Put on a happy face, because the Joker is back, and better than ever!
I was skeptical about this year’s standalone “Joker” film, especially after the absolute mess Warner Bros.’s micromanagement made of the DC Extended Universe through “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad,” the last of which features perhaps the worst live action joker of all time. My initial reaction to the “Joker” movie announcement was the same one I had to “Solo: A Star Wars Story”; do we need this? Is this necessary? Will this be any good? Can this be any good?
I gained a little more confidence when I learned Joaquin Phoenix was attached to the project, who is very particular about the type of projects he’ll act in and is notoriously committed to his roles. Early reviews praised Phoenix’s performance as being as good or better than Heath Ledger’s legendary portrayal of the Joker, so I came into the film with hope and intrigue, and Todd Phillips’s brilliant character study did not disappoint.
Perhaps the best move Phillips and Warner Bros. made was setting the film in the 80s — long before the events of “Batman v. Superman” and “Suicide Squad,” which gives the film necessary breathing room to tell a well-made, contained story. By all accounts, other than some plot threads tying the film’s protagonist and eventual Joker, Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), with the Wayne family, “Joker” operates in its own little universe, free of backdoor trailers for other movies and movie-breaking easter eggs that have sabotaged the DCEU up to this point.
The film follows the tragedy (or comedy) of Arthur, who holds down a crappy job as a rent-a-clown in fictional Gotham City, which is purposefully portrayed to look like New York City in the 80s. An encounter with some street kids that jump him sets in motion a series of events that slowly erode Arthur’s life and mental health, to the point where he dons the persona of the Joker and becomes the villain.
Arthur suffers from a mental condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably for a few minutes, and is socially awkward. As such, he often finds himself alone in one of the biggest cities in the world, and the film takes many hints from 1976’s “Taxi Driver”, in how it portrays Arthur’s isolation and decaying mental state, albeit in very different ways.
Where most origin story movies often use a montage showing how a character gets from point A to point B, “Joker”‘s entire run time is comprised of a series of gradual steps that eventually warps Arthur into the Joker, as Arthur deconstructs everything society has taught him is important and embraces his mental illness and sick sense of humor that he has suppressed for his entire life.
What I find notable is that if any one step in Arthur’s descent didn’t happen, there’s a chance that he might not have become the Joker, and it’s interesting in the regards that, while Gotham’s warped society molds Arthur into the psychopathic killer we’ve come to recognize through the Batman cartoons, comics and movies, Arthur also unintentionally changes Gotham’s society, for reasons I’ll have to slap a *** Spoilers *** warning here.
This movie has been labeled dangerous by pundits who don’t know what they’re talking about because “Joker” is very political and covers issues like income inequality in the form of riots that break out through the streets of Gotham — riots that Arthur/Joker sparks when he kills four Wall Street/Wayne employees out of self defense while wearing his clown makeup on his way home from getting fired from his job. Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullon), the father of Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson), is meanwhile running for mayor, and uses the incident to call those who murder needlessly or who decide to riot out of desperation “clowns” for not getting their lives together.
Arthur/Joker suddenly finds himself the head of a movement to cause chaos and rip down the status quo, a movement that causes the death of Thomas and his wife, Martha (Carrie Louise Putrello), and of which throws Gotham into full on anarchy after Joker kills a talk show host, played by Robert De Niro, on live TV. De Niro’s character made fun of some of his standup (throughout the film, Arthur aspires to be a comedian, but is interrupted by his laughing condition when he finally gets a shot at a comedy club), and serves as an idle to Arthur, and his death is the most shocking part of the film. It’s real, it’s visceral, it’s why people think this movie is dangerous, and it’s what elevates “Joker” into being more than just another good comic book movie into a great movie in general.
Great films are supposed to make you uncomfortable and question your values and reactions. The last 20 minutes of “Joker” are as chilling — if not more so — than the very best of Ledger’s performance in “The Dark Knight.”
The film really hits the nail on the head on giving us a realistic Joker movie, and it does so without any noisy set pieces or chaotic CGI-heavy third acts. The film only costed about $50 million to make, but it was spent well, and I want to see more DC films like this.
“Joker” gets a 9.3/10