I saw the movie Joker, and wow! It’s a movie that was nominated against Parasite for the title of Best Picture of the year. That’s really something!
Joker is basically a Batman movie in the same way the The Lion King is an adaptation of Hamlet. Like, sometimes you’ll be like “yeah, I can see it” but most of the time it’s its own thing. It they’d called it Arthur the Clown Has a Bad Day and changed the name of the Wayne family to the Musks, it wouldn’t be a comic book movie at all.
It wasn’t terrible. Joaquin Phoenix is a great actor, and he puts on a great performance. I also personally really liked that the shape of his face was perfect for clown makeup. Like it was very angular with a sharp nose, which is more like your classic Killing Joke Joker design than Heath Ledger’s square jaw or Jared Leto’s pretty little boy band face. That’s my review overall, I guess.
I had to watch this film because I was writing about the costumes, but I’m here to assure you that you do not need to watch it if you’re not already so inclined. It’s not necessary at all! Instead, I've rounded up a bunch of other things you could engage with that would give you the same experience.
Watch any other piece of media set in New York
So technically, Joker is set in “Gotham City.” Usually the point of such a fictional setting is to hint at a real, recognizable place but have the creative flexibility to make it heightened in some way or play out a thought experiment on how the real city could be. Not here, though — it’s just super obviously New York. The residents have 212 phone numbers and the characters ride standard-issue MTA trains with “GTA” labels slapped on them, and they get off at actual New York subway stations in the Bronx that didn’t even get different names. You can get the same vibe by watching Broad City or whatever. Just watch Taxi Driver! Then you get the added benefit of seeing Robert DeNiro take on a role he’s more suited to than “affable late-night comedian.”
Sit through *NSYNC’s “I Drive Myself Crazy” video
In Joker, mental illness can mean anything the story arc needs. Arthur is delusional sometimes, but he’s also able to keep up with his calendar enough to coordinate an appearance on a late-night show, where he’s able to deliver a perfectly coherent speech. He can plan murders just fine. Mental illness comes from head trauma, or from genetics, it’s not clear. Mentally ill women abuse their children and then they’re fine and neither of them remember it.
You can get the same basic idea, plus the exact same all-white asylum aesthetic, if you just watch the video for *NSYNC’s rightfully forgotten ballad “I Drive Myself Crazy.” Sure, it’s very offensive to the mentally ill (because of its mocking impressions) and mental health professionals (because of the sexy lady doctors attempting to seduce their patients) and women in general (because of how all their girlfriends get locked up at the end for no clear reason). But at least you’ll get to marvel at how excellent JC Chasez’s vocals were and ponder small details like how badly Justin Timberlake wants to think of himself as an actor and how Lance Bass only gets about 3 seconds of screen time with his lady love interest.
Watch clips from Step Brothers
The first scene of the movie builds sympathy for Arthur Fleck by showing him, a party clown booked to spin a sign on the sidewalk, getting bullied and beaten by a gang of street toughs. They are so needlessly, wildly cruel that it feels clearly contrived for the plot, but that’s not even my biggest problem here — it’s that the tormenters appear comically young.
That little tagalong in the back appears to be about 10, and the cutie in the newsboy cap is not selling “menace” to me at all. It’s basically the playground scene in Step Brothers but played straight, and it’s pretty silly, so you might as well just watch the version that’s silly on purpose.
Meander through a Hot Topic
This take on the Joker is not as DARK AND TWISTED™ as the one we get in the Jared Leto-not-vehicle Suicide Squad, but it goes there from time to time. I was particularly shocked — shocked! — by the sign in his therapist’s office that says “It’s normal to feel trapped.” Society, am I right??
Another super fucked-up scene sees Arthur take a marker and change a sign reading “DON’T FORGET TO SMILE” to “DON’T SMILE.” Ouch!! I cut myself on that edge!
I think you could get the same thrill of malfeasance and rebellion by wandering through your local Hot Topic and seeing what keychains and t-shirts they’re selling these days.
