In a scene in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008), Commissioner Gordon stares into a jail cell at a man with a painted face and dead expression.
“No matches on prints, DNA, [or] dental,” he mutters to his colleague. “Clothing is custom, no labels … no name.” For all the characters in the world of Batman, and for the audience as well, the origin of the Joker has always had an air of mystery. Until now.
Ever since he first appeared in the debut issue of the “Batman” comic book, the Joker’s psychopathic villainy has usually been attributed to his having once fallen into a vat of toxic waste.
But in the latest film based on DC Comics, “Joker,” released last Friday, writer and director Todd Phillips attempts to give the dark knight’s archnemesis a backstory that is more realistic and resonant for audiences today. Set up to be an incisive psychological thriller, the film unfortunately amounts to an incoherent, sickening, and ultimately unsatisfying two hours.
The film opens on Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man struggling to make ends meet for himself and his mother, whom he cares for in a broken-down apartment in Gotham City. A clown by day and aspiring comedian by night, Fleck is socially awkward and suffers from a nervous condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at improper moments.
This premise holds some promise, but what follows is a predictable line downhill for Fleck. It quickly becomes clear that Fleck is a mentally afflicted but good person, but after being repeatedly neglected and rejected by those around him, he eventually falls into madness and unleashes violence.
This story is tragically all too true for many people in our world, and perhaps that is precisely why Phillips constructed the film this way. But for a villain as fantastic and larger-than-life as the Joker, the story comes off as unexciting, depressing, and basic.
Perhaps even more frustrating than this flat plotline is its underlying message, which is that the most evil of villains is nothing more than a product of society.
It is indeed true that structural evils have intensely corruptive power, but “Joker” pushes this reality to a distorted extreme that almost completely victimizes Batman’s worst enemy. In fact, the only reason the audience is given to believe that he is in fact a villain is simply that they’ve been told so before.
No matter how sinister his actions become, at no point does the film suggest that Fleck is ever responsible for what he does or what he becomes. In fact, it suggests the exact opposite.
However gruesome the scenes might get (and there are some pretty sickening ones), this theme actually sends a weak message about the meaning of evil: It’s something thrust upon people, never really chosen, and therefore never really a villain to be defeated.
And by presenting one of the biggest bad guys ever as, well, not really so bad, the film makes a story that’s supposed to be about a mastermind supervillain rather boring.
Within the framework that makes society the sole source of evil, there arises another simplistic notion: The poor and neglected are victims and therefore morally immune, while the privileged are tyrants and corrupt.
Therefore, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is far removed from the benevolent, honest man depicted in Nolan’s “Batman” franchise. Instead, he’s cold and aggressive, hated not only by Fleck but by nearly everyone in Gotham City. This further sucks nuance out of “Joker” and makes it all the more unconvincing.
What “Joker” misses is the understanding that evil can only really be explained in the context of good. The film lacks the one thing that would make it a compelling story: a representation of genuine virtue for the villain-in-the-making to turn and stand against.
Heath Ledger’s Joker quipped to Christian Bale’s Batman, “What would I do without you?” That frenzied statement contains an important insight: Without Batman, the Joker is simply not the Joker. A villain so malevolent and powerful can only really exist when it sees something truly good to hate, fight, and try to corrupt.
Fleck’s transformation into the Joker could have been the antithesis of Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman. Just as Batman’s goodness is amplified because he walked right through the midst of evil but resisted it, the Joker’s evil might have felt a little more real had he been portrayed more consciously rejecting good.
But take away “The Knight,” and you’re left with simply “The Dark,” a formless, vapid mass of gruesomeness that is not even that horrifying, just pathetic.
Finally, the biggest remaining question is how Phoenix pulled off the title role. It might not be fair to compare him to the irreplaceable Ledger, and to his credit, Phoenix does not try to imitate him. He brings his own style to the character: a disturbed but likeable man who is constantly mocked, on the run, and told to put on a forced smile, until he snaps into a rage.
Phoenix’s Fleck-turned-Joker reinforces the message of the film, but one can’t help but miss the diabolically brilliant, darkly humorous Joker who stuns and stumps everyone — even Batman — before his downfall. The performance isn’t a bad one, but it is of an entirely new character, and that character is not a supervillain.
In the world of “Joker,” Gotham City really is the place Bruce Wayne refused to believe it was: an utterly corrupt society that breaks people down and is beyond redemption, fit only to be burned and laughed at.
And maybe that was the whole point: Maybe the backstory of the Joker could only be as cruel and confusing as the character himself. Be that as it may, it can never measure up to a Batman versus Joker film, since it only gives us half of the truth, and therefore half as good of a story.
Editor’s note: “The Joker” is rated R for graphic violence, strong language, and brief sexual images. Readers should take caution of the disturbing behavior and themes. This film is not for children.