I guess I've become truly accustomed to Marvel films. Sure, from preliminary reviews that spoiled nothing, I heard that Joker was a brutal, gritty film revolving around themes about societal decay, corruption, and mental illness, but those are Joker's arch characteristics anyway. I assumed the movie would be fantastical, with fireworks, explosions, and a cackling supervillain breaking out of Arkham Asylum, killing guards and rallying other familiar faces from the Caped Crusader's Rogues Gallery such as Penguin or Two-Face into his cause. Like his character, I thought the Joker would be treated as merely a symbol, a concept, a natural opposition for Batman. After all, creating a narrative that tries to empathize with Batman's most prolific and monstrous enemy is certainly impossible, I thought going into the theater. The Dark Knight Rises focused on Heath Ledger's masterful interpretation of Joker, a concept, a madman anarchist trying to push a nihilistic ideology onto a city embroiled in corrupt politics and decaying values. You could understand a few lines of his character, and you could certainly be swayed by his acting to understand that this individual was certainly unhinged or dangerous, but no one would willingly take up arms with him. No sane person, anyway.
And then, this movie defied every preconceived expectation. When I expected a comic-book style villainous origin story, I got a mentally ill, fragile man trying to eek a life in a decrepit society resembling an apocalyptic hellscape rather than an American metropolis. Joker's protagonist, Arthur Fleck, is more than 'a psychopath looking to kill'. The movie isn't a political statement, and yet this character clearly fits a role meant to provide us, the audience, with a theme, and maybe even a cautionary lesson. Arthur's descent into madness and hatred isn't unrealistic. There is no vat of acid Batman drops him into, and there is no Harley Quinn, or laughing gas, or clown cars. I think after soul-searching for so long, DC's finally found a cinematic flavor it can stick by. Shazam and Aquaman were superb, don't get me wrong, but they're not long-term films that will stick out in the ocean of flashy, comedic, formulaic superhero blockbusters pitting a protagonist and his crew of assistants against an existential threat. Joker doesn't aim to be like its more recent DC counterparts, it's clearly aligning itself more with Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Rising, and still making itself something completely new and original.
You see Gotham itself, a city engulfed by despair, enduring a depression equitable to America's worst recessions. The movie even opens with Arthur Fleck being harassed and beaten by several young troublemakers, and subsequently going to a state-provided therapist to vent his problems. However, it's clear the therapist isn't helping his psychological situation much, and he continues slogging through life with a fake smile plastered across his face. After a co-worker bestows him a gun to defend himself with, and this same gun being revealed during a Children's Hospital gig, Arthur is fired from his flimsy clown job and sent home. Now, this is what really drew me into the movie. It wasn't the amazing musical score, the harmonious synchronizing ending which ties together Batman's Origin into the narrative, but rather...
They made the Joker a human. A human with fears, with desires, aspirations, goals, failures, mental illness. His character is so concretely human. While he eventually develops into anarchic extremist role he's known for by the movie's end, the film portrays this mental downfall in a completely believable manner. I believe one scene portrays this the greatest. Joker/Arthur's idolization of talk-show host Murray. No one could ever imagine Joker ever looked up to anyone beside himself, his colossal ego coupled with his insane ramblings define him as an unpredictable war criminal. And yet, we see the future supervillain actually placing someone else on a pedestal, desiring to become like them, and ultimately becoming disillusioned by them. "Never meet your heroes.", and in a movie which describes the creation of one of fiction's most famous ones, that line is perfectly exemplified in the most ironic way. And so, his journey through Gotham's decay, unable to process the cruelty of those at the food chain's top, and unable to control himself, Arthur falls into criminality and evil. And I understand his decisions and actions, every step of the way.
While I understand the Joker is a psychotic maniac, a theme this movie makes no attempt to subvert, I can also understand his pathway into his state of mind. All the circumstances of Gotham City were poised against a neurologically ill man like he, just another member of a seemingly vulnerable crowd, ready to be preyed upon, only for those with power to receive a rude awakening by the movie's end, when angry riots spurred in support of the Joker by lower-class Gothamites consume the city in a violent whirlwind of death. The Joker is unlike any DC movie, or any movie I've seen before. I've understood villains, and I've made them a major aspect of how I can enjoy a film, but I've never been so invested in the rise of one quite like this movie. If DC continues on this track of making realistic, gritty reimaginings of everyone's favorite comic book characters, making them into something fit for a drama or horror thriller, I believe they'll have finally found their equal footing against Marvel's Cinematic Universe.
Joker? 10/10. I highly recommend you all watch it.