Spy on me when I’m home alone
Arthur Fleck is mentally ill, and you can tell because he does weird stuff like dancing dramatically around his apartment, manically scribbling jokes in his notebook, and acting out fantasy conversations he’d like to have with celebrities he likes. This is all just shit I do on the regular when I’m left alone for any period of time. Sure, at one point he climbs into a refrigerator and hangs out there for a while, and that’s odd, but the last time my roommates were out of town I sang through the entire Cabaret soundtrack and caught myself yelling “You’re being disrespectful” at a pot of sauce that had the audacity to spill everywhere when I dropped it on the floor. Maybe the real madness is the society that warped us along the way, et cetera.
Watch that clip of Gaga singing “Shallow”
A Star is Born is a film that has been made four times, every adaptation reflecting its era. That means, naturally, that in the 2018 version said star gets born by going viral on the internet. She gives a knockout performance, someone catches it on camera and uploads it to YouTube, and the plot can get going.
One of the most baffling parts of Joker is that it uses this same plot device, despite being a movie set in 1981. Arthur’s laughing tic comes out during a stand-up routine at an open mic night, and somehow someone films it and mails the videotape into The Murray Franklin Show. It becomes a hit, with people calling in to request more from the mentally ill man having a breakdown during a performance. It’s not a funny or compelling clip, so it would absolutely never go viral in any era, and it’s never explained how someone snuck a video recording in a small comedy club IN THE YEAR 1981. So just watch that “Shallow” clip, which is the best part of A Star is Born anyway, and you won’t have as many pesky questions running through your head.
Revisit the Max Headroom incident
The climax of this movie kicks off when Arthur, having been off his meds for weeks and dealing with a bunch more bad stuff that pushed him to the edge, is booked as a guest on The Murray Franklin Show. You can tell that he’s fully nutso at this point, because he’s taken on a feminine affectation that’s very flamboyant — that’s a fun way for a straight performer to show that he’s really acting up a storm. Arthur is now going by Joker, because of how Murray introduced his viral video clip with “get a load of this joker,” because this movie is subtle. He takes the opportunity to deliver a full manifesto about society and confess to two murders, and the producers just let this happen on live television, and Murray engages with it like a real interview instead of shutting the whole thing down because the film needs Arthur to make a big speech about his purpose. And then he murders Murray on live TV.
I would recommend just watching footage of the Max Headroom broadcast interruption if you want to see something deeply disturbing happening on live television. As a bonus, this is actually real, so you don’t have to suspend your disbelief as to why a late-night comedian would actually interrogate the motives of a clearly unstable confessed murderer instead of throwing to commercial and getting the cops involved.
Enjoy any other adaptation of Batman. Take your pick!
There was a brief second, when riots began breaking out across Gotham, that I thought “huh, this film is smart enough to imply that this is probably when Thomas and Martha Wayne get killed without actually showing it” and then the film actually showed it, shot exactly how it always is — dark alley, pearls flying everywhere, closeup on sad little boy.
I guess it’s an interesting twist that Batman’s origin story is a night when the city is overrun with bloodthirsty, anti-capitalist clowns. It really makes it that much more poignant that the Clown Prince of Crime himself would be Batman’s arch-nemesis one day, even though in this universe that will mean a thirty-something billionaire with a chip on his shoulder fighting a frail and very mentally ill man in his late 60s.
Just watch Fight Club!
Joker ends with riots breaking out all over the city, one unstable man having unleashed chaos by lashing out against society. Arthur is momentarily knocked out and the violence continues, showing that it’s greater than one man now and his participation is meaningless next to the movement he’s started. It’s just the ending of Fight Club. It’s Project Mayhem. Watch Fight Club instead! That’s another movie that disaffected white dudes love, but I think Fight Club is good!
But wait — is it the end?! Because after the riots, we cut to an all-white room where Joker is clearly InStiTuTionALiZed and we realize that maybe ~~iT WaS aLL iN HiS hEaD~~
Again, Fight Club did that conceit better. Fight Club has a clear structure that allows the audience to accept the reality they’re presented initially, but the same earlier scenes work on another level when the twist is revealed. Joker spends the entire movie hinting that anything can be a delusion, up to and including the entire film, so there are ultimately no stakes at all. Did any of those murders make you, the viewer, feel bad? Sorry, sucker, but they might not have happened at all. Is Arthur even the Joker? Maybe one of those rioters in the clown masks at the end were inspired by him to become the real Joker, and you just watched an origin story for some random guy! Maybe the entire thing was a waste of your time! The joke was on you, all along!
Just watch the SNL parody