For all of the advantages that the Marvel cinematic universe has enjoyed over its counterpart, DC has the villains. While the success of the Marvel films made Thanos a household name, the likes of Joker, Lex Luthor and Riddler were already there. They’ve always filled supporting roles, however, as foils for the hero. Writer/director Todd Phillips (A Star is Born) decided to go another direction, crafting a new origin story for Batman‘s greatest rival with Joker, which became the highest grossing R-rated film in history.
With Gotham City struggling, party clown and stand-up hopeful Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is trying to earn a living while supporting his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) as they live together in a grungy apartment. Arthur also deals with mental illness, which includes uncontrollable laughter, and meets regularly with social services about his condition. While things aren’t going well for Arthur, he manages to hold it together thanks to medication and caring for his mom.
Those things start to get stripped away from him, though, as after being jumped while on the job he’s given a gun for protection. When he accidentally drops the gun during a performance at a children’s hospital he’s fired, and when social services have their budget cut his outlet for therapy and medication are severed. In the wake of losing his job, Arthur is assaulted on the subway by three men that work for Wayne Enterprises and ends up killing them.
Meanwhile, a tape of his painfully bad stand-up routine reaches late-night host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), who airs it and eventually invites Arthur, who is a big fan, to appear on his show. Faced with some shocking news about his mother and unwanted attention from the Gotham Police Department surrounding the subway murders, Arthur continues to descend and transition into a new persona, The Joker.
In the same way that Logan felt wholly detached from the X-Men films, Joker bears little resemblance to any of the Batman movies — for timeline perspective, Bruce Wayne appears as a young boy. It’s a nuanced back story for the iconic villain, staying far away from the chemical accident of the comics or even Heath Ledger‘s “agent of chaos” terrorist performance in The Dark Knight. If you’ve been looking for a more adult take on comic material, this is it.
While Ledger bagged an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Phoenix will certainly be in consideration for a Best Actor nod (he won the Golden Globes version last night). We were all in on his performance and physical transformation as he falls further and further away from being Arthur and turning into Joker. There isn’t a lot else for anyone else to do, though everyone in supporting roles turns in quality performances, particularly De Niro and Conroy.
There’s a very dark look to the film that we really enjoyed, including the cinematography of how the shots were framed and the way various buildings and parts of Gotham looked. We don’t typically dig down into the minutia of wardrobe and the like, but Arthur’s transformation really plays out in how he dresses and carries himself. Everything about it really drew us into that world, and even though a year is never mentioned it certainly carried a 1980s vibe.
Joker can move a little slow at times, particularly in the first act where Arthur is trying to hold things together. It picks up steam once he leans into the crazy, though some will doubtless be put off by the film “deflecting” blame for Joker becoming a sociopath to external forces. For us, we didn’t find him being portrayed in a particularly sympathetic way.
THE BONUS FEATURES
There are four featurettes totaling around 30 minutes, three of which are very short, covering Phoenix’s transformation, his outtakes from entering the Murray Franklin Show and a still-shot progression of the film. The remaining feature is far more in-depth and includes interviews with the director and more. It’s a solid extra amid an otherwise uninspired group.
Joker is carried by Joaquin Phoenix’s transformation into the title character as he brings some layers to a dark, menacing villain.