The dark, gritty Joker is a fitting yet somewhat familiar, sometimes bleak affair capped off by an exemplary performance from Joaquin Phoenix.
Superheroes are great, but villains are becoming all the rage these days. From Darth Vader to Venom, some are more menacing than most, and some are more memorable than others. But the one that has stood the test of time — with every iteration seemingly bringing something new to the table, evolving the character into this pop culture sensation — is without a shadow of a doubt the clown prince of crime himself, the Joker.
Batman’s arch-nemesis and one of DC’s most popular evildoers, the notorious Gotham criminal has undergone transformations of painting over mustaches to painting over scars to straight-up painting the tongue white — showing just how deep an actor is willing to go to bring the Joker to life on the big screen. Now, Gotham’s black knight in white armor has finally gotten the solo treatment.
It makes sense Hollywood would see fit to give the Joker his own film to showcase an origin story. Given how complex the character is, he deserves a feature-length film to really do justice to his story. Joker, while being its own character devoid of much of the source material and completely separate from the DCEUE, is neither a superhero movie nor a typical origin story, but something much darker.
Director Todd Phillips’ Joker has been long regarded as one of the year’s most highly anticipated movies (despite being riddled in controversy). And for the most part, it did not disappoint. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill shut-in with big dreams of becoming a standup comedian. He is desperate to be accepted by society, but because of his social awkwardness and condition where he laughs at inappropriate times, society does everything they can to make him go away.
Arthur Fleck/Joker is pushed to his breaking point
From beating him with his twirl sign at his job to his social worker ignoring his cries for help, he is both physically and mentally pushed well passed the brink of insanity. But when Fleck looked over the edge, all he did, apparently, was laugh.
Phillips’ version of how the clown prince of crime rose to power ironically illustrates a man’s downward spiral into madness. He takes Fleck on a psychotic metamorphosis as the abuse from society for being different and less fortunate begins to tear away at his sanity ushering in the Joker.
Philips and co-writer Scott Silver (The Fighter, 8 Mile) have developed a narrative that, while existing in the 1980s, feels eerily close to what’s going on in today’s society, thus helping ground the story in some form of reality.
Thomas Wayne, wealthy businessman and father of Bruce Wayne, promoting to essentially Make Gotham Great Again is an obvious nod to the no-hope political climate people are experiencing in the modern United States. And the issue of mental illness and how the system continues to either lack the resources or effort to care for those in need is showcased throughout the plot.
Joker film addresses gun violence
The film also noticeably touches on gun violence and mass shootings. It’s almost as if the movie’s message is saying it’s laughable how we tell ourselves that these things can only happen in comics or that the world isn’t as dangerous a place like the fictional Gotham. With a mirror held up to society, it gets the audience to think again, and it’s one powerful punchline that hits home for all audiences watching.
When it comes to Phoenix’s performance, comparing him to Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson feels like a waste of time. This is a Joker that has never been seen before, and one could argue it isn’t even about the Joker; it’s actually about good old Arthur. Through all the turmoil he goes through, it’s when he ensues chaos around him does Arthur seem like he is truly in control. Like he finally knows what is his true destiny: mayhem.
The one thing the Joker will be remembered for will be Phoenix’s epic portrayal of the disturbed shut-in, which is by far one of his best. The actor in true fashion goes all in for the character, even appearing to lose weight, sporting a lean physique and allowing his back to contort in some unsettling imagery. Similar to Christian Bales’ transformation for The Machinist or Robert De Niro’s for Taxi Driver, Phoenix holds nothing back in his astonishing, awards-caliber performance.
Courageously venturing into some pretty dark territory, the acclaimed actor stays true to Arthur’s desolation and menacingly builds upon the Joker character frame by frame, making it so audiences, while having an uneasy feeling about what they are seeing, simply cannot look away. His turn as the Joker absolutely ranks in the top echelon but will undoubtedly stand on its own as one of his greatest career-defining moments.
Robert de Niro shined in Joker
Alongside Phoenix is an all-star group of stellar supporting characters, all turning in solid performances. One of the most talked-about is Robert de Niro as late-night TV host Murray Franklin. It kind of feels like his The King of Comedy character Rupert Pupkin really did make it big and went on to become Murray Franklin, which is creepy in its one right for many reasons.
Frances Conroy gives a devastatingly powerful yet quiet performance as Arthur’s elderly mother, Penny Fleck. Brett Cullen returns to the DC game, this time as Thomas Wayne. His performance here is just as excellent and very similar to the one he had in The Dark Knight. It seems he is an excellent choice to play the wealthy, staunch Gotham politician.
Zazie Beets plays Arthur’s single-mother neighbor, Sophie, and love interest. While it feels she is criminally underused, she does steal the show every time she is on screen and really helps showcase some humanity from Arthur.
Plenty to love about Joker
There are many other great things to love about Joker. Mark Friedberg gets good and gritty with the production design and definitely portrays the period 1980s Gotham very similar to Taxi Driver’s aesthetic theme. Capturing all this magnificent setting is Lawrence Sher, who flawlessly illustrates the brutal and broken Gotham by majestically letting only shreds of light into a cruel, dark world.
These stunning visuals are brilliantly backed by Hildur Guðnadóttir’s cello score, a beautiful, fractured work of distressed art, pleasantly takes audiences willingly into the depths of madness along with its doomed protagonist.
One thing that is intriguing about the overall narrative is how it changes up some of the DC lore, especially the way the film intertwines with Batman’s origin. This change really makes it feel like one of those alternate-reality comics you see on the shelf but don’t have time to read. The way it alludes to the Joker and Batman having a more profound connection overall — on top of how intricate the Joker was in the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents — is another excellent way Phillips ensures that his take stands on its own.
But with that being said, there are points where the film feels like a remake of Taxi Driver with a “DC Comics Skin DLC” or a reboot of The King of Comedy with a Batman mod. You could have called the film Arthur Fleck and left out the DC Easter eggs, and it most likely would have been just as good — but definitely wouldn’t make as much at the box office.
It almost feels like Phillips really wanted to remake Taxi Driver, and the studio said, “Yes, but only if you do it with the Joker.” The end result is a good movie, but at times it does feel bleak with the feeling that we have been through this before.