Joker ★★★★

Road to My End of the Decade List - Movie #47

He's the villain Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs.

For about as long as I've watched comic book movies (I never got into the comic books themselves, so I can really only speak from one perspective), the Joker has been my favorite comic book character. His acts as a perpetrator of violence and an agent of chaos reflect deep-seeded social issues and reveal hidden darkness within the human spirit. And his ability to perfectly juxtapose and antagonize Batman (my favorite superhero) makes him just about the best villain I can think of. Though most of this adoration for the characters of Batman and Joker stem from Christopher Nolan's masterpiece The Dark Knight, my fascination with the pair has grown past it. That's what made me so excited for this new installment in the comic book movie genre, not to mention so anxiously attentive to the controversy that surrounded the film leading up to its release.

This thing is laden with flaws. The screenplay sometimes feels awkward and far too on-the-nose. Some moments that revealed connections with the Batman aspects of the DC universe felt somewhat forced and unnecessary. Alfred Pennyworth was in it and it was absolutely terrible. But it's also filled with aspects I adored. Joaquin Phoenix's performance is obviously a highlight (not to be that guy, but literally give him an Oscar already). I enjoyed a lot of the cinematography, the storytelling was impressive and interesting, the tone was utterly engrossing and atmospheric, and the whole film was bolstered by a stellar musical score. There's so much to talk about. I haven't even mentioned how it uses setups and payoffs with near perfection, or its fantastically gritty and satisfyingly sparing use of violence, or any other detail. There's so much more to discuss.

What preoccupies my mind, however, is still that central controversy. Is the film too forgiving of its deeply flawed protagonist? Does it come too close to endorsing the acts of violence that he commits? Will it provoke violent minds and incite violent situations?

In some ways, I'm not much closer to knowing the answers to those questions than I was before seeing the film. I think it's safe to say that the movie doesn't take the side of the titular character, but I also think it may end up taking years for me to fully understand how I feel about this movie's political stance and where I lie in the conversation surrounding it. It's unclear whether the muddled social messages are due to an understanding of the issues' nuance or just because the filmmakers themselves are confused by them, but neither would surprise me. The sociopolitical themes are far-reaching. Hell, it even dissected the sociopolitical implications of the Wayne family and Bruce's eventual role within it and within Gotham. And, in the end, it's hard to say for sure what the movie is going for with all of this, but it functions not as an excuse for acts of violence but as an exploration of why they occur. As I now understand it, it is a bold left-wing critique of wealth distribution, the unfair treatment of the impoverished and mentally ill, and how such factors create violent, unhealthy, and wholly unjustified behaviors, not to mention the utterly terrifying dangers of endorsing such behaviors.

But that's not where the conversation ends. This movie is a lot smarter than people are going to give it credit for. It knows it cannot answer some of the questions it brings up, it cannot reconcile the controversy of its subject matter, and it cannot clear up the social issues it seeks to discuss. But maybe that's the point. Who's to say how much empathy society should afford someone in the face of difficult circumstances who may turn to violence? Who's to say if that someone functions as a terrorist, a revolutionary, a rebel, or simply someone with a gun? Is it dangerous to assume that some of the responsibility lays at society's feet for creating that someone, or at least their environment? Likewise, it is reductive to say otherwise? So here we are, at the brink of 2019's end, with the conversations around police brutality, gun violence, structural discrimination, wealth inequalities, terrorism, political correctness, and fascism only growing. We're still struggling every minute to find the answers, so if you thought the Joker movie would have them, think again. Maybe its stance on its own commentary should be more fleshed out, but, in the end, making a conversation is just about the most powerful thing this movie could do, and it sure as hell has. I know I'll be thinking and talking about it for a long time to come, because I can say right now that it affected my emotions more viscerally than any other movie of the year.

Added to:
My List: Top 1000 Greatest Films of All Time
Ranking: 2019, First Time Watches
Top 100 2010s Films
Ranking: 2019
Top 25 Superhero/Comic Book Films
Top 100 Political, Legal, and Social Issue Films
Best Performance of Each Year (1920-2019)
The Road to My End of the Decade List

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