Some people call me the space cowboy

I put off seeing Joker. To be frank, I didn’t see the point of it. The character has been portrayed on screen by some real heavyweights. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his performance in The Dark Knight (and it was well deserved in my opinon). Jack Nicholson created what was, for the longest time, the quintessential version in Tim Burton’s Batman.  Cesar Romero owned the character during his run on television. And, of course, Mark Hamill has been the voice of the clown prince of crime for years. The Less said about Jared Leto the better. What I am saying is: we have had enough of The Joker for quite some time.

Add to that the fact that this is a character that works better without an origin story. That he is a mystery is part of what makes the character compelling. Attempts to create a backstory have mostly been unconvincing and uninteresting. The real exception was in Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke”, but even that is never meant to be treated as cannon.

So, I thought I might just skip this one.

I changed my mind.

I watched Joker and I can’t unwatch it, friends. That’s not to suggest that I did not admire, or even like the film. Actually, I have no idea how I felt about it at all.  I suppose a lot hinges on how much credit I am able to give Todd Phillips.

Phillips has clearly studied the movies of Martin Scorsese. He understands how those movies (especially Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, and The King of Comedy) look and move. He has mastered making a film that looks and moves the way Scorsese’s  earlier movies did.  The look, the timing, the mood are all there. What’s as issue is the heart.

Joker is the story of Arthur Fleck. He’s a downtrodden, mentally ill man who works as a clown and lives with his aging mother.  He is lonely and unhappy and his every day existence is some sort of hellscape of poverty and violence. He gets robbed and beaten and ridiculed constantly.  Then he snaps.

That’s the basic story. Arthur gets banged around by life and can’t take it. He has a serious psychotic break. He hallucinates a beautiful girlfriend (Zazie Beetz), kills three Wall Street types on a train, fails at stand-up comedy, then gets invited on the Murray Franklin Show, which is a Tonight Show stand in with Robert De Niro in place of Johnny Carson.  Arthur murders Murray live on the air as the riot he inspired takes place outside. 

Or, maybe none of that happened. We see this world through Arthur’s eyes and he is the epitome of an unreliable narrator. When he appears on the TV show, it’s actually the second time we see that happen. The first is clearly (like his relationship with Sophie) all in his head. It seems just possible that nearly everything we see is in Arthur’s head as well.

So, what is Joker? Is it a self-congratulatory Bro culture knock-off of early era Scorsese? Or is it a thoughtful tale of income inequality and the failures of the public health system?  If it’s the first, then this was a waste of my time. If it’s the second, then maybe Phillips is onto something here.

The problem is, I just cannot be sure.