This post contains minor plot spoilers and is based on a screening of Joker at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie hits theaters October 4.
There’s a scene in Todd Phillips’s Joker where Arthur Fleck, the man who becomes the Joker, goes on a rant. He’s talking about society, or primarily how he has been wronged by the world around him (something that he talks about a lot). I was at the edge of my seat the entire time, mostly because he was dancing around uttering the phrase immortalized by meme culture: “We live in a society.” After spending nearly two hours watching the origin story of the world’s most beloved villain, it felt like it was on the tip of his tongue.
Since Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight, Batman’s nemesis has been meme-ified to death. Both earnestly and ironically, the Joker character has its own ecosystem of memes, parody accounts, and culture. Most center around how corny he is—regardless of what his origin story may be in a film, his problem is always “society” in general and how people don’t listen to him enough. It’s the stuff you hear men tell you when you’re in your early twenties and nod along to so they shut up.
In Joker, the memes have come to life. Despite taking place in the 1980s, Joaquin Phoenix expertly plays a man who seems like he’s one second away from complaining about how people are addicted to their phones and how nobody really “talks” anymore. The film begins with him playing with a small child on a bus, only until the laughing child’s mother tells him to leave her son alone. The audience is supposed to think she’s mean, and that this is the type of entitlement that asks, “What kind of a world do we live in if a nice man can’t play peekaboo with a random child on the bus?”
Every night, Arthur goes home to care for his ailing mother after working as a clown for hire, and each night they watch a late night television show hosted by his idol Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro. It barely matters that Robert De Niro plays Franklin; he’s just one person on the long list of criminally underused talent throughout the film. Fleck doesn’t have a father, but he fantasizes about Murray becoming a type of father to him. Meanwhile, Fleck’s mother, who has a professional connection to Bruce Wayne’s dad, a very rich man, believes he will extend his their generosity to them. She believes Wayne is a good man, despite his very vocal distaste for the poor, and that he will help them both out of poverty.
Phoenix plays Fleck with almost childlike enthusiasm (until he goes full murder on everyone). He dances like nobody’s watching, tries to win the heart of his neighbor Sophie, played by Zazie Beetz (who once again, could have been played by anyone), and is treated like a fool by everyone for no apparent reason other than that he’s weird. It’s not until his livelihood is in jeopardy that we see just how far he can be pushed, as his actions inadvertently start a revolution.
It’s at this point that I realize Todd Phillips made a movie for people who don’t really understand how revolutions work or are created. The residents of Gotham have almost no details about the crime, and as far as they’re concerned, there’s no motive or anyone who has taken responsibility. In a city that’s supposed to be riddled with crime and murder, would this be the one to get everyone on their feet? Fleck is the least cool Joker depicted in film, and so the entire two hours plays out like a lone wolf white male fantasy. He has no agency in his life until he turns to violence.
The question on everyone’s mind when watching Joker is and will be: how dangerous is this? Will the target demographic of young white men be inspired by this Joker? The film itself, beautifully shot, falls short of making a statement or showing signs of self awareness, which could certainly trick people into fearing its existence is harmful. But there is no real message. This is a fascinating, occasionally charming movie about a clown with an artsy veneer.
Anyone going into the film is likely familiar with Jokers of yore: Jack Nicholson’s dancing and campy gangster, Heath Ledger’s cunning and truly brilliant criminal mastermind, and whatever Jared Leto was trying to do in Suicide Squad. Where Joaquin Phoenix will fit in is unclear, which is part of what makes his performance beguiling—he’s just a regular guy who decides one day that he’s had enough.
Sarah Hagi is a writer living in Toronto.