In 1988 Alan Moore wrote Batman: The Killing Joke, a graphic novel that quickly became regarded as the definitive origin story of The Joker. In recent years, however, Moore has stepped away from his creation to the point of lamenting even writing it. Not only does he believe it to be ‘not interesting’ he also declared in an interview to the now defunct mania.com as being ‘too nasty’ and ‘too physically violent’. It many ways Moore’s incarnation of Joker feels like a blueprint to the one we see in the 2019 Todd Philips incarnation – disturbing, horrifically violent, unrepentant, entitled and unwavering in the destruction he wreaks.
However, the greatest difference between Moore’s Joker and Phillips’ is the nature of the ‘origin’ being depicted. Moore built upon the 1951 origin – of a failed comedian pressured into violence – but treated it with ambiguity. It could be true, but it could be false – in the manner akin to multiple choice. We could believe it if we wished, but it never explained him. Not truly. But – and this is the fundamental point – it never humanised the Joker. It never justified the atrocities he committed. It never sought to rationalise his psychopathic destruction. It never made us feel sympathy for him.
And that is the unnerving thing about watching the 2019 version – for just over two hours we are forced into alignment with a monster. And, not only that, it wants us to unrepentantly side with him. It feels hyperbolic to say that this results in a terrible sense of inescapable unease when watching, but it’s the truth.
Whilst the film is shot beautifully, with a constant tight frame that claustrophobically traps us in the world of failed comedian/clown Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) to the point it feels like they are willing us to experience some semblance of Stockholm Syndrome, and is impeccably rendered – this is a Gotham that seems wild and truly threatening – this is a film that makes for disturbing and chilling watching.
It’s an origin story of a villain without the counterpart that makes him one of the most iconic figures in pop culture, without the antithesis of Bruce Wayne/Batman we are submerged in the world of a seriously disturbed loner whose deluded entitlement drives him, whose self-declared deprivation results in his committing utter depravity. The world depicted on screen is a world without hope, a bleak landscape devoid of empathy. This is pseudo-social commentary where the bleak shall inherit the earth.
This Joker doesn’t ‘just want to watch the world burn’. Here the hollow proclamations of revolution are merely rebranded self-pitying revenge; egotistical and raging in its insular-minded cynicism.
Joker is in UK cinemas from 4th October.