Philips delivers a dark fresh take in Joker origin story

Andrew Leal, Print Managing Editor

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The new film “Joker” is out in theaters, giving audiences a reason to “smile and put on a happy face.” 

Director Todd Phillips delivers a hit with his new origin story about the infamous Batman antagonist, the Joker. 

Joaquin Phoenix stars in the titular role as Arthur Fleck aka the Joker. And Phillips successfully conveys the Joker’s origins through unique storytelling and cinematography. 

The movie starts off with Fleck living a life with mental illness as an underpaid clown-for-hire who takes care of his sickly adoptive mother, Penny, in a slum apartment within the fictional crime-filled Gotham City during the early 80’s. He also has a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably in inappropriate situations.

Over the course of the movie, Fleck expresses anger at people in positions of power, including his social worker who all ignored his expressions of dissatisfaction toward his life, their mistake.

Following his firing from his clown gig for bringing a loaded gun to a children’s hospital, three drunk businessmen beat up Fleck because they don’t understand that he is a troubled person. He guns them all down for beating him up. And Fleck’s killings ignite a political movement, he has no desire to lead but takes pleasure in starting. 

The second act “Joker” is dedicated to Fleck learning about the truth of his troubled past, once he knows the truth he becomes the Joker, who was in him all along. His first action as the Joker is to rid himself of the person who kept the truth from him, Penny. 

But Fleck is misdirected multiple times by his mother before he learns the truth. His mental illness clouds Fleck’s perception of reality so it is difficult for him to piece everything together initially. 

Philips making the decision to have Fleck turn into Joker because he learns about his tragic past rather than an act of evil or because of his mental illness are what makes “Joker” unique and good.

If Fleck became Joker because of the crimes he commits it would have left the movie flat. Had Philips gone with mental illness as the reason and Fleck would’ve seemed sympathetic and that would’ve been a mistake to make. The Joker should never be sympathized with. 

One other way Phillips employs great storytelling in “Joker” is to do a fresh take on the Joker’s past. 

Fleck learns from his adoptive mother through a letter that he is supposedly the son of Thomas Wayne whose son is Bruce Wayne, the boy who’d become the Batman. This adds a unique take on a decades-old comic book character who has had many origin stories already. And it works.

However, Philips then does a twist on a twist and reveals his mother, Penny, really adopted Fleck after he was abandoned as a young kid. And while growing up with his adoptive mom, he was abused by her boyfriend and Fleck got the laughing condition from the trauma he suffered at a young age. 

The double twists pay off in “Joker” because it would not have been enough to make Fleck become the Joker because he is a bachelor living with his “mom” in a slum apartment, working a woeful job. 

Philips also shows how Fleck becoming the Joker made him feel great after a life of tragedy through the cinematography. The first shot of the film is a close up that shows Fleck dressed as a clown, sitting in front of  a vanity, trying to force a smile by stretching his mouth with his fingers.

The next scene shows Fleck dancing happily as a clown holding an “Everything must go sign,” at a gig he is working on a sidewalk. He has no problem putting on a smile for work, his predicament is smiling genuinely for himself. 

Jump all the way to the second-to-last scene in “Joker” when Fleck, after killing multiple people and starting a mass chaotic looting spree in Gotham, is now Joker. He is being celebrated by a mob of anarchists wearing clown masks, tearing up the city and Phillips cuts to a full body shot. 

The shot shows Joker easily sliding his fingers, covered with his blood on the outside of his mouth to make a smile, and dancing happily on a police car hood. Fleck becoming the Joker helps him as an individual break from the tragedy but is bad for Gotham given the riots.

There are a couple of moments where the movie doesn’t work, such as another interpretation of Bruce Wayne’s parents being killed. Phillips does tie the deaths to be the result of Joker’s chaotic looting in Gotham he started. The problem is the moment being overplayed already in other media.

Another moment that doesn’t work in Joker is the many on-the-nose references in the movie. For example, there are two shots of Fleck making a difficult climb on long steep stairs to get to his apartment, which Philips shot to show how hard it is to live life as a straight arrow. Cut to when Fleck first becomes Joker and he dances down the steps because he wants to and it’s easy for him to descend into darkness. 

Philips even blatantly conveys the midpoint Fleck is at during a scene showing a segment of “Modern Times” by Charlie Chaplin when he is roller skating near an edge, which shows Fleck can carry on the status quo or make that jump into Joker. 

But overall “Joker” is a movie with unique storytelling and cinematography, Phillips knocks it out of the park with this fresh take on Joker’s origin story. Go watch “Joker” as soon as you can.