A few months ago during my review for Brightburn I spoke about subversions of the comic book film genre. In the time since we have been bombarded with news of how the MCU intends to keep their momentum going after Avengers: Endgame put some finality to 11 years of films. But during that time a slow burn of excitement built around DC and Warner Bros. latest film. Joker has been something of an online anomaly for me. As marketing rolled out some people were giddy about a film that was divorced from the DCEU. Also, having one of the most talented actors in Hollywood in the lead. Others found the idea of an origin for the Clown Prince of Crime blasphemous. It’s always interesting to see a film that is aiming to be divisive over just wanting to get as many butts in seats as possible.
” I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize, it’s a comedy.”
So here we have Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) a troubled man who is trying to survive the harshness of an 80’s Gotham City. The era where “Greed is Good”. The middle and lower class began to feel some strain that has continued to plague our country. This right here is where the film begins to take aim at the real villain of the story. Arthur is unstable, but was he born is way or a product of an environment crafted by a society who has quit caring? And this is an issue that has been nagging some critics.
The Joker has always been the most iconic villain Batman has ever had. Through the years he has brought pain and trauma to many people in Bruce’s life. If you go with the ’89 Batman was instrumental in crafting Batman). So the big question is, can/should we sympathize with someone who has been a pop culture icon for chaos and evil? Personally I’d say yes. Arthur tries to live in a cruel world with his condition, but nobody cares. His co-workers snicker behind his back, his therapist barely cares about his welfare, and even his own mother has her issues. One of the most iconic Batman comics is The Killing Joke. Much like this film we’re treated to a possible origin for the Joker. Injecting tragedy into evil doesn’t negate the character’s deeds, but instead rounds them out.
” Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”
Anyone who’s seen a single trailer for this film will know Joaquin Phoenix is integral to the film. He’s an actor cut from a rare cloth. A performer who will commit his mind and body 100% to whatever character he inhabits. So of course he is the highlight of the film. It’s because of him we can occasionally care for Arthur. Almost all other actors would’ve leaned too far one way or the other into Joker’s typical two personality traits (Tacky stand-up comic and unhinged psychopath). Phoenix walks this tightrope while injecting some humanity into Arthur. And while he doesn’t quite measure up to my favorite portrayal (long live Mark Hamill’s Joker!) he does add another unique take to an interesting character.
The rest of the cast is pretty solid albeit shortchanged. Frances Conroy is an actress I’ve been a fan of since I first saw Six Feet Under. In recent years she’s had a career resurgence thanks to American Horror Story. Here she gets to act batty. But also has a soft side to her which leads to a reveal in the latter half of the film that adds an interesting layer to the story. Robert De Niro’s role is fun, but feels like homage to the film’s tone more than anything else. And we’ll get to that shortly. But the biggest letdown for me was Zazie Beetz. She is phenomenal actress who could’ve done more with her role. In fact, with some writing revisions this character could’ve been far more interesting.
“My mother always tells me to smile and put on a happy face. She told me I had a purpose: to bring laughter and joy to the world.”
Todd Phillips hasn’t hidden that the DNA of this film comes from a lot of 70’s and 80’s crime films. Most notably the works of the great Martin Scorsese. And while this is a great thing there are times where it leans a little too hard into its influences. I’m guessing many viewers will either ignore or not catch the blatant use of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy’s themes. As someone who loves the latter (and might even consider it one of Scorsese’s best) these story links could’ve been dialed back a tad to let the film grow into more of its own thing. On the plus side, this might pique the interest of viewers who will give those films a look when they might’ve ignored them.
Joker is a good film that unfortunately has a few minor issues that keep it from being a great one. On the plus side: it tells an ambitious story, there’s phenomenal performance at its forefront, it has some amazing production design. It doesn’t fall into the typical knock down shaky cam brawl filmed in front of a green screen ending that plague most comic book adaptations. Some people have questioned the message of the film and how audiences might interpret it, but this is an argument that has plagued violent art for ages. If you can’t handle fiction maybe try to live more in the real world.
Overall Score 3/5
The Shameless Plugs
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