Joker, naturally, is based on the DC Comics supervillain, The Clown Prince of Crime, The Joker, in a gritty origin story that is firmly set in reality.
I’ve reviewed many Batman movies and mentioned how I judge the movie more realistically since Batman is a hero without superpowers, but this movie isn’t a superhero movie. It’s a drama featuring a middle-aged man by the name of Arthur Fleck who works for a Clown-For-Hire company in Gotham City during a time of political divide between the “Haves” and the “Have-Nots”.
Arthur lives with and cares for his mother, Penny, in a small apartment. Arthur also suffers from an unnamed condition that causes him to erupt in uncontrollable laughter despite the situation or his emotional state. Although it’s not revealed, it’s similar to a real condition called Pseudobulbar Affect, or PBA, that, according to the Mayo Clinic, has signs that include frequent, involuntary, and uncontrollable outbursts of crying or laughter that are exaggerated or not connected with the person’s emotional state.
I’ve seen the movie before and loved it, but didn’t look at it through my reviewer’s lens and, I have to tell you that this movie, in my opinion, is perfect. So perfect, in fact, that I’ve scored this movie an 11, retaining all 10 regular points and earning an extra point that I’ve placed in Story.
Let’s break this down.
Originality: As mentioned, this is an origin story for the Joker. This is a unique story that, to my knowledge, exists only in this movie. It’s tricky in this category when there is “base material”, but since the story is unique, it deserves full points.
Originality: 2 points
Characters: While there are other people in this movie such as Penny Fleck (Arthur’s mother), Randall (A co-worker), and Sophie (a neighbor), the only REAL character is Arthur. Arthur is the central cog in this movie’s machine. Every single character that we focus on interacts with him. There is very little, if any, interaction between the characters that doesn’t have Arthur present and involved so he’s the only character we ultimately have to focus on.
Being so central that all characters revolve around him, I looked at Arthur’s character growth and the impact/influence of the other characters on Arthur. We know the Joker is cynical so we need to see how he got there.
The movie begins with him getting ready for a clown job. Next, we see him spinning a sign promoting a Store Closing sale. A bunch of kids steal the sign and lure him into an alley where the juvenile gang beats Arthur up and ran away. Arthur is later reprimanded for “leaving the job” and “taking the man’s sign”. It’s important to note in the scene where Arthur is getting reprimanded, he tries to defend himself but is practically ignored, all while keeping a smile on his face. The score implies that Arthur is internalizing these feelings.
His mother criticizes Arthur’s desire to become a stand-up comedian all while nagging him about whether or not Thomas Wayne has written her a letter back. She’s also very sick and Arthur bears the burden of her care.
His co-workers are all clowns so making jokes with, at, or about each other shouldn’t be unexpected, but the crew thinks Arthur is “a freak” or “weird” so the jokes stick a bit closer to home. One co-worker Randall will gift Arthur a pistol, for protection after the incident on the street and then later lies to their boss claiming that Arthur was pressing Randall to sell it to him.
Arthur goes to a government-sponsored therapist who doesn’t seem to actually listen to anything that Arthur says and is later pulled due to budget cuts because of the economic downtimes of Gotham City at the time.
There are a few positive people in Arthur’s world, mainly Sophie (Arthur’s neighbor who he meets on the elevator) and Murray Franklin, a late-night talk show host who is a comedic idol of Arthur’s.
The way that these characters are utilized to spiral Arthur to the place where he becomes Joker is masterful. Everyone is used and no character is wasted. Every move has an impact on the final product of Arthur at the end of this movie. It’s perfect.
Characters: 2 points
Story: Listen, there is no way I’m going to do this movie justify with the retelling of this story. I’ll hit the beats that I find important, but you REALLY have to watch the movie for yourself.
As the movie begins and Arthur is getting ready for his job for the day, we hear on the radio about a garbage strike and how it’s negatively impacting Gotham’s small businesses. After getting jumped, Arthur is given a gun, for his own protection. This gun would fall out of his pants and onto the floor while he’s singing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” to a room full of children in the hospital. For this, Arthur is fired.
On his way home on the subway, three Wall Street type young men are harassing a woman sitting nearby. Arthur, in the uncomfortable moment, begins to laugh. The three guys go to jump him for laughing but this time, Arthur fires his gun, killing all three men, and runs away, simply being seen in his clown make-up.
Thomas Wayne, unaware of the predatory actions that lead to his employees being killed on the subway, speaks so softly of them and so poorly of the “clowns” that are the “jealous poor people” of Gotham City. While on the subject of Wayne, Arthur learns that the letters his mother has been sending him are asking for help for herself and “their son” Arthur.
