What If THE JOKER Is Really Good?

An R-rated origin story for The Joker, directed by the guy who did The Hangover, heavily riffing on The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. Could there be a more terrible series of ideas jammed into one sentence? On its face Warner Bros’ upcoming The Joker is almost like a joke poking fun at comic fans’ obsession with all things grim and gritty, at the way The Joker speaks to exactly the sorts of bros who think “one man wolfpack” is both funny and inspirational, and the way that WB has been absolutely unable to figure out what the fuck to do with their iconic DC characters. 

And yet. 

And yet it’s playing a Gala slot at the Toronto International Film Festival, automatically putting it in the Oscar conversation. To make the situation more serious, TIFF’s artistic director, Cameron Bailey, has called the film ‘a cinematic achievement on a high level.’ Sometimes fests will play populist movies because commercial factors are important to them (they gotta sell passes/get buzz), but for Bailey to make that statement is a big step. I suspect he believes it.

I suspect that because I have read the script and, frankly, it’s great. Nobody’s more shocked than I am by this; I began reading the script ready to roll my eyes and by the end of it I was convinced that I has just seen the blueprint of not only a great movie, but a great movie unlike any that has been made by a studio in years, and a great movie that is going to set off firestorms of controversy and conversation. It’s a hand grenade lobbed into the current world of blockbuster filmmaking, and if Todd Phillips pulled this off the explosion is going to be incredible.

When the first trailer for The Joker hit I saw it on YouTube and really disliked it. It looked like a Funny or Die parody to my eyes. But when I saw the trailer again on the big screen it was different; it was clear that I was finally seeing it in its native format, and what looked parodic on my laptop morphed into something truly cinematic. I keep forgetting that trailers look like shit on computers, a lesson I should have learned back when I dismissed the first Iron Man as having Sega level CG based on the first trailer. 

With that in mind, and with knowledge of the script, and with Bailey’s recommendation, I have begun to face a staggering possibility: 

The Joker might be really, really good.

There’s stuff in The Joker script that isn’t great, specifically stuff tying into the Wayne family, but honestly this is stuff that’s going to irritate the big nerds like you and me more than the average moviegoer. They’re going to be kind of excited by what appears, to them, to be lightly sketched connections to the Batman mythos. 

Beyond that, though, The Joker script presents a movie that is truly of the moment. Set in an unspecified past (although a note up front tells the reader to think of it as 1981), The Joker’s Gotham City is like all the worst visions of New York in the late 70s. Crime is rampant, there’s a garbage strike, and yuppie scum harass women on the subway. The divide between haves and have-nots has never been greater, and people are angry. This smelly, dirty, cramped city is ready to explode, and in the middle of it all is Arthur Fleck, a sadsack wannabe comedian living with his mother.

The script makes an intriguing choice that I think reflects what the movie is going for – it never calls him Arthur. Characters do, but the script always, always calls him Joker. From page one he’s Joker. This tells us that this isn’t the story of a normal guy getting twisted into supervillainy, it’s the story of a supervillain discovering who he truly is. 

The distinction between those two things may be lost on some viewers. Reading the script I got the distinct sense that a lot of people weren’t going to get it; in the same way that people look at Travis Bickle as a hero, I think there may be a contingent who sees Arthur Fleck as an aspirational figure. That some people are too broken to understand who Fleck is isn’t the movie’s fault – Paul Schrader has talked about the surreal feeling of hearing about John Hinckley shooting Ronald Reagan and talking about Taxi Driver:

My feeling is that if you censor art you will lose Crime and Punishment but you will still have Raskolnikov. But I also feel that there is a level of moral responsibility as well.

I actually think The Joker script handles that moral responsibility pretty well, although it remains to be seen how the movie itself does with it as what’s on the page can be lost in the journey to the screen. The script begins in a way where you might feel some sympathy for Fleck, but as the story goes on that sympathy must fall away as his reactions and actions become more and more extreme, and as he says and does things that are just terrible. 

Still, the script does something that I think is important – it grounds its Joker in some psychological reality. Not all of it feels real – Fleck suffers from a disorder that causes him to break out laughing at random, inopportune times, and he carries a card explaining his situation in case he starts laughing uncontrollably in someone’s face – but the movie takes pains to the building blocks that led to Fleck becoming (or blossoming into) The Joker. The script doesn’t let him off the hook, but it does pull back and implicate all of us in anti-social behavior; it implicates failing systems and uncaring people while never relieving Fleck of responsibility for his own actions. 

