maybe I’m starting to read too much into it, but remember that it is Murray who makes fun of Arthur and his unfunny jokes. Murray’s character represents society who mocks people like Arthur.

While the movie does a fantastic job telling the sad story of Arthur’s background and how unfair life and society has treated him, is it telling us to take pity on him and forgive his crimes? After all, condemning him with a mob mentality isn’t morally right either.

Well, in one of the scenes where he’s all dressed up in his suit and dancing on the stairs, Arthur is at his most confident here. And in the background, “Rock and Roll Part 2” by English glam rocker Gary Glitter plays. And if you’re not aware, Glitter is a convicted child rapist.

Wait, what? I know. It’s crazy to think why Phillips would add a song by a rapist to the film’s soundtrack. Is it just for the shock factor? To make the film even more uncomfortable than it already is?

I don’t know. But it certainly does make you think. Arthur is mentally ill, lonely and mistreated by society. Yet, he commits violent crimes and shows absolutely no remorse. However, Glitter isn’t mentally ill nor was he under any medication when he did his crimes. Yet like Arthur, Glitter felt that he was mistreated by the media and the court. He claimed that he was not being heard by the Vietnamese justice and was framed by British tabloid newspapers.

Perhaps that’s why Phillips chose to use the song. Odd and definitely unsettling, but I can understand the role the song plays in this scene.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the movie. It was fun to see the story of a supervillain like Joker, how he becomes the violent killer that we know. I also loved the little details put into the characters and story as it gives more depths to the film.

It’s something that I would probably watch again to see what I missed. And I know there’s plenty more to catch because the film is that full of references, either to other movies or real-life events. The film is as much a different look into the superhero genre as it is about social acceptance.

TL;DR

The Good
β€” Joaquin Phoenix’s performance (he freaking nailed it!)
β€” Every scene contains rich details that enhance movie experience
β€” The cinematography
β€” It’s a story that makes you think about mob mentality in woke culture

The Bad
β€” Some things are left unexplained and too ambiguous (the city’s condition, the ending)
β€” The song (though I somewhat understand its role)