Michael Potts | 3/10/2019
Perhaps the most unique and affective comic book film in years, Joker breaks the mould both of the titular character and of comic book films generally. Beyond the controversy, it is a work of art that demands attention.
Set in a pre-Batman Gotham City, the film follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Pheonix), a middle-aged working class man with a history of mental illness, including depression, psychosis and pathological laughter, struggling to make his way after release from a psychiatric facility. Living with his ailing and similarly mentally ill mother, failing in employment and obsessed with his goal to become a comedian, Arthur progressively travels down a dark path, following his own darker instincts to eventually emerge as Gotham twisted Clown Prince of Crime.
To any viewer who had not heard of ‘The Joker’ character before, it would be difficult to figure out that this was a comic book film of any existing description. Stripped away are the excesses we are used to seeing in DC and Marvel (and similar) filmography – there are no special powers, logic-bending feats or out-of-this-world characters. The movie is also bleak in way that others of the genre are not. While several past comic book films have delved into ‘darkness’, such as The Dark Knight, the tone and mood of Joker are something different altogether, but this is entirely suitable to its themes and the music and visuals combine in an effective and engrossing manner to support a powerful combined package.
The same is true of the central feature of the film: Arthur Fleck/Joker himself. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a masterful display of character acting, embodying a run down, socially dislocated and disturbed man. It bears mentioning that almost no incarnation, if any, of The Joker in any medium has ever portrayed the character in this way. This is not the highly intelligent, sociopath we have gotten used to, care of portrayals in various media by Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger and others (no disrespect to any of those performances). Arthur Fleck is a borderline illiterate psychotic without any grand plans for Gotham City. He is merely trying to make sense of a world and its people he slowly comes to despise. For a character with such a storied history, it is an interpretation which merits serious praise.
Joker’s other great strength is in how it blends a well written character, performed excellently, into a setting and narrative which mirrors, somewhat uncomfortably, our own world (though the United States, most specifically). Joker places Arthur’s anti-social behaviour and developing toxic attitudes in a very realistic environment; the film explains rather than justifies. Whether that explanation is agreeable or not has been, and will continue to be, subject to controversy. But it is undeniable that this film seeks to make a contribution to a discussion on some of the ills of modern society; inequality, tribalism and mental illness are inescapable themes which come together in a believable cinematic universe.
Perhaps the one caveat to be noted about Joker is that its novel approach to comic book filmmaking is a double-edged sword. By being so unique within its own genre, Joker becomes much more like a conventional film of another genre. It could in that sense be described as derivative, but the better view is that it deserves credit for innovating within its own field, one which was in desperate need of such after over a decade of Marvel’s cinematic universe and not quite as long with DC’s less successful counterpart.
Engaging, confronting and memorable, Joker is a must-see.