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Did We Need a Character Study of the Joker?

Todd Phillips’s new movie goes deep into the past of Arthur Fleck, but there may not be much to get about this antihero

DC Comics/Ringer illustration

Before he can become the Clown Prince in Todd Phillips’s Joker, Arthur Fleck first has to die.

Over two grueling hours, Fleck is gradually betrayed by the bleak circumstances of gritty, ’70s-era New York (or thereabouts); what few friends and little family he has; his own neurochemistry and comedic timing; at one hilarious moment, an exit-only sliding door. Joker’s job is to coronate its namesake, but also to brutally depict the life of Arthur Fleck and his descent into madness. Oftentimes, because there’s not really a Batman to measure him against, yes, this feels a lot like sympathy.

Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, begins the movie as a beige, moist 30-something, a hapless and apparently sexless loser partly employed as a party clown. Narratively, he is invisible—Fleck’s voice scarcely rises above a kind of apologetic whimper. He even bores his therapist with his homicidal ideation. But by the end of Joker, he’s chuffed with himself—a snapping, swinging, polyester-suited agent of chaos, with only trace amounts of the docile Fleck underneath. This is in large part due to Phoenix’s transformative acting, whether it’s the way his face seems to contort itself into an entirely new, inhuman face as he laughs, or the way his back contorts itself into an entirely new, inhuman back as he dances alone to songs no one else can hear.

Phoenix’s acting is one of two things Joker really has going for it. The other is the visual grammar of Phillips’s first foray into IP, which is better articulated than other comic book movies. Joker is a moody film that doesn’t seem as though it were made with future ones in mind, and occasionally, it’s actually, conventionally beautiful. It’s also grounded in the literal sense, with most of the film taking place at eye level, where it would be impossible to glimpse a costumed crusader zipping between buildings overhead. Those long shots of Phoenix swaying to Sinatra in a dingy public bathroom, or clomping down the flickering halls of a psychiatric hospital in ill-fitting shoes—they deserve a long second look, if just for looking’s sake.

There is, however, plenty wrong with Joker. Phillips told the Los Angeles Times that no one was going to fly in his movie, “no buildings are going to collapse.” He imagined Joker as a character study. But there’s not much to get about the character: He’s an aberration, present solely to make Batman, and the audience, consider their definition of justice. To explore it further than that is to invite chaos and, well, that’s what we have.

The movie has been out for 100 years already, and there is probably still more to be written about how irresponsibly it handles mental illness, or how it shies away from divining whether a psychotic break or societal collapse is to blame for Arthur going “werewolf,” as he calls it. His uncontrollable laughter is a medical condition that more than likely arose from child abuse; the crushing distance he feels between himself and everyone else is due to socioeconomic disparity, but also late-night television, Byzantine city politics, and just, like, people being mean and impatient. Depending on how in the mood to overread you are, or how prescriptive you think art should be, that could either mean that Joker can’t get a bead on its messaging, or that the reason the Joker blew Robert De Niro’s brains out on live television isn’t all that important. Either way, Phillips does tend to handle Fleck’s psychosis much like how Alan Moore handled the vat of magical Joker-making acid in The Killing Joke. It’s one in a series of tipping points, meant to help the character arrive at a predetermined conclusion.

Joker’s biggest problem is that it’s a comic book origin story, and a necessary condition of comic book origin stories (aside from being tedious) is, well, all of the convenient stuff. Although Arthur is profoundly alone, the world revolves around him. He learns about the abuse and neglect of his childhood in literal newspaper clippings; he lands on a popular late-night show after absolutely bombing his first-ever stand-up set; he waltzes through a protest, past a police line, into a ticketed gala, and right up to Thomas Wayne. The most convenient plot development, however, would have to be the clown riots, a fully formed consequence of a handful of subway murders that might not have made the papers if Gotham were truly as bad as the trash on the street suggests. Joker—by this point fully formed and, for the record, the person who committed the subway murders—evades two detectives in the chaos to make his fateful late-night appearance.

I began, in that moment, thinking about the Joker’s henchpeople in The Dark Knight, always telegraphed as young, angry, or otherwise impressionable, and different in every scene. I saw, at the end, the sea of 20-somethings in M65 jackets and clown masks, lifting Joaquin Phoenix out of a smashed squad car, and raising him to the station of Venerated Antihero. That’s one other thing Joker has going for it, an answer to the question of why anyone would project their beliefs onto someone who, if they knocked over a post office, would almost certainly get picked up six blocks later. It can really happen only by accident.

“I don’t believe in that,” Joker says of the protests raging outside, just before he goes onstage. “I don’t believe in anything.”