It’s no secret that DC struggled early on to develop their own cinematic universe and are seen as leaps and bounds behind Marvel – but I actually don’t think that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Being the underdog actually offers a lot of strong possibilities and allows for more creative freedom because there’s not too much to lose. If someone wants to take a chance on a lesser known character or story or even have a bold new take on a classic character, they can do it. It’s a time to try to be unconventional and bring on hungry filmmakers ready to craft a new vision for DC – even if it’s not for one universe. DC has already found success in their latest solo films, like Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman, James Wan’s Aquaman, and David F. Sandberg’s Shazam, and they’ve found a new kind of success again with Todd Phillip’s take on one of the most iconic comic book villains of all-time with Joker.
Just like it’s titular villain, Joker is a very unconventional comic book movie with the story it tells as there’s no real tie-in to a comic because, well, the Joker’s origins haven’t been touched on much. Other than The Killing Joke, which definitely played a bit of a role into Phillips and Scott Silver’s screenplay, the iconic villain has no distinct origin story or even a real name. In some ways, this what makes this take on The Joker a little risky because the mystery and inconclusiveness behind his background is one of the strongest aspects of the character and delving into it does take away some of the best parts of him. However, this didn’t happen for me with Joker as, in a similar way to Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween, Phillip’s delving into the ever-growing madness creates an interesting character study that’s a true cautionary tale with Joaquin Phoenix’s performance being a true cherry on top.
Up until this point, there hasn’t really been a true comic book villain movie because it’s hard to stick with a lead character that viewers won’t sympathize with. The closest we’ve ever seen our main protagonists tread the line of villainy is in films about anti-heroes, those who do bad things with heroic intentions. Joker treads that line very little with its main character Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a party clown/aspiring comedian that is troubled by a mental illness and mistreated by society. While Arthur isn’t the type of person that viewers should feel sorry for or sympathize with as his desire to rid those that mock him through violence and start a revolution that could leave many people dead make him the villain that Joker is, there’re moments that are easy to see where its hard not to understand him. Even though, I don’t condone his actions or thoughts, I was hard for me not to feel a little sympathetic for him for the mockery and torment he receives.
Joker is less so the idea of a traditional comic book story of viewers rooting for a hero to find the strength to stop the villain and more of viewers watching the madness of a character unfold and hoping that he doesn’t become as bad as he will. Regardless of how viewers will feel about Arthur by the end of the film, it’s hard to deny that there’re some moments where he isn’t played off as a total bad guy and you understand his issues and how they stem from how the world sees him. The addition of the condition Arthur has, where he uncontrollably laughs even if it’s not the desired emotion, is such a strong aspect to why society makes him such an outsider and the way Phoenix displays this in his performance is one of the main reasons it’s hard not to feel bad for him.
Phoenix rarely plays Arthur’s condition off as genuine moments of laughter, but rather of pain and agony. Every time he got into these laughing fits; you can see the pain behind his face and it even looks as if he’s about to cry because he’s so frustrated that he can’t control it. It’s an aspect of Arthur’s character and Phoenix’s performance that consistently hit me and made it hard to attach the “villain” title so quickly to him. Not to mention, when you see someone get beaten down and scoffed at by those around them, it’s hard not to understand why they are so troubled. Again, these aren’t excuses that make Arthur’s actions justifiable, but more of aspects that show that maybe if he was treated, cared for, or looked at differently, then maybe Arthur could’ve gone in a less evil direction.
In some ways, this kind of complexity within Arthur is exactly what Phillips and Silvers were going in creating this character and what Phoenix showcases throughout the entire film in a much nastier Gotham that’s shown – or more like hinted at. With some clear inspiration from Scorsese films, like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Phillips and Silvers create a more grounded and visceral story that follows, essentially, what one bad day, or couple of weeks, could lead someone to be. The film does a great job with perspective as the film is fully told just through Arthur’s perspective and it allows viewers to delve inside his mind – regardless of how terrible it might be at times. This also allows for some well-executed moments of fantasy, where we see how Arthur sees a situation that isn’t happening how he thinks it is, and there’s a great moment with Arthur’s neighbor, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), that I actually didn’t see coming as well as a fantasy in towards the beginning of the film that highlights Arthur’s love for late night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Albeit, the fantasy moments can lead to some unnecessary questioning of whether things are real or not throughout the final act and, to be honest, some of Phillips’ artistic direction felt unnecessary at times and could’ve been shortened or cut.
