Todd Phillips’ Joker debuted at the Venice Film Festival to much praise, promising to be a gritty, realistic origin story of Batman’s archenemy and titular character. Many praised its Oscar-worthy performance, cinematography, and story, while some were even concerned that the film would glorify violence and mental health issues in a society divided by hate and bigotry. 

Joker was none of the above. 

Take away key characters like Thomas Wayne and the film’s dirty, rat-infested backdrop of Gotham, Joker is nothing more than a drama about a broken man who stumbles into a life of violence because his life and mental state are unraveling into a glorified shitshow. Without the film’s direct relationship with certain aspects of DC’s lore, it’s not an exciting nor worthwhile film. 

The film initially drags its feet in establishing Arthur Fleck’s mental state and his descent into madness, and once it does, Arthur’s actions feel haphazard and coincidental, not deliberate at all. This man, who is supposed to take on the greatest detective of all time, even outsmarting the Caped Crusader in some instances, should demonstrate more deliberate and carefully considered intelligence and wit, with a sprinkle of madness. Most of Arthur’s on screen presence feels lazy, unintelligent, while his moments of violence are unplanned, spur of the moment killings departing from his intent and magnifying his lack of foresight. 

Most of Arthur’s on screen presence feels lazy, unintelligent, while his moments of violence are unplanned, spur of the moment killings…

The cinematic appeal as a villain of Christopher Nolan’s version of the Joker, portrayed by the late, great Heath Ledger, was that his actions were depicted as being chaotic, spontaneous, and insane, while most were carefully and meticulously planned with incredible thought and foresight. Arthur descends into mindless killing, which may be a trait of a mass murderer, which the Joker is, but not that of a criminal mastermind, which the Joker should be. 

The catalyst that turns Arthur Fleck’s actions into a pseudo social movement to motivate the plot of the film wasn’t even something that he had intended or manipulates to his advantage. It’s just there to move the plot along and Arthur Fleck is just merely present in what could only be described as a shoehorned reference and nod to what’s happening today in the real world. 

Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck incredibly well while the writing fails to give him the nudge to convincingly transform him into the Joker. 

Despite the film’s many failures, Joaquin Phoenix does a commendable job in portraying a broken man at the verge of losing his grip on sanity. His physicality and movement speaks volumes of the character’s mental state as he embodies and fully commits to the character. However, the character of Arthur Fleck is written as a whiny, one-dimensional character that has no motives, no agenda, nor a truly earth shattering moment to convincingly turn him into the criminal mastermind he is destined to become. Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck incredibly well while the writing fails to give him the nudge to convincingly transform him into the Joker. 

Some may argue that the film has stayed somewhat true to its source material, which I can understand and agree with. However, graphic novels like The Killing Joke never convinced me of the transformation that an individual would go through to transition into the Joker. The push towards insanity and transformation into the Joker always felt forced, with little to explain how a once timid, unintelligent, and unfunny man can turn into The Clown Prince of Crime. My problem remains the same with this film. 

Maybe my expectations were too high. Afterall, the Joker is regarded as one of Batman’s greatest foes and even possibly one of fiction’s greatest villains. Joker is a film that made me anticipate how a madman would truly embody his new alter ego to match the wits of Batman, shaking and shaping the criminal landscape of Gotham. Sadly, it was merely a thriller that desperately needed a hero and only offered a whiny, insecure murderer with little charm and charisma.