** SPOILERS **
Watching Joker, I imagined how his Gotham arch criminal cohort, Harvey Two-Face, must feel like all the time. I was of two minds watching director Todd Philips' film: it's impossible to deny that Joker is a stunning cinematic achievement from an acting, direction, production, and cinematography standpoint. Joker creates a startlingly authentic Gotham City (New York City overdosed on steroids and vomit) circa 1981 and plunges a degenerate fiend into the very heart of it. Alternately, Joker is a grotesque journey into that degenerate fiend's heart and mind; sometimes the movie asks you to empathize or sympathize with Joker and his miserable - unfair in certain ways - existence, but in the end, it's impossible to (and if it isn't, if you agree with Joker, please keep it to yourself). Joker is the riveting and absorbing tale of who the murder clown is and how he came to be but, to quote his predecessor Jack Nicholson's Joker 30 years ago, "I didn't ask."
A supernatural Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, the sad sack who is destined to become the Joker. Life hasn't been good to him; physically and psychologically abused as a child, Arthur developed a neurological condition that makes him laugh hysterically at inappropriate times. He's on 7 different types of medication and none of it seems to help. Perpetually down on his luck, misunderstood, and offputting, the laughter makes him a pariah and a target of ridicule and abuse. He's eternally puffing on a cigarette held by fingers with nails he's chewed off. Arthur dreams of "bringing joy and laughter into the world" by becoming a standup comedian but he is the opposite of funny. Scoping out nightclubs and scribbling notes and his own original "jokes" as he surveys stand up comedians, Arthur can, at best, replicate the physical beats but he has no understanding of actual humor. Yet, Arthur worships Gotham's favorite late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) and yearns to be his guest and make the audience laugh.
Instead, Arthur ekes out a grim and thankless living as a clown for hire until, one day, he brings a loaded gun into a children's hospital, which gets him fired. This puts his dire financial situation in even more jeopardy since he is the lone caregiver of his elderly and sick mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy). Mother Fleck subsists by writing desperate letters to Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), Gotham's top billionaire who's making a bid to become Mayor; Penny was a maid for the Waynes in the 1950s and claims that Arthur, whom she nicknamed Happy, is Thomas' bastard son. She dreams, in vain, of the great Thomas Wayne whisking them both away from their squalor.
One night on a train, Arthur's uncontrollable laughter provokes three drunken Wayne Finance stockbrokers who were about to molest an innocent woman. The assholes violently attack Arthur, who pulls out his gun and shoots them all dead - this is the flashpoint that gives birth to the Joker, or rather, released the Joker within Arthur - while also setting off a powderkeg in Gotham. Suddenly, Gotham's underclass regard the Clown Vigilante as a hero, which sparks protests and riots with hundreds of people donning clown masks. To Arthur, it means he's finally being seen and he takes it as proof of his existence. But when he discovers that his mother believes he's the son of Thomas Wayne, Arthur decides to visit Wayne Manor: he gets as far as the gate but he meets the 8-year-old Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson), who is destined to be his greatest enemy in a future we'll never see (of this version anyway), but we also know Batman and Joker are destined to do that dance forever. When Arthur forces his way into Wayne Hall to confront Thomas Wayne, his "father" (who really isn't) disappoints him with a punch to the face. The final straw that breaks Arthur and turns him into Joker is when he learns his mother was an inmate in Arkham State Hospital, was delusional about Thomas, adopted young Arthur, and she stood by while he was abused as a child. Admittedly, matricide is a crime the Joker hadn't committed before but Joker checks that off his long list of career murders.
Powerfully (and quite obviously) evoking producer Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, the newly and fully clownified Joker achieves his dream of appearing on The Murray Franklin Show. To say Joker a nightmare guest is an understatement but it's in the crucial final act that Joker and Joker shift the blame fully onto society for his crimes and murders. It's true Gotham's brutality bears the brunt of the blame for Arthur Fleck's miserable life but his multiple murders are, ultimately, no one's fault but Joker's. And yet, rather sickeningly, Joker is held up as a hero, applauded by the clown-masked rioters who have 'taken Gotham back' in their "Kill The Rich" riots - which includes Thomas and Martha Wayne (Carrie Louise Putrello), who are shot dead in an alleyway by a Joker acolyte (as they are destined to be), leaving young Bruce an orphan.
What we're left with at the end of Joker is the awe that is due for an admittedly mesmerizing display of cinema attempting to elevate the 'comic book movie' to the level of high art coupled with the harrowing feeling of watching an empty vessel caked in clown makeup murdering people who 'aren't nice to him' unchallenged. There's nothing aspirational or inspirational in the Joker's origin and his self-actualization is Joker embracing his destiny as a homicidal maniac, so... ha ha? Altogether, Joker is simultaneously enthralling and disturbing, absorbing and repellant. Most of all, Joker illustrates how much he needs Batman and, further, how much any Joker story needs the counterbalance of Batman - even more specifically, Joker proves how much we, the audience, need to see the Joker punched in the face by Batman over and over. Many Bat times and many Bat punches.