Whilst the idea for DC to attempt to follow in Marvel’s footsteps by interconnecting their cinematic universe was an understandable one, the reality was a far more brutal notion to face in that ambition doesn’t always equate to success. Sure, the monetary returns for their titles were enough to consider them viable products, but the shifted focus to more singular titles broken away from the expected Batman/Superman tent-poles opens the studio to more creative, bolder stories that, should they play their cards right, will strengthen their longevity as a studio dedicated to telling stories rather than selling an idea.
An industrious project from writer/director Todd Phillips (The Hangover, War Dogs) that places focus on (arguably) the most popular comic book villain of all time, Joker disconnects itself from the broad DC Universe, presenting itself as a tragic tale that fuses politics, social commentary, and confronting violence together in an intricately woven manner.
Clearly an homage to films of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Joker is a product shot with particular care, detailing the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix, absolutely mesmerising), a notably disturbed man who works as a clown-for-hire in-between tending to his ailing mother (a tender, though damaged Frances Conroy). A social outcast who has a mental condition that causes him to break into uncontrollable fits of laughter, he’s a confused, delusional man who’s very clearly on the edge of unravelling towards the prolific villain we expect him to embody.
An origin story rooted in comic book history yet removed from any one particular take on the character’s antiquity, Joker (which very well could be renamed Arthur should aspects of the character’s lore be exorcised) addresses Gotham City and several key aspects of that created world (Brett Cullen’s Thomas Wayne paints a different portrait of the character we assume to know) but never feels linked to the superhero mentality. More so, Joker is a think-piece feature film, one that will inspire discussions and debates long after the credits have rolled; theories on how the film will weaponise the politics of inspired violence have already begun.
Regardless of where you will personally sit in reaction to its material, the fact it’s inspiring conversation is an achievement in itself, and what Phillips and particularly Phoenix have created is nothing less than admirable. The actor has always immersed himself wholeheartedly into his roles, and Arthur is no exception. Perhaps most captivating is how he has created this Joker without drawing comparisons to those that have portrayed the character previously. Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the Jester of Genocide in The Dark Knight (2008) is arguably the benchmark of creativity in portraying the character’s instability, but even with the late actor’s history-instilled turn, Phoenix’s embodiment is another transformative beast entirely. In the same way that Jack Nicholson’s theatrical take in Batman (1989) was separate from Jared Leto’s divisive gangster routine in Suicide Squad (2016), Phoenix is incomparable in the tormented procedure that he has devoted to fully realising Arthur Fleck.
As much as this is Phoenix’s film though, Joker‘s supporting cast is well stacked, with each role, however small they may be, contributing to Arthur’s ultimate being in a certain fashion. Next to Cullen’s rather cold and unflinching Thomas Wayne and Conroy’s heartbreaking Penny Fleck, Zazie Beetz and Robert DeNiro portray the two most significant figures in his life, the former a single mother who provides a small beacon of light in Arthur’s dark existence, and the latter a popular talk-show host whose pivotal scene comes towards the film’s climax and serves as the catalyst for Joker’s eventual violent uprising; to say there exchange is tense would be stating it lightly.
A film I expect will be either adored or reviled by audiences, Joker‘s slow-burn approach to its narrative, sporadic outbursts of graphic violence, and sociopolitical takeaways will ultimately both work for and against it as an overall product. After decades of the genre fawning over the super-heroic aspects of its characters, Joker is a welcome reprieve nonetheless, one that should (hopefully) pave the way for future endeavours to harness risk and maintain a sense of diversity within a genre that often relies on the tropes we’ve come to expect.