It’s a dark and compelling character study, a version of The Joker that feels like the next step from Heath Ledger’s. It has the same psychological truth, but this version is more knowable… yet somehow it doesn’t ruin The Joker. That’s what I assumed any Joker movie would do, eliminate the mystique at the heart of the character, yet somehow this script maintains that mystique (in true comic book fashion there remains, at the end, questions about just where Arthur Fleck came from) while constructing a painful and human version of modern fiction’s most famous psychopath.

If anything, I think this movie makes The Joker a better villain. After all, he’s been the unknowable force of anarchistic chaos on and off for almost 80 years. The truth is that any character with eight decades under his belt is no longer actually ‘unknowable.’ So a well-crafted examination of him can be welcome and can, as this script does, add layers to the character that makes him both realer and scarier.

By tying The Joker into a period of convulsive social change, The Joker makes him a character of this exact moment. The character becomes the representation of every bit of psychic darkness and anger in the world today, every mass shooter and every Twitter meltdown. The Joker becomes the avatar of this moment of collective societal mental breakdown, the angry and confused loner we fear, hate but also feel like we are. It’s the exact thing that makes Travis Bickle resonate with not-crazy people – we are not “God’s lonely man,” but somewhere inside of us we feel like we could be. The world is out of control and we are in the middle of the maelstrom, not sure how it got this way and not sure of how to deal with it. 

The fact that The Joker is taking the most popular genre in the cinematic world and crashing into it with a dark and cynical character study is amazing. It’s beyond wild that this film was made and was made with a budget. Yes, it’s “grim n gritty,” but I think it’s worth remembering that before that concept was beaten into the ground by hack imitators, Alan Moore and Frank Miller created some eternally resonant comic book stories within that tone. That tone shouldn’t be off-limits, it should simply be approached with care. The script for The Joker approaches it with care, and knowing that Joaquin Phoenix is playing the role convinces me the tone will be acted with care. 

In fact the movie’s tone is what I’m most curious about. The script itself is dark, but very funny. One of the most astonishing things the script does is continuously have Fleck get into what could be physical comedy moments, but makes them painful, humiliating and sad. It’s a movie predicated on the famous Mel Brooks quote:

Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall in an open sewer and die.

On the page the comedy and the tragedy exist side-by-side within Fleck, all at the same moment. There’s stuff in the script that is devastating while being visually hilarious. I’m not a Todd Phillips fan, but what I didn’t like about The Hangover movies – the way they were truly mean-spirited and cruel – is what The Joker needs to work. Reading this script and knowing that Phillips made a GG Allin documentary I truly understood what his take on the character is.

I haven’t seen the actual movie or anything beyond the trailer, but I have gone from being utterly dismissive to being incredibly excited. I was actually blown away by this script, and I think if it’s been filmed properly The Joker will not only be the best comic book movie of the year, it’ll be one of the best movies of the year, period. The discourse around it will be unbearable, but that doesn’t change what’s on the page.

I can’t believe that I’m facing the possibility of The Joker being great. This explodes so many of my ingrained biases – about Todd Phillips, about The Joker as a character, about how WB is approaching its DC properties.

I’ll tell you what this reminds me of: in the 1970s the studios had no idea what the fuck they were doing anymore. The generation gap had slammed into the movie industry, and what had been surefire hits a few years before were now derided flops. Scrambling to do anything that worked they began handing movies to young maverick filmmakers and allowing them to do what they wanted. This is the golden era of the 1970s, the era that spawned Taxi Driver. Reading The Joker and knowing this got made I understood that Warner Bros is at the exact spot that the studios were in 1973 – panicked, unsure how to create movies that worked anymore. I honestly wonder if this movie even would have been made if it had not been greenlit before Aquaman made a billion dollars – it feels like there was a specific moment of post-Justice League hopelessness that allowed the studio execs to take this chance. 

Hopefully the movie that is released does justice to what I read, because what I read is one of the most exciting, dangerous, heartfelt and frighteningly possible scripts I have come across in a long, long time.