I’ve commented before about how while a majority of comic book films are decent, they all feel exactly the same. Just superheroes going up against a big bad and punching each other. The only time I’ve ever felt the comic book film genre be transcended was The Dark Knight, which isn’t a rare opinion, by any means. It’s probably the most influential blockbuster of the 21st century, as it inspired the glut of gritty reboots and comic book films. That was 11 years ago, though, and it still has yet to be replicated… until now. 

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a severely mentally ill man, who makes a meager living in Gotham City as a sign-spinning, advertising clown. Living with his handicapped mother Penny (Frances Conroy) in a dilapidated apartment, he doesn’t have the best life, which progressively gets worse as he loses access to his medications as social services are cut. He’s a meek and mild man, but when he’s attacked by a group of rich Wayne Enterprises employees on a train, he murders them in self-defense. This starts a massive movement of poor people protesting against the rich, particularly Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who derides the protestors as clowns. Realizing his moment is now, Arthur transforms into the Joker, and he’s out to punish Gotham for leaving him, and all of the other “clowns”, behind. 

When it was announced that Martin Scorsese would be executive producing a film about the Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Todd Phillips, I, along with everyone else, threw it in the pile of “projects that sound too interesting to be true”, along with Quentin Tarantino’s Star Trek venture. Well, it’s actually here and it lives up to everything the people involved wanted to do. This is a 100% character driven comic book film, with no real action and low stakes. It’s all about Arthur’s transformation into the most iconic comic book villain of all time. That transformation wouldn’t have worked without the right actor, and they got one of the best with Joaquin Phoenix. He was the absolute perfect choice to tap into Arthur’s psyche and make his version of the Joker all his own. My favorite aspect was his uncontrollable laughing fits, where he really feels like a psychopath who isn’t fully in control. When he is in control, though, he’s terrifying. Whenever Arthur is on top of things, he creepily dances around, showing that he’s finally free from his mind. The Joker’s origins have often been left vague, which opens the character up to countless interpretations. He’s a thin character by design so he can be explored in a multitude of ways, and seeing a full fledged transformation from a mentally ill man into the Clown Prince of Crime was fascinating to witness. As the Joker, he still has all of the mental problems that Arthur had, but he’s now become the man he’s always meant to be. 

As Arthur slips more and more, he’s finally able to become his true self, and you realize that it’s not his fault that he ended up the way he did. He had been abused and abandoned his entire life, never given the proper love and respect he really needed. While his initial murders are committed in self-defense, making it satisfying for the audience, it doesn’t take long for him to start targeting people who really don’t deserve it, and in horrifically violent ways, to boot. It’s one of those stories where you can initially sympathize with the morally reprehensible protagonist, but it’s uncomfortable too, as you know who he’s destined to become. I felt bad for him when the juvenile delinquents stole his advertisement sign and beat him over the head with it, I cheered for him when he shot the scummy rich folks, but eventually ended up horrified by his actions. Like I mentioned in my review of Hustlers, you can understand these people as actual humans and understand their motives, but that doesn’t excuse their actions. 

It all comes to head in the third act, when Arthur finally dons the green hair and purple suit, as the city protests turn into all out riots. It’s a culmination of everything he ever wanted, all shown by his celebratory dance down a set of concrete stairs. He’s not only finally able to be his true self, but now he’s been elevated into a symbol, heavily echoing some themes from The Dark Knight trilogy. Both fortunately and unfortunately, this will be the only time we’ll see Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, so I would have loved more screen time of him as the fully developed character, but what we got was truly magnificent. While I do love the character, there was just a thought I couldn’t shake throughout. If you removed all of the Batman elements, you would essentially have the same movie. It’s really about a mentally ill clown that becomes a murderer and incites a revolution, with some Batman lore sprinkled throughout. Some of those Batman elements felt a bit shoehorned in, such as Bruce Wayne appearing in a couple scenes, but I guess you can’t really have a Joker movie without Batman appearing in some form. 

While Arthur is a character with a lot of depth, especially since he occupies nearly every frame of the movie, the rest of the film is very surface level and somewhat confused in what exactly it’s trying to say. You could argue that this reflects Arthur’s character and real-life people like him, who have a lot of issues and grievances, but aren’t exactly sure what. The anti-rich protests that kick off from Arthur’s murders feel very underdeveloped and shoddily incorporated into the narrative, as well as the themes of class warfare, which the film constantly states is a big deal. When Arthur monologues at the end about everything that drove him to this madness, it kind of just feels like an edgy teenager complaining after a long week of school and having an argument with his parents. It just ended up making me think, “Is that what Phillips is trying to say?” Again, it’s a good reflection of Arthur’s psyche, but not a good one on what the film was trying to accomplish. There’s a clear Scorsese influence here, particularly Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, even down to some iconic scenes and shots being recreated in their own ways. Robert de Niro even has a small row as a Johnny Carson-esque talk show host, and for the first time in what feels like forever, he actually looks like he’s having fun and doesn’t wanna take a nap! Joker isn’t as thoughtful or deep as Scorsese’s efforts, but the influence is clear.

Even with some thematic shortcomings, on an aesthetic level, this is a viscerally brutal film that hits you over the head with its doom and gloom. Since this is a Joker film, there’s bound to be some dark comedy here and there, but all of the humor here comes from really dark places. Unlike practically any other comic book film out there, especially the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), there’s nothing fun about this film. It may be fun for comic book fans to experience the world they find so interesting in such a realistic way, but Phillips and his co-writer Scott Silver don’t want you to have fun. They want you to experience a genuine, character driven story that can emotionally tap into a lot of our sensibilities. Arthur states to his therapist that all he has are negative thoughts, so exploring a character like that doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for “fun”. This film just constantly felt depressing, bleak, and gross. The characters are awful to each other and only in it for themselves, exploiting them for their own benefit. Gotham is a cesspool of a city, clearly reminiscent of New York City at the time. The overall aesthetic just made me feel filthy and anxious. Phillips wanted to you to inhabit this world with Arthur, and you’re placed right in the middle the entire time. With the amount of uncomfortable close-up shots, it’s like you’re right in his mind. Coupled with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s chilling score, everything here is just anxiety inducing, but in all the best ways. 

I never thought a comic book film would transcend the genre like The Dark Knight did, but 11 years later, Joker is the film to finally do it again. We have a film in the genre that really pushes it forward and throws aside all conventions. Christopher Nolan proved that action-driven comic book films could be taken seriously as legitimate art, and Todd Phillips proves the same thing here, except in the drama sector. Children are the target demographic of comic books and comics have been broadly appealing to the masses since their inception, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing of value to be found. There are dozens of comic book stories that seriously analyze their iconic characters and universes, elevating them past the simple sounding genre that is “comic book”. They can make the characters feel like actual humans, and this is the most human comic book film yet. 


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