There was a lot of chatter surrounding Joker when it was announced. Todd Phillips, best known for The Hangover franchise, was set to direct, Joaquin Phoenix had the pressure of following up two iconic Joker performances, and the film wouldn’t have a Batman. How do you tell a Joker story without Batman?
Joker is an origin story that delivers different kind of Joker. The film draws from Tax Driver, King of Comedy, and the popular graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke.
Set in 1981 Gotham City, Arthur Fleck is sign wielding clown that takes care of his sick mom and has dreams of being a successful stand-up comic. As chaos in Gotham intensifies, Fleck is down on his luck and getting kick while he’s down – sometimes he’s literally getting kicked while he’s down. The more life beats up on Arthur; he starts to turn to crime and violence.
Of course, all of this leads to him eventually becoming the Clown Prince of Crime. To be clear, the film never gets into Joker being a criminal mastermind, master chemist, or his ability to use of various weapons. The film’s focus is how someone like Arthur could turn into a villainous mastermind.
The star of the film is Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur. Phoenix is mesmerizing in every scene. Every word of praise attached to his performance is well deserved. Phoenix adds new dimensions to character that most fans thought we’d already seen the best parts of. There are moments like the way his walk and demeanor change during the third act. There are little moments like this throughout the film that informs audiences that Arthur is transitioning into Joker.
What makes Phoenix’s performance brilliant is his ability to make audiences feel sad for Arthur’s plight while fearing the darkness of Joker that’s bubbling underneath his smile. It’s a helluva tightrope and Phoenix walks perfectly down that line.
Joker is Warner Bros first R-rated Batman related film and it leans into its rating. When people aren’t being harmed, the mood of the film is just as unsettling. The story is told through Arthur’s perspective allowing the audience to see all the pain, grief, and madness that is attached to the character. Towards the end of the film, there’s a moment with Sophie (Zazie Beetz) and Arthur that illustrates how violence isn’t the most unnerving thing about the film.
For all the chatter about Joker, the film doesn’t say much. There’s a sequence in the third act that leads to a monologue. That monologue is supposed to be what people learn from watching the film, and a lot of what’s said feels unearned. We never really see Gotham, just Arthur’s perspective – the perspective of a madman. Somehow, Phillips expects audiences to take Arthur’s commentary on society as truth, despite the character never earning the audiences trust. Because of that, the film doesn’t feel deeper than any other comic book movie. It isn’t some elevated comic book story that’s going to change the genre. It’s a very well made origin story that’s elevated by an amazing performance.
Joker is very well done and wildly entertaining. It may not be a smart as Phillips thinks it is, but it’s a really fun time in the theater. The violent atmosphere may turn people off (understandable), but those who can stomach it will be in for a treat.