I'm going to do my best to avoid spoilers in these thoughts, but if you haven't yet seen the film I strongly suggest avoiding reading the following until you have.


The world of Joker can regularly feel familiar. Public services are being cut. Mega-rich business tycoons are politicising their interests. Outraged mobs are galvanised by flashpoint issues. The streets, trains and buildings wear years of economic neglect like spray-painted scars. It all feels eerily, frighteningly relatable.

The reception Joker has thus far received seems to reflect that sense of the familiar. I have seen reviews contextualising the film as a harrowing reflection of our times. Others I have seen name it a recklessly dangerous call to violence. I have even seen some that say Joker isn't quite accomplished enough or smart enough to be either, in spite of its best efforts.

These are, to my mind, not so much missing the point as they are besides them.

Joker is a comic book movie, of this there can be no question. It is an intriguing and compelling origin story of one of the most iconic comic book villains to have ever been created. As such, we should expect Joker to have one foot planted firmly in the world of the melodramatic, the larger-than-life, the exaggerated. That is, after all, the world of comic books, the reason behind why we append the word 'super' as prefixes to the heroes and villains found in the pages of the printed works of Marvel, DC and other such publishing houses. Comic books are deliberately exacerbations of the world in which we live. They are, if you will, dialled all the way up to 11.

Joker reflects this reality. Its angry mobs are faceless (sometimes literally). Its depiction of mental health is one painted in broad and unsubtle strokes. Its violence is decidedly theatrical, both emotionally and, at times, aesthetically. Even as a piece of cinema, Joker feels comic book-like its cinematic inspirations are worn proudly on its sleeves, their narrative tricks repeated with adolescent worship, and even its soundtrack booms in extremes. In every way, Joker is a comic book movie: it is melodramatic, unsubtle and exaggerated.

That some critics are framing their discussion of it, then, in the context of whether or not the film is accomplished enough to function as an effective comment on our society is far more harrowing than the film itself. That such a melodramatic, unsubtle and exaggerated film might even prompt discussions of relatability probably tells us more about the current fragmented state of our society than anything that actually happens within the confines of Joker's story. By rights, in 2019, in a civilised world, we should find no echoes in Todd Phillips' Gotham City, a world riddled with spiteful neglect and near-indiscriminate anger yet here we are, framing our discussions of a comic book movie not in terms of the exaggerated worlds of the source material, but of our actual reality.

So does Joker consciously attempt to reflect our society today? I'm not sure. I can't speak to the convictions of the director or the star or of any of the forces involved in making the film. What I can say with absolute certainty is that it is designed to be an origin story for a narcissistic wreck of a man-turned-serial killer, and through that an effort to reflect the kind of society that creates one.

In this, it succeeds.

Joaquin Phoenix's performance deserves any accolades coming its way and there should at least be some. Anyone concerned about whether his own performance as Joker stacks up against those of his fellow actors preceding him in the role should cast those concerns to one side. It does, comfortably.

Really, though, such comparisons are unfair on all parties involved, because this is such a drastically different take on the character. This isn't Jack Nicholson's darkly comic gang boss, or Jared Leto's try-hard tatted millennial, or Heath Ledger's visceral and transcendent force of nature. Instead, Phoenix's Joker is a fundamentally human version, a deeply individual and shambling tragedy bereft of greater purpose and without any links to the world around him. Never has a depiction of the titular character felt quite so tangible as Phoenix's shrill, internalised ghoul.

It helps Phoenix that the script is written deftly enough to ensure his descent into madness is practically imperceptible. It's difficult to pinpoint where the man Arthur Fleck ends and the monster of Joker begins a fact underlined with a conclusion that will undoubtedly have fans of the film chatting animatedly for years to come. There is no sudden change as we have seen in other adaptations of the Batman universe, and for all its lack of subtlety Joker has no interest in racing to the finish line. In fact, the manner in which the narrative seems to indulge in gradually stripping away any sense of identity Phoenix's Fleck possesses at the beginning from family to friends to even his dreams (both figuratively and literally) feels as perverse as the actions the title character has become infamous for in the first place.

That journey into nothingness is the soul of the film. I don't believe in anything, Fleck says at one stage, with frightening levity; a line that reveals Joker not to be a story of a man finding cruel purpose in life, but of a man learning to enjoy his profound sense of purposelessness instead. This Joker is no agent of chaos, but a result of directionless fury.

The cinematography tells as much of the story in its own right as well. The movie operates almost exclusively with characters out of centre frame, unnaturally angular shots of rooms and claustrophobic close-ups that couldn't possibly bring you any closer to being inside the ironically opaque mind of Arthur Fleck himself. This in turn is complimented by a fracturing soundtrack, one that might be accused by some as being too on-the-nose. For my liking, subtlety wasn't the order of the day, though. Instead the harsh strings and floor-shaking baselines explode as Fleck's inner turmoil worsens, abrasively confronting you with the same sense of unavoidable emotional charge that the central character so visibly struggles (and ultimately catastrophically fails) to navigate.

And then, there is the ending. I will avoid spoilers here but will say, though those surrounding Joker have worked seemingly consciously to distance themselves from the notion that it is a comic book movie, the audience can find itself disabused of any such doubts as the story reaches its almost literally balletic, certainly frenetic conclusion. That conclusion gleefully embraces the heritage of the film's central character (both in literature and in film) and his most important relationship. It is a violent upswell of a climax, reflecting the journey of the central character and beautifully bringing together the composite elements that, in quite sudden fashion, you realise had felt jarringly disparate until then.

It is a single, harmonious moment of symphony housed at the end of a piece that is otherwise composed of forceful contradictions. Fleck's perceivable moments of joy are actually bouts of illness. His laughs, as such, are really cries, and when they might actually be laughs they emerge at all the wrong moments. His dances hide his crimes, his jokes aren't funny and his hero is an asshole. Beside these there are many more that spoilers prohibit me from mentioning here, but in conclusion I find myself returning to my opening point and to the film's greatest contradiction of all.

The conversations about the perceived failure of Joker is its greatest success. Joker is a comic book movie, one that might make a conscious effort to reduce as much of its source material's deliberate theatricality as it can, but one that is nonetheless tied very much to that same source material, at times quite proudly so. It is a story about the lengths a man can be driven to in order to be noticed amidst the flotsam of an almost irreparably broken culture, dialled up to the requisite volume of a comic book character. As such I don't believe it is meant to reflect the state of our own world today, but to reflect the state of a world that can produce just such a story. Thus, that anyone might find in the film echoes of our own world loud enough to give the wrong impression of attempted social commentary is the very societal condemnation that the harshest criticism is levying at the film itself for failing to provide.

So I guess no, is the answer Arthur, it isn't just you. It really does seem to be getting crazier out there.