I want to make one thing perfectly clear to anyone rushing to this movie’s defense or my interpretation of MatPat’s latest Film Theory episode about Todd Philips’ Joker movie. I am NOT talking about the quality of the movie. It could well be a good movie. This is about the quality of the ADAPTATION, although they have said that they are ignoring the comic. This leads me to the question that is at the heart of my problem with this movie: WHY did it have to be Joker? Is there any reason to make a Joker movie that ignores the source material other than the popularity of the name hopefully bringing in viewers? My answer is no, and this latest episode proves it.
In this episode, MatPat is actually looking forward to this movie, so every negative comment to follow is mine alone. He showcases just what this “Joker” origin story is actually doing, and while it may offer a slight defense the rest of it highlights this question of why it’s a Joker movie when it might have been better off being it’s own character except for the name. It starts with mental illness and ends with the idea being stolen from another work, which is appropriate for Joker admittedly. I’ll also get into why this bothers me so much.
Catch more Film Theory on the theorists’ YouTube channel.
I will admit that Joaquin Phoenix has the laugh down pretty good. However, it looks like Philips and his writer just wanted to do The King Of Comedy but with the Joker. This is where the adaptation issues pop up. Yes, I know he is intentionally ignoring the source material, but again I ask WHY is it a Joker movie then? Why did Gotham have to be about the Batman villains when their origin isn’t supposed to happen until after Batman makes his debut? That last part is important because the Joker is who he is because of Batman.
Between reboots, writers who “know better” and want to be THE origin master, and the Joker himself preferring his origin to be “multiple choice” there are many origins for the Joker, but the common thread is this: a man known as the Red Hood tried to rob a chemical plant or at least a place with a lot of chemicals, Batman stopped him but the man fell into a vat of chemicals or swam off in a river polluted by the factory, and had his face and mind damaged as a result. Inspired by his playing card namesake he now resembled this unnamed man became the Joker. (The visual creators of Joker’s design, Jerry Robinson and Bill Finger, were also inspired by Conrad Veidt in the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs, a movie in which the villain kind of resembled the card Robinson himself was initially inspired by.) In the Joker’s first appearance in Batman #1 he was already a killer, and the origin was added retroactively two years later in Detective Comics #168. This is all we know about the Joker. This is all we need to know about the Joker. And violating my own rule (most rules have exceptions), this is all we SHOULD know about the Joker.
There are some villains who aren’t hurt by or even benefit from a sympathetic backstory. I didn’t like what IDW did with Megatron but I could see him having one. Seeing how Darth Vader fell could have been fascinating. (Sadly it wasn’t, but only due to a lot of mistakes.) Skeletor should be evil right from the start. The same with Freddy Kruger. This is also true about the Joker. Some villains work best as just being evil for evil’s sake, because as Alfred put it in The Dark Knight, some people just want to watch the world burn. I don’t want to feel sorry for the Joker. The Joker is pure chaos, pure evil. I wouldn’t want every villain to be just evil to be evil, but we also need those kinds of villains. Knowing where the Joker came from prior to his chemical bath weakens him as a character, as that force of chaos and death. It takes some of his power, his fearsome status away. By giving him an origin you humanize him, and the Joker humanized makes it harder to look at him as that force of evil. It ruins him as a character. I think Professor Geek can explain it better than I can but if you don’t have time for a second video or don’t want to hear the one swear I hope you at least got the gist.
Catch more Professor Geek on his YouTube channel.
The other problem, if MatPat is correct about Philips’ take on the Joker is that it weakens the villain personally. If indeed Arthur Fleck is weak and only acts in his fantasies then that is also not the Joker. The Joker runs gangs, manipulates people (he turned his therapist into his moll/physical and emotional punching bag), comes up with numerous schemes and with a fresh approach every time. Sometimes it involves sending a message or making a point, sometimes it’s just for fun, and sometimes he needs the money. The Joker is cunning, creative, slapstick brought to its most violent extremes, and all for his own amusement, with the sick belief others will join him in laughing at the “joke”. He’s taken years plotting a scheme even while running other schemes. Arthur Fleck according to this theory is weak, a failed comic, and a victim of society and a world who doesn’t understand mental illness. The only thing the Joker should be a victim of is Batman’s fists and he earned those. It’s the chemicals that drove him insane, not life.
By taking away his authority, trying to make him sympathetic, and taking out Batman and the vat of chemicals (Nolan ditched the chemical bath for simple and poorly applied make-up as well but at least he understood the Joker as an elemental villain right down to the multiple origins of his scars), you don’t have the Joker. You have an interesting story of a man descending into madness as a result of schizophrenia sure, and it might end up being a good psychological examination movie. It does however make for a lousy Joker movie and it might actually have been better off as a separate property apart from the DC villain. His name and look seems to only be attached due to using the name to push a remake of The King Of Comedy and that’s really a shame. It shows a lack of faith in your own work that you need to attach this name onto it. Philips liked the concept of the Joker as an evil clown and not much else, tossing out the character entirely, which happens far too often as it is.
I wonder if the Joker would find that funny or pathetic? Which to him is still funny I guess.