Arthur confronts his mother and later confronts Thomas Wayne, each with their own version of events. Penny says they had an affair that resulted in Arthur and Thomas saying that Penny is mentally ill, was previously committed, and that Arthur was adopted and abused as a child.
(As a side note, PBA is caused as a result of head trauma)
Despite all of this Arthur does manage to get on stage to do comedy, but as his nerves get the best of him, the laughter on stage creates a terrible set. This set is will be videoed and later shared with Murray Franklin who would criticize and ridicule “the joker on the video” on air, which leads into the ending.
Throughout all of this, we see Arthur and Sophie going out on the town. She’s in the club during Arthur’s performance and she’s with him as he sits with his mother at the hospital when she suffers a stroke. This is one of the few things that brings Arthur joy.
There are so many elements to the overall story that I just can’t and shouldn’t try to pack this all in here. What gives this story a bonus is how well all the elements play into the ending of the film; each element or each action directly leads to the next beat for the entire runtime. There are no wasted scenes. Every bit drives Arthur to the madness that would create Joker. It’s masterful.
Story: 2 points = 1 bonus point
Ending: After the Subway Murders and Thomas Wayne’s interview where he calls Gotham City citizens “clowns”, a movement began in the streets with even the headlines reading “Kill the Rich.” People were looking at the Subway Murders as the rich finally getting what they deserve after subjecting the People to these dirty, filthy conditions while they stay clean and well in their estates. The unknown, clown-masked killer is heralded as a savior of sorts.
While the killer is unknown, detectives have their clues and they’re leading to Arthur. All the while, Arthur is confronted with the truth about what Thomas Wayne said about his mother. This, along with all the events of the movie to this point has led to Arthur’s breaking point.
Arthur goes home but isn’t in his apartment. He’s in Sophie’s apartment. Not so strange, right? They’ve been seeing each other, right? Wrong! Sophie is confused as to why Arthur is sitting on her couch. “Your name is Arthur, right?” is the best line because this is where we discover that Arthur has invented his relationship with Sophie, which I picked up on in a scene where Arthur is caught having followed Sophie earlier in the day. In this conversation, Sophie jokes that when she saw him, she was hoping he’d rob the place. He said that he does have a gun and can just go down there tomorrow, which leads her to say, “You’re so funny, Arthur”. That line is a big deal because they never introduced themselves to each other in their only scene together prior.
Sophie asks Arthur to leave and he does without incident. He goes to the hospital to confront his mother, who also had a history of mental health challenges. She still claims that Thomas Wayne is Arthur’s father and Arthur, in response, smothers his mother with a pillow.
After airing that failed stand-up set, Murray Franklin’s show people reached out to Arthur to appear on the show, so Arthur is getting ready when Gary (a little person) and Randall come by to give their condolences for the loss of Arthur’s mom. Randall says that the cops have been asking a lot of questions and wanted to talk to Arthur to get their story straight. Arthur stabs Randall to death for the betrayal earlier when he told their boss a lie about the gun.
Gary, who was always cool with Arthur, is allowed to live.
Detectives are following Arthur leading to a chase scene. Arthur, in Joker make-up, is on the subway with people in clown masks who are heading to a protest for a benefit Thomas Wayne is hosting that night. The chase leads one of the detectives to kill an innocent person on the train, leading the train to assault the cops.
Arthur makes it to the studio unhindered and requests to be introduced as “Joker” since that’s what Murray called him when he originally aired the clip. On the show, Joker gives this great speech about class and confesses to the Subway Murders. Murray realizes that there’s something wrong and ends up being murdered on live television when Arthur, now Joker, pulls and gun and shoots him in the face.
Arthur is arrested, but as they’re driving through the protests, the police cruiser is hit and people free Joker from the wreckage. He’s then celebrated by the protester in the street, giving Joker the acceptance that Arthur had been wanting all along.
An added tidbit - Thomas Wayne is escaping from the protests outside down a dark alley where the Batman-inspiring murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne takes place.
The ending is so well crafted to close all the loose ends and bring forth a very realistic, naturally developed Joker who is just a man who has cracked and shattered under the social pressures to fit in. Everything around Arthur created a perfect storm that birthed an icon in Joker.
Ending: 2 points.
Enjoyment: This could easily become my all-time favorite movie. It’s not about “What happens at the end”, it’s about “We know how this ends, but how are you going to get us there?”
Enjoyment: 2 points
Total: 11 Points!