A madhouse spectacle of violence, in any form of storytelling, has about it a quality akin to an immersive aesthetic experience. You may detest social unrest, agony, and human misery but couldn’t help savour the sight of blood on the streets and the transformation of once harmless people into ruthless criminals. The most dreaded villains rise from the ashes of the rotten values of a degraded society and often descend deep into insanity. Gotham City of 1981, rife with crime and corruption, is exactly the kind of breeding ground that brings out the worst in people.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) suffers from a neurological disorder that causes him random laugh attacks, often in the most inappropriate situations. He does odd gigs as a party clown, writes jokes in his diary, and aspires to be a stand-up comedian. Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian? His mother’s reaction pretty much sums up the potential of his stand-up career. With meagre means to support his crumbling life, he simply tries to exist in a grim, pre-Batman Gotham City and hopes his death would make more cents than his life. Repeatedly assaulted and humiliated, he resists one day and uses a gun he was given by his colleague to shoot three drunken assailants in subway. ‘Killer clown on the loose’ becomes the headline, and the clown mask, the symbol of mass resistance.
Arthur is a child of trauma and abuse, primarily inflicted by his mentally unstable mother, Penny, and her boyfriend. He is misled by some letters Penny wrote to Thomas Wayne, claiming Arthur to be Wayne’s illegitimate son. Wayne reveals that Penny has adopted Arthur and she is delusional about their affair. The series of lies and disappointments fill him with revulsion to a point that he smothers Penny in her hospital bed. The story is told from Arthur’s point of view and he is an unreliable narrator. Arthur has delusions of his own. He is having an affair with Sophie, a single mother living in the same apartment, all in his head.
Meanwhile, when the entire universe seems to be conspiring against him, the popular talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) finds material in Arthur’s piteous attempts at stand-up comedy and mocks him on the show. The clip goes viral and Murray decides to give him a stage on his show. On his way to the studio, and after another brutal murder, Arthur, dressed up in his signature multicoloured suit and clown make-up, climbs down a stairway performing his dance of madness, symbolising the beginning of the Joker as we know him. On the show, he claims responsibility for the subway murders and vents about how corrupt society ostracises the people like him, before shooting Murray live on air.
Todd Phillips’ Joker is a ghoulish, unsettling origin story and an escape from the world created in comic books. It’s an escape similar to the one of Arthur’s, from a picture of misery to a symbol of uprising, from fearful to the feared, from a clown to a maniacal super-villain.
Photo Credits: Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Films