When you think of comic book villains the most notorious, well known and frequently portrayed is none other than The Joker – Batman’s biggest threat. There have been several iterations of the character stemming back to Cesar Romero to Mark Hamill (voice), and to Cameron Monaghan, to name but a few. Just like with the various Bat actors who have put on the cape and cowl – each Joker has been significantly different from the last. This is a unique approach to a villain who has several iterations in the comics themselves. This is fantastic news for the audience as each respective actor brings something new to the character that won’t make him feel overused and therefore stale.
We all know the “fall in a vat of acid” pseudo-origin that made Joker the clown prince of crime that he is, in fact, majority of the projects tap into this origin story. But the person who embodies the larger-than-life villain doesn’t have a true backstory or at least it doesn’t matter to who the character is because he cannot remember anything pre acid. What makes this Joker story fascinating is the fact that the Joker is given that backstory and a completely different origin as a whole.
Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a failed party clown and aspiring yet terrible stand-up comedian who has been forgotten by the system and government of Gotham city. Arthur lives with his mother whom he takes care of Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy) as she struggles to get assistance from Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) for “their child” Arthur. Arthur has a severe case of uncontrollable laughter (also known as Pseudobulbar affect) where he carries a laminated card to give to strangers to help them better understand his condition. As the series of events that start with Arthur getting jumped in an alley – his descension into madness turns violent which also makes him a symbol of anarchy.
“Now, before he comes out, I just want to say, that we’re all heartbroken about what’s going on in the city tonight, but this is how he wanted to come out. Now, honestly I think we could all use a good laugh. So, please welcome Joker!”
When the character of the Joker is brought up, most of us (me included) identify with the posthumous academy award winning portrayal of Heath Ledger. Some may cite that Jack is their favorite and there are even some that love Leto’s iteration. But Phoenix belongs in an entirely different conversation. His portrayal is unimaginable – Phoenix like his predecessor’s went method for this role losing 52 pounds while studying assassinations to get into the mindset of a murderer. Way more bearable than what Leto did but still, the commitment to lose the weight and truly embrace this character is nothing short of phenomenal.
Phoenix’s performance drives this story. You hurt when he’s hurt, you feel for him when he’s down and you’re disgusted with him when he acts on his violent impulses. He’s the backbone of this film that focuses on the character study of Arthur Fleck. Everything that this film is relies on the development of Arthur. Who he is, what his motivation is and what ultimately drives him to commit such horrific acts? He like so many who struggle with their mental health are a product of their environments. Rarely do we see mental health shown in this manner in a major Hollywood film, and writer director Todd Philips unravels this character in a way that makes those who don’t understand have some perspective into a mind such as fragile as his.
Arthur is a delicate and complicated person. For one, he doesn’t feel like he actually exists and a lot of that has to do with his mother. Their relationship is built on lies that eventually push Arthur over the edge. Penny only cares about her self-interest and what can make her life better but she too suffers from mental illness. Neither are set up to succeed in a city that glorifies the rich while the poor suffer and get their benefits taken away.
Joker gets its inspiration from the Martin Scorsese films Taxi Driver & The King of Comedy that part is clear and evident throughout. Both are character studies but also focus mainly on societies impact from the different class structures. Thomas Wayne is at the forefront and it’s a different view of the Wayne’s that we rarely get to see in Batman centered stories. All we know of is their death but to see more of their life from an outsider’s perspective is welcoming to what we already know.
“Oh, why is everybody so upset about these guys? If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me. I pass you everyday and you don’t notice me! But these guys, what, because Thomas Wayne went and cried about them on TV?”
If it wasn’t for Heath, we never would have gotten a Joker film like this. While the focus isn’t on the extreme acts of violence, it moves the story forward. Once Arthur commits that first act, he embraces who he truly is. Arthur is unpredictable – we never really know what he’s thinking or how he will react to something that he says or does or what someone else will say or do just like with Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). It’s a masterful performance paired with skillful direction into the mind of a madman. The bathroom scene alone can be looked at individually and can tell you everything you need to know about Arthur Fleck.
Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir (Chernobyl) creates a hauntingly beautiful score that captures Arthur’s broken spirit and nihilistic self destructive thoughts that creates the symbol for anarchy and chaos.
Joker is a type of film that can be interpreted in many different ways. It’s hard to tell what is real and what is in his imagination. At first glance, it appears that Arthur strikes up a relationship with his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) but the reality is he just imagines it while stalking her to work and wherever else. Does he kill her? It’s hard to say but depending on how you view the film – he does, or he doesn’t. The last scene is also questionable as to the question is this all real. The last line when he is speaking to the doctor “I was thinking of a Joke, you probably wouldn’t get it” leads you to believe that nothing was real that everything that played out was just in Arthur’s head as he dances down Arkham leaving bloody footprints. It’s a fascinating premise that can keep you busy for days even weeks.
Overall, Joker is brilliant. What Todd Phillips created in a dark nihilistic character is then brought to life with a powerful performance by Joaquin Phoenix. He deserved the best actor award for fully committing to Arthur Fleck. This is not an easy film to take in nor to watch but it’s absolutely mesmerizing and has one of the best scores and cinematography. It’s disturbing with its acts of violence and jaw dropping with its payoffs as a result of that violence. The darker tone is the route that Warner and DC chose, and it’s perfected with this film. If I were to rate Joker, I’d rate it a 5 out of 5.
So, tell me, have you seen Joker and if so, what do you think about it? Do you agree or disagree with me? Comment below or send me an email and let me know what you think.
Joker is written by Todd Phillips & Scott Silver and directed by Todd Phillips is Rated R and has an 68% on Rotten Tomatoes. Joker was released on October 4, 2019 and has a runtime of 2 hours and 2 minutes. Joker can be purchased on Retailers such as iTunes, Google, & Vudu.
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