Todd Phillips’s “Joker” is a crazy movie, and no, I’m not referring to any of the aspects of the film that some consider problematic or socially irresponsible or whatever. I have thoughts about those things, but for now I’m just thinking about the film as an adaptation of a comic book character, and how what it depicts just doesn’t really line up with the character as established in all the other media he’s been present in.
So, it’s crazy because it’s tough to connect the dots between the character of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) and the character of the Joker as depicted in every other piece of media that the Joker has ever been included in, because this guy just doesn’t really feel like the Joker. In fact it makes us wonder if he’s not even the real Joker at all.
Yes, like most depictions of the Joker, Arthur is clearly not a mentally well human being. In this version, he has a grab bag of mental illness and trauma — basically he has all the things wrong with his head. Honestly, Phillips and his co-writer Scott Silver might have gone too far with that depiction, because it invites the audience to assign any and every mental condition to this person, and possibly associate mental illness with villainy, which is very problematic.
But problematic depictions of mental illness aside, that element at least possibly tracks with the Joker that we know. What doesn’t line up is that Arthur is just not a smart person. I’m not saying that’s a side effect of whatever is wrong with him mentally — since the movie doesn’t seem interested in establishing what his condition is beyond “weirdo,” I can’t in good faith draw any conclusions about specifically why his personality is the way it is. But I can say that Arthur definitely doesn’t seem like the kind of person who could pull off elaborate criminal schemes and go toe-to-toe with Batman.
Imagine, if you will, Arthur trying to pull off all that crazy stuff that Heath Ledger’s Joker did in “The Dark Knight,” like the flawlessly executed bank heist, or taking over all of Gotham City’s criminal organizations, or infiltrating the police, or rigging ferries with bombs and holding the entire city hostage.
Or imagine him coming up with deadly (and genuinely funny) joke weapons, figuring out how to weaponize smilex gas AND managing to get it pumped into hundreds of consumer products, somehow convincing Gotham citizens into attending a parade that will get them all killed, or inspiring the loyalty of his weirdo gangster henchmen like Jack Nicholson’s Joker did in Tim Burton’s “Batman.”
Hell, try to imagine him somehow convincing Dr. Harleen Quinzel to not only fall in love with him, but give up her life and career as a psychiatrist to help him escape Arkham asylum and follow him into a life of crime as Harley Quinn, like Mark Hamill’s “Batman the Animated Series” Joker and Jared Leto’s “Suicide Squad” gangbanger Joker.
It’s impossible to fathom because Arthur simply does not at any point demonstrate that he is the kind of person who could do any of that. He never once displays basic attention to detail or at least some kind of skeptical critical thinking. He has literally no demonstrable skill at dealing with complexity. And he lacks even the vaguest hint of anything resembling charisma.
Yes, I know people can change and grow over time, but Arthur is already pretty old. I don’t know how old Arthur is supposed to be in the movie, or at least I don’t remember if the movie established that at some point — but Joaquin Phoenix turns 45 years old this month. People don’t generally go from being a guy-who-creeps-everyone-out who is also not-a-genius to being a super mesmerizing genius during their middle age years.
Whatever the explanation Todd Phillips and co. want to come up with, Arthur as established in “Joker” just does not line up with the Joker as we have ever known him. So I can’t help but wonder if this whole thing is just misdirection. What if Arthur is not actually the Joker, but just the inspiration for whoever is going to become the real Joker somewhere down the line.
One big potential clue is the Wayne murders, which are carried out by a random protester in a clown mask. As you may recall, the Tim Burton “Batman” movie had the Joker be responsible for the Wayne murders in his previous life as a common criminal. While that idea was original to that movie, it’s possible that Phillips and Silver were going for a similar angle here.
For what it’s worth, Phillips does allow for the possibility that Arthur Fleck isn’t really the Joker, as he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “Maybe Joaquin’s character inspired the Joker,” Phillips said. “You don’t really know.” Not the most committal answer — maybe Phillips himself doesn’t even know, and he’s just going to leave it up to us to decide. Since “Joker” isn’t going to get a sequel and will never be incorporated into the great universe of DC Comics films, we probably aren’t ever going to get a definitive answer.
If Phillips is going to answer that way then I guess I’m just gonna run with this idea as the truth. It’s the only way I can think of to rationalize the fact that Arthur just seems incapable of becoming the Joker for real. Because if Arthur really is the real Joker, then I’m not convinced he’ll ever actually become the major Batman villain that he’s supposed to be. He just doesn’t have it in him.