“Joker” is unique in that it buries itself into realism unlike anything set in the Batman universe before. Most stories in this world have a comic book noir-veneer of a Gotham set apart from the grisly barbs of the modern world. The “Dark Knight”, for example, a dark and melancholic epic, shies away from bloody displays of violence; “Joker” revels in graphic violence as a focal point in the evolution of our antagonist. While perhaps this is novel and fitting for the legendary crime figure, this creation concept of the Joker being shattered by the cruelties of a modern world feels slightly heavy handed.
The foundation of this origin story ruminates on a person suffering with mental illness being broken by his circumstances until he cracks and becomes our infamous villain. Because of the ultra realistic veil that we see this rougher Gotham in, this comes across as the producers making what feels like contrived social commentary on the dangers of cutting social services, poverty, and above all, the effects of these societal woes on those with mental illness. In an unsubtle fashion, “Joker” declares that the world should expect those struggling to lash out in an inevitable descent into anarchy. It is undoubtedly a harmful undercurrent, even if it is a first-person perspective of the Joker.
Likely seeing how dark this comes across, an obvious counter narrative is inserted with third-party dialogue that indicates the director was aware of the implications of the Joker’s thoughts being received as a gospel for the audience. But the realist lens that separates this story from mythical Gotham counterweights this attempt by skewing right from wrong, and so while there is value in this version of Gotham’s telling, the narrative is one that seems to be deliberately nihilistic and obsessed with its own depth for the sake of entertainment. The end result is often satisfying, but also imperfect.
Thus, where “Joker” falls short is that due to its cynical realism, it feels like it’s trying to make a broader statement about a character who has always been tied to meaningless anarchy. Whether intentional or the mere projected musings of a fictional mad man, the concluding thesis comes across as self-important indulgence, desperate to say something—anything that sounds dark and piercing in order to be edgy and controversial, when a bare examination of this central current comes across as a half-baked cover to spice up a well trod comic book character.
As the psycho-analytic profile of a character’s descent into the madness that produces Gotham’s most notorious villain, “Joker” highlights the raw talent of Joaquin Phoenix with the uncomfortable machinations of a broken person. The technical aspects of the film beautifully compliment his performance with an intense anxiety distilled from start to finish. While a mostly successful transplant of a comic-book character into a real world context, “Joker” is a muddled origin story attempting to justify its presence as canon. While worth the admission, it ultimately begs the question of whether this side of the Joker’s story needed to be told, or whether the mystery of the Joker intrinsically makes him more interesting.