This is not your average comic book movie.
Arthur Fleck, a failed comedian and performing clown in Gotham city, lives with his ageing mother while hopelessly trying to make it in show business. But the darkness in his head and the oppressive, uncompromising reality outside threaten to unravel his sanity completely.
It is a little hard to imagine that last year saw DC Comics and Warner Brothers collaboration Aquaman, a bright, bombastic, sassy popcorn flick designed to compete with Marvel and Disney’s own expanded universe, only to follow that up with possibly the darkest, most unsettling comic book movie ever filmed. This could be extended to the tragically misguided Suicide Squad in 2016, another DC/Warner creation following a team of the comic book creator’s villains. Of course, those villains would be shown as heroes in the end… because you can’t sell a comic book blockbuster (or any blockbuster for that matter, Maleficent) with a central character who is a villain.
But then, since 2012 the DC Comics film “universe” has chewed through three main producers, and 2019’s Joker is the first entry under the desires of one Walter Hamada. This film is unmistakably a step in a new direction under his leadership.
Short version: this is not like any comic book movie you have seen before, and is deserving of its 15 rated certificate.
The film is a bleak and uncomfortable affair. Our “protagonist”, Arthur Fleck, is portrayed impeccably by Joaquin Phoenix, a man who has a resumé of unusual and unorthodox performances under his belt. The story entirely focuses on him, and he delivers a skin-crawling depiction marvellously throughout the movie, both with a mesmerising personality but also with a physical transformation not unlike Christian Bale in The Machinist. Everything starts with Arthur being prayed upon by Gotham City’s impoverished and downtrodden citizens, while forever looking out for his housebound mother. He also appears to have a mental disorder, in which he laughs uncontrollably while under intense stress, despite having been raised to always smile and laugh…
Unfortunately, things are going to get much worse for Arthur.
The second act of the film shows a man already under incredible tension, and with something else wrong inside of him, lose anything that gave him comfort, or more accurately… that he thought had given him comfort.
There is a great deal of controversy around the movie upon release, much of which has been blown out of proportion. If audiences aren’t prepared for the sudden change of tone and style of these movies, they might well buy into the controversy and start to ignore the more nuanced meaning within the film. It certainly is not a film for the faint of heart. But it is certainly going to be talked about for years to come.
For all of his mainstream media personifications, this film captures what Joker is for Gotham and, ultimately, Batman. It is a retelling, a re-imagining of what this character’s story might have been, and while this probably won’t go down agreeably with everyone, it will certainly have movie critics awake and alert. It will definitely shake the foundations of the genre that Marvel have made to their very roots.
While the film is set in an undisclosed time frame, director Todd Phillips, the man behind The Hangover films and Due Date (but rest assured, there is nothing funny about Joker) has the settings of the 1970s, with a distinctive influence of director Martin Scorsese (supporting actor Robert De Niro not withstanding) with Gotham appearing dilapidated, worn and on the brink of collapse. It is a gorgeously made movie; it takes its time, playing out much more like a drama than any sort of comic book adaptation we’ve seen, while throwing in some delightful little twists to the story.
Indeed, the film’s core strength is the tension it builds; we all know what is coming, but it leaves the audience simmering in the unease of when it will happen. Arthur’s motivations are purely his own, and extremely personal to him, yet our own knowledge of the supervillain’s desire for wanton anarchy is painfully reminding us throughout. We are joining the dots as the story progresses.
It is a totally uncompromising story that flies in the face of all other comic book movie adaptations. There aren’t any explosions, or car chases, or gadgets, or goofs. If you are expecting a conga line of cameos, a happy conclusion or even a win for the “good guys”… no, you will be sorely mistaken.
Is it as “sympathetic”, as some people warn? The direction the character takes is truly monstrous, the film does not paint him, ultimately, like a sympathetic anti-hero in any shape or form. If anything, the film is using this chaotic character as a representative of how bad society could get. In the end, this is a great example of a villain centric movie; the Joker is not a funny or sympathetic character, he is the opposite of Batman, he is anarchy. In telling an origin story for such a persona to manifest, you cannot get much better than this.
Additional Marshmallows: You also get one of the most perfectly made trailers we’ve seen in a while!