The Gotham that Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher is actually quite interesting because of the grimy look and attitude that’s felt throughout the entire film. It’s the kind of pre-Batman Gotham that always talked about, but never shown. There’re definitely some moments where the nasty side of Gotham shows, as well as the revolt that allows The Joker to rise, but Phillips never fully pulls this trigger. The anger the Gotham residents have towards the rich and powerful is never fully developed and the view of the Gotham’s residents aren’t tapped into enough to build alongside Arthur’s slow-growing madness. If Phillips used more background news broadcasts or small conversations between residents to build up the frustration in Gotham, it could’ve made the full turn into the clown army so much stronger. I will say that the film does add an interesting reasoning to a big question I’ve always had with The Joker, why does anyone work with him if they know that they’ll probably just die, but it doesn’t erase the fact that Phillips misses an opportunity to give Joker’s big turn a fully satisfying moment.
Now, viewers actually don’t see Arthur don the makeup and clothes until about the 20 to 30 minutes of the movie. However, when makeup and clothes come on, Phoenix literally becomes the character and embodies the theatrical mannerisms that make the character iconic. The second he walks onto Murray’s stage; a lightbulb went off in my head and I was so impressed to how Phoenix portrayed the character. From the dancing to his sick and twisted sense of humor, all of the build up to the character feels worth it and there were even times where I forgot that Arthur was even under the makeup.
One of the things that I had actually thought about before seeing the movie was why The Joker is such a favorited villain even though he’s done some pretty horrendous things in the comics and in the movie – even though, personally, I’ve seen worse in other movies. The film answers this question with a nod/possible rip-off of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the character in The Dark Knight. In some ways, there’s an idea of him fighting for an unheard voice and against those that mock him that I think people will always find oddly attractive because it’s an issue people deal with internally every day. Also, it’s probably because of how theatrical he can be and how unafraid he is to be himself regardless what other people will think.
These aspects are definitely a bit of stretch for me to say, since the film doesn’t touch on this much and comes off like it leaning to heavily toward Ledger’s Joker, but is something that continually interests me about the character and something that I would love to see explored in a future film or even documentary. Regardless, Phoenix’s performance is undoubtedly excellent, and he captures everything about the character greatly – which is funny because of how strong-willed Phillips is about making Joker stand alone from the comics.
Frankly, I’m not sure why Phillips has been so vocal about Joker not being attached to Batman lore and comics because he actually does adapt some moments and ideas right from the lore – and does it pretty well at times. There’s always been this idea of The Joker and Batman’s stories being intertwined and connected, basically that one can’t exist without the other, and Joker takes that to a whole new level. As a Batman fan, I still find myself wrestling with how I really about Phillip’s interpretation, but ultimately, I respect how much purpose he gives to these characters intertwined fates and think that he actually gives the lore some heavy respect. There’s also an interesting moment where Thomas Wayne talks about cowards in masks and about what Gotham needs that got me thinking. These are the kinds of words and ideas that Joker has been throwing at Batman for years and I’m curious if Phillips is implying that Joker got this ideology from those inspired him to become this agent of chaos and continues to boast it to Batman years down the line. Also, as a Batman fan, I couldn’t help but wonder if the “Super Rats” that plague Gotham are a nod to the Ratcatcher.
Joker is the kind of comic book film that needs to be made more often as it breathes inspiration that stems from the iconicism of the it’s titular character and the cautionary tale that it tells. At this point, it’s a film that’s going to be a big name floating around when awards talk start to come later this year – especially for Phoenix’s masterful performance that gives him a strong likelihood of winning. If there’s anything to take away from Joker, it is that it’s a both a relevant tale that could make viewers think about how we talk and think about one another and that DC should continue to allow hungry creators to take a stab at reinventing their iconic characters.