Joseph Campbell broke down the Hero’s journey into seventeen stages that can be broadly classified into – Departure, Initiation and Return. His narrative pattern succinctly described the journey where : “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” This template would describe some of your favourite films if you tried to make a list, including Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo leaves the shire on a quest to destroy the ring, survives powerful forces, and bestows peace on Middle Earth as a result. Just a decade before Campbell’s seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces, in 1939 Batman made his first appearance in Detective Comics # 27 following the very same template to the T – Bruce’s estrangement from society after his parents’ death, his return to a crime-ridden Gotham having trained in martial arts, and his reprise after every encounter with a villain who pushes him to the brink of collapse.
Interestingly, you would find no definition of a “Zero’s journey”. Maybe because no one is really interested in a proverbial “zero”, the society’s reject, an abject failure of a man who has lived his entire life in humiliation, and would die without ever garnering a shred of respect. Todd Phillips’s Joker is not a DC villain origin story. Well, technically it is. But even before the shadow of the Bat-cape silhouettes the night sky, this is the story of a zero. Unlike the first 1951 Joker origin story where a gang-leader by the name of Red Hood falls into a vat of chemicals while trying to escape from Batman, Arthur Fleck undergoes a painstaking transformation following a series of detachments that break down his last vestiges of human decency. His descent into mania and rise into the clown is far more physical and real than a gimmicky chemical process. The narrative opens with a garbage strike in Gotham city amidst a depression where the city’s poor are resorting to violence and depravity while the rich throw big words in media events headlined by a philanthropist, business-tycoon Thomas Wayne who presents himself as the messiah. Arthur’s life, however, is far removed from all this. While working as a clown-on-hire, he is picked at and often beaten down for his physical eccentricities. He keeps a diary full of scribblings claiming them to be “jokes and funny observations”. He dreams to hug a TV show host to fill the void in his being that has been left by an abusive father. He is a classic misfit in a broken world.
It is natural to compare Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker to Heath Ledger’s portrayal but you’d be hard-pressed to do so. Heath Ledger’s Joker of The Dark Knight is a fleshed out villain. One who has grown into that persona that we know only too well. He is a shrewd observer of people and their weaknesses. He is a megalomaniacal planner who can only be matched by Batman’s own attention to detail. Arthur Fleck lies at the other end of the spectrum. He struggles with his delusions. Even in a society that has rejected him time and again, he identifies himself as a part of it. He craves for kind words that are hard to come by. He still has hope for redemption. Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is anything but a villain. It is hard to talk about Phoenix’s performance as something separate from the character as if he had to put on a face and makeup. On the contrary, it feels as if Phoenix lets his own personal tragedies spill out unfettered as Fleck. The mask is what he wears during the interviews. Phillips deftly establishes a definitive Zero’s journey with a deeply affecting psychological treatment of the Joker. If I had to repurpose Campbell’s narrative structure, I’d say that : “The zero ventures forth from the world of common day into a pit of humiliation; fabulous forces are there encountered and a line is crossed; the zero comes back from this misadventure with a self-realization to manifest his position amongst his fellow men.”
“The zero ventures forth from the world of common day into a pit of humiliation; fabulous forces are there encountered and a sin is committed; the zero comes back from this misadventure with a self-realization to redeem his position amongst his fellow men.”
Joker is an oddity in the comic movie-verse that has inextricably mired itself with franchises and continuities and spin-offs. More often than not, the identity of a super-villain is inevitably defined by the superhero inhabiting that storyline. DC’s earlier attempt at eulogising super-villains and an attempt at reprising the Joker was through the mildly enjoyable Suicide Squad, and even that had a Batman cameo in it as a stamp of certification. Phillips’s Joker steers itself away from the intricacies of the fandom and tells a human story in a human setting. While in every single Batman origin story, Thomas Wayne is portrayed as a saint, Phillips shows him as a rich guy with a shady history of a fling with Penny Fleck, Arthur’s mother, for which we never get a definitive answer as to what actually happened (Yes, Penny was afflicted with delusion but there still was a photograph of hers signed by an unknown T. W. at the back praising her smile). Even though this is supposed to be an origin story, we never really get to know whose child Arthur actually is, which remains faithful to the Joker’s aura of mystery. We don’t need to know where he got his scars from. Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver take a nobody and affect his transformation into a symbol, a cult that suddenly becomes the face of Gotham. With the climax about which I won’t talk about, they show that even a Zero’s journey can be cathartic. Lawrence Sher’s inspired cinematography underscores this transformation through mesmerizing shots of a gritty, graffiti-ed Gotham City and a lone man at the centre of it all. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s riveting score adds an operatic dimension to Fleck’s trance-like movements as if he had found his rhythm in the chaos of Gotham.
Even as I try to carve into words what I felt watching him unfold on screen, I hear his haunting laughter ringing in my ears. A sound wrought with longing and pain, and a lingering disappointment. Something has shifted in the way I would see actors in films now. This is the feeling of having witnessed a phenomenon. Joaquin Phoenix’s part in this film would forever be remembered as a cosmic event that had been slowly moving towards this very inevitability since the birth of time. He was in the right place, at the right time, and in the right mental space to give us Arthur Fleck. And we would forever be indebted to him for giving us the privilege of this experience.