This post does contain spoilers for Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019).
Back in 2008. the late Heath Ledger shocked the film world with his gripping potrayal of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’. Ledger’s acting earned he and the film rave reviews, and to this day Ledger is the sole winner of an acting-related Oscar for a character in a superhero film.
But Joaquin Phoenix may be about to join that exclusive club for playing the same character, but playing him oh so different. Phoenix and the film are just that good.
Joker (the film this time, not the character) hit UK cinemas on Friday the 4th of October after near universal praise by film festivals and critics alike prior to its release. Director Todd Phillips’ resume doesn’t exactly scream Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock, or Orson Welles: someone in Hollywood greenlit and subsequently cursed us all with the The Hangover parts 2 and 3 with him at the helm: so the sheer brilliance of this film comes as a complete surprise to almost anyone.
The film explores the origins of Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime which hasn’t been seen on screen since Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). Instead of a betrayed criminal accomplice who falls (literally) victim to an acid vat, Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is a failed comedian who has been publicly humiliated and thus resorts to violence to provide even a second of happiness.
The success of Phoenix is his ability to play such a bipolar, two-faced (now 100% Harvey Dent free) character: we get shades of his starring role in ‘Her’ as the naive, down-on-his-luck man Arthur Fleck, but also the sheer brutality and madness of the Joker where we can draw notable parallels to the main antagonist of ‘Gladiator’, Commodus.
Alongside the Joker is a strong supporting cast of both familiar and unfamiliar comic book characters. Robert DeNiro plays talk show host Murray Franklin, an inspiration turned target of Fleck after he publicly shames Fleck’s comedic routine. We also meet Thomas Wayne, father of Bruce and a mayoral candidate who hopes to clean up a city on the brink of collapse and chaos.
There are almost zero likeable characters in the film. We try to feel sympathy for the Joker as a symbol of a working class struggle against the bourgeoisie and Gotham’s elite, but the (frankly beautiful) violent murder of Randall and creepy relationship with his neighbour (Zazie Beetz) makes him not a fallen hero, but a rising villain. This in addition to the sarcastic and condescending Murray Franklin, the backstabbing Randall, the cold and distant Thomas Wayne and the lying and neglectful Penny Fleck. Literally only the midget who could’t reach the lock on the door is the only one I can feel sympathy for.
The movie is divided into thirds and matches its comic book contemporaries in ramping up its tension and delivering a thrilling final third. The audience can guess what happens, but it’s the execution of events (and literal on screen executions I guess) that are truly enticing and made me clamour for more of Phoenix as the Joker and more films focusing on Gotham before Bruce Wayne became Batman. Yes, I know there was a TV show. Yes, it was completely forgettable and frankly average.
One guarantee with the release of Joker is a generation of mass controversy. From its depiction of class divide, to psychosis and mental health, to the mainstream media forcibly attaching it to incel and supremacist cultures. This negative stigma that will likely be attached to any future incarnation of the Joker may damage the film’s Oscar hopes and perception in popular culture, and that’s a real shame.
Overall, in a calendar year that already had Avengers Endgame and Captain Marvel dominate the box office and headlines, Todd Phillips’ Joker may not only be the best comic book film of the year, or the best R rated superhero film (I still love you Logan), but may be the next comic book Oscar winner. Joaquin Phoenix in particular cements himself in 21st century film history for his portrayal of the Joker, and is the most memorable film character in any film in quite some time.