The DC Comics superhero movies have been a bit of a mixed bag of an extended universe of interconnected movies. DC Comics latest film, Joker, shuns being a part of a universe and stands apart as a dark, disturbing, character piece about the origin of the Batman villain. Its influences are not blockbusters but instead owes more to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. Instead of being dropped into a vat of acid that makes the Joker here an uncaring world is the acid which creates him. This takes a real world look at an outlandish villain in slow burn, sometimes a wee bit too slow in the first half, that has a messy pay off. It’s kind of a bummer and very bloody, intentionally so, but excellently done.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a clown for hire and stand up comedian but he is also suffering from mental illness and takes care of his ailing mother, Penny (Frances Conroy). After a failed gig, he is confronted by three bullies on the subway and he shoots them down, sending the cops looking for the killer subway clown. The victims employer, billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) blames a failing world and the populace begins rioting in the killer clown’s name. While Arthur is in a relationship with his neighbour, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), things get worse when his stand–up act is mocked on the talk show of Arthur’s idol, Murray (Robert DeNiro). Arthur spirals out of control as he lands a guest spot on the talk show, intending to do something drastic.
This isn’t the definitive origin story for the Joker, his origins are multiple and often contradictory as the man himself said in The Killing Joke “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I am going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” Therefore, the character can be distorted into any genre. While an original story, pieces of Batman history are added as the movie goes on. There’s an encounter that Arthur has with a young kid which has some deep comic book roots as Arthur tries to make the kid smile. Also, little bits seem to be inspired by the comic book source; Joker, a failed stand–up comedian is from Killing Joke and Joker going out on a talk show is from Dark Knight Returns. There’s also a scene that happens in the finale that is an iconic comic book moment but instead of being crammed into the narrative, it feels like a natural, tragic extension of where the story has been headed.
Before Arthur goes full Joker, he gets in one scene where just his face is completely painted white which makes him look like a ghost as he does something incredibly disturbing. When he finally adds the rest of the costume pieces, his transformation to Joker complete. It is true to the character as Arthur eventually revels in chaos and madness, finding himself only truly happy when things are completely insane. The violence Arthur does in the movie is cowardly and abrupt and nobody sees it coming. Him wielding a gun in a subway train after punks start bullying him is very much like Death Wish, except instead of being gang–members they’re wealthy businessmen. The killer clown inspires Gotham citizens to revolt against the wealthy and while revolution was also done a few years ago in Dark Knight Rises, that plotline feels more immediate here.
Phoenix incredibly carries the entire movie as Arthur is in every scene. His physical transformation is shocking as Arthur has this condition that has him laugh uncontrollably which cause some tense situations. His story is a cautionary tale of not paying attention to people in society who need help, which is what Arthur yells to the world when he finally gets on the talk show. The scene of him on the talk show is a horror scene that slowly unravels and while DeNiro is initially playing it smarmy, things get very serious by the end. Both Beetz as the girlfriend and Conroy as Arthur’s mother are tragic figures, the girlfriend because of the eventual reveal of what their relationship is and his mother because she has a tenuous grip on reality. Cullen’s Thomas Wayne is a cold and unfeeling billionaire and a confrontation between Arthur and Thomas is very dark. Co-writer and director Todd Phillips gives the movie a grimy and messy look, reflecting the world as Arthur sees it.
There are also some fantasy deviations like Arthur pretending the spotlight is on him at the talk show that is sadly ironic considering what the reality is when he gets on. Moments of violence happen quickly and brutally. When the mass chaos hits, it’s staged with an operatic flair and when Arthur takes centre stage at the mayhem it feels inevitable. It’s so good for the last 30 minutes that the early stuff in the movie could have used a bit more of a quicker pace but the payoff is worth it.
Joker doesn’t feel like any movie DC has put out but a throwback to ‘70s crime dramas that happens to be about a DC character. The madness that grows in Arthur is reflected how the movie feels as the audience is along for the ride. It’s not a fun movie but it is a powerful one. V
Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix,
Robert De Niro and Zazie Beetz