“Joker” that begins as an origin story, set in Gotham City, is the story of Arthur and his descent into madness. The films attempt to create a counter-narrative to the originless Joker, previously played by actors like Ledger and Leto but digresses into much more, and without necessity. In a way, it also represents the chaotic city as fragile and at the brink of destruction, such that absolutely anything triggers violence in that space. This is textbook Gotham City, very much in alignment with the comics. While it is well established that Phillip’s Joker is far from comic accuracy, the portrayal of the murder of Thomas and Martha amidst the chaos, in the end, is a seemingly confusing detail to add to the scene. What was the intention behind the parallels created between Joker’s moment and the murder of the Wayne’s? What was the intention behind the selective referencing to the comics? Perhaps the necessity to align with the familiarities, about the character, the Wayne’s and the city, that the audience already has, had something to do with the inclusion of these details. However, it remains unclear and portrays the script as a somewhat shabby composition.
The sinister and quite psychotic representation of Joker as a character is juxtaposed against the cruelty that Arthur faces in daily life. It is the inability to cope with this cruelty, that in actuality makes the audience empathize with Arthur just enough before they are left witnessing the violence he perpetrates. The characters descent into madness, by the time the film reaches its climax, digresses into a class commentary through the representation of Thomas Wayne as an apathetic capitalist opening his campaign for mayor, who just called the economically lower classes “clowns” who couldn’t make it, as a comment on the recent subway murders committed by a clown, on national television. The narrative opens with an introduction of the perspective of a well-established villain in the DC universe, and in a way humanizes him. The audience enters Arthur’s mind, they are made to feel his experiences, they are made to empathize with Arthur through the lack of empathy that his reality shows him. It is one of the most compelling factors about the representation of a villain, the introduction of his perspective.
The class commentary emerges from the agitated city that takes to the streets because of Thomas Wayne’s comment about the lower class. This unrest is seen by Arthur as the crowd recognizing him, acknowledging him. Arthur feels noticed. The narrative progresses into a stage that dissolves Arthur’s madness into the rage of the crowd protesting, blending their identities. In becoming no one, when everyone takes up the disguise of a clown, Arthur becomes someone. It is almost as if Arthur’s descent into madness is metaphorically paralleled with the city’s descent into chaos. It is through the destruction of the city, at the moment when everyone assumes Arthur’s identity as the joker, Arthur has his moment of recognition. The element of class commentary seems like an unnecessary subplot, it is utilized for the introduction of Thomas Wayne, and nothing else.
Arthur’s outbursts are deranged and terrifying, but more importantly, they highlight his descent into apathy. Arthur who does not know how to cope with the cruelty of the world succumbs to that very cruelty. The discursive dialogue the film that opens around the lack of civility and empathy in the world seems to meet a dead end as Arthur’s mental health digresses, leaving him apathetic enough to develop a blood lust. On the Murray Franklin show, the tension builds up as Arthur talks about how murdering three young men was funny to him because of the fact that nobody is civil anymore. The camera lingers on his face in a close-up shot highlighting his bloodshot eyes, against the white paint on his face, as he looks at Murray, anger building inside him. Arthur yells out that people get what they deserve for treating other people like trash, justifying the violence, the murders in public. The scene foregrounds the chaos that will follow, in the city, which Arthur will be pleased as he looks at, as though it is his own creation.
Joaquim Phoenix’s Joker seems to be a revival from the dissatisfactory performance of Jared Leto in “Suicide Squad” for some who belong to the DC fandom. His performance is compelling enough to incite empathy and fear. Phillip’s Joker is unfamiliar to the audience who come with the comic book baggage to the film, or those who have witnessed Ledger’s brilliant fear-inducing psycho-killer. Arthur is new, he is different, pitiful and impulsive, with just enough sadistic violent tendencies for the audience to find him familiar. The shortcomings of the film, remain in the script which attempts too hard, through instances like Murray’s random stumble upon Arthur’s clip that he uses to make fun of him. It was simply a one-step build-up to bringing Arthur into the public eye, a step that lacks narrative flow. The film utilizes its visual apparatus such as the hues of blue to highlight the tone of the city of Gotham in all its deadening vibe and the systematic flickering of the lights in the subway that sync with the schismatic snapping of Arthur’s mind, that leads to the first murder. It is through this pastiche of perspectives of not only Arthur’s illness, his reality, his abusive past, the class commentary, that the narrative attempts to present an origin story to the originless supervillain from the DC universe, but inevitably ends up merely presenting an underwhelmingly evil but overwhelmingly troubled character that incites more pity than fear.