Joker

Director: Todd Phillips.
Screenplay : Todd Phillips, Scott Silver.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Josh Pais, Marc Maron, Douglas Hodge, Leigh Gill, Rocco Luna, Brian Tyree Henry.

“When I was a little boy and told people I was going to be a comedian, everyone laughed at me. Well no one’s laughing now”

Surrounding the release of Joker there was an interesting debate that began around superhero movies – Marvels Cinematic Universe, in particular. This debate found traction from comments made by Martin Scorsese who, as we all know, is considered to be one of the most influential directors in American cinema’s history. It stirred up a lot of emotions in the industry with many fans and actors involved in Marvel’s movies criticising Scorsese’s comments that they shouldn’t be regarded as cinema and that they’re more like “theme park” movies that are crowding out talented cinematic voices when it comes to box-office showings. Personally, I found Scorsese’s comments to be a breath of fresh air and wholeheartedly welcomed them. He’s right. With that in mind, though, it’s interesting that he was originally a producer on Joker before walking away due to other commitments. What’s more interesting is that Todd Phillips’ Joker references the past work of Scorsese and shows that a comic book character can actually be based around emotional and psychological experiences without resorting to mindless “theme park” entertainment.

Plot: Working as an unsuccessful clown in a rat infested and broken down Gotham City, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. The problem is, he’s just not funny and his spiralling mental health issues cause him to elicit uncontrollable laughter at inopportune moments. After a series of violent events and the further deterioration of his mental health, he loses what little grip on reality he had left and assumes a new persona that will define him.

I’ve often voiced my opinion of superhero movies and, like Scorsese, I’m a little tired of seeing the sheer abundance of them. They can undoubtedly provide escapism but, more often than not, I find them vacuous and vacant. Joker, on the other hand, is something entirely different. It’s a reimagining of the comic book movie simply because it discards the superhero/villain trappings and focuses on the psychological torture that’s inherent in almost all comic characters. The Joker, in particular, is probably the most psychologically disturbed of all and that’s what provides the meat on the bones of Todd Phillips’ uncompromising interpretation. That said, Heath Ledger’s work in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was already impressive and pivotal when embodying the maniacal psychopath but the film still found itself stuck in the superhero mythos. Here, though, Phillips strips the film down to a bare character study and if anyone was in doubt that Ledger had delivered the quintessential Joker then it may be time to think again. It’s arguably an unenviable task following on from Ledger’s fine work (as Jared Leto found out in the misjudged Suicide Squad) but Joaquin Phoenix happens to be one of the very best actors around at present and his take on the Joker is both a pitifully tragic yet ferociously edgy piece of work. It would be unfair to overlook the style and substance that’s abound throughout the film but it’s Phoenix, with his skeletal frame (he dropped 52lbs for the role) and his screeching, pathological laugh, who’s running this show.

Speaking of style and substance, Scorsese’s name must once again be mentioned. Although set in the fictional city of Gotham, the film has a late 70’s/early 80’s New York appearance (finely captured by cinematographer Lawrence Sher) and as Arthur Fleck wanders aimlessly throughout the grime, poverty and crime in this inhospitable city, we are constantly reminded of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Not least, the isolation of his character and the bad ideas in his head. Even Arthur’s motivation and desire to become a stand up comedian when he has little to no talent in that regard, is reminiscent of Scorsese’s vastly underrated The King of Comedy. And, of course, there’s the nicely pitched in-joke of chat show host Murray Franklin played by Robert DeNiro – the star of Scorsese’s aforementioned iconic films. Sadly, DeNiro doesn’t feature much but he wisely knows what he’s there for and allows Phoenix to respectively emulate and creatively riff on his Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin characters in a whole new dynamic.

You could say that Joker is somewhat of a bridge between the superhero genre and dramatic characterisations. It does briefly address the lore of Batman by introducing a young Bruce Wayne at one point but it’s not overly concerned with this angle or seemingly intent on exploring more about it. As previously mentioned, I’m not an avid superhero fan but that’s exactly why I responded favourably to Joker and it’s ability to sidestep the genre tropes while also making a potent social commentary. It’s less about men in capes and more about a man in desperately tormented circumstances. Arthur Fleck is a product of his environment and his inner demons and turmoil are perpetuated but the trauma and inequality he’s experienced in a society with a lack of mental health resources and an ever increasing gap between rich and poor where the small man becomes the joke.

A dark and controversial retelling that successfully operates out-with the confines of the superhero traditions. It’s depraved and disturbing but it does so with a radical freedom that allows it to work on many levels and reinvents the genre while raising the bar at the same time. Future comic book movies should take note and maybe we’ll get back to proper cinema again.

Mark Walker

Trivia: Because the Joker does not have a definitive origin story in the comics, director Todd Phillips and screenwriter Scott Silver were given considerable creative freedom and pushed each other every day to come up with something totally insane. The two wrote the script with Joaquin Phoenix in mind saying: “The goal was never to introduce Joaquin Phoenix into the comic book movie universe. The goal was to introduce comic book movies into the Phoenix universe.”

11 Responses to “Joker”

  1. Although opinions on this one are really mixed I completely agree with you. Joker is an impressive film and Pheonix’s performance is nothing but outstanding.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cheers! Yeah, it’s been quite the divisive film but I thought it was very well done. The look, the feel, the Scorsese references were all brilliant and Phoenix was mesmerising. Outstanding performance to hold it all together.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Future comic book movies should take note and maybe we’ll get back to the proper cinema again.” Perfectly said, Mark. I’m not surprised you were thrilled with this. Excellent review. Certainly the best performance of the year; I can’t imagine anyone winning the awards this year other than Phoenix — long overdue! He’s brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice review Mark, but I was firmly on the opposite side of the fence for this film. As opposed to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Joker really does seem to romanticize its protagonist. While Scorsese portrays both Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin as lonely, almost pathetic egomaniacs whose narcissism leads them to violence and sadism, Todd Phillips seems to really believe in Arthur Fleck’s manifesto, that he’s a man out for vengeance against all of those who wronged him (and unlike TB or RP, all of Arthur’s victims are portrayed to have deserved their fate).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Charles, sorry for the late reply bud!

      Yeah, you make a great point there. On reflection, there is that angle on Arthur but I was so swept up in Phoenix’s performance that I didn’t see anything else other than the frailty of his psyche. I didn’t sympathise with him but I totally see your point. All the unashamed nods to Taxi Driver & King of Comedy really worked for me. I suppose I actually expected to criticise it as I don’t like the genre but it genuinely surprised me.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. GREAT! I absolutely adore this movie. So much so that I put two posts up about it. It has so much more depth than some people have given it credit for. And those strictly sticking with a surface reading are sure to be disappointed. I love how it provokes empathy while never making Arthur sympathetic. I love something Phillips said: it’s a movie about masks. Arthur has his own mask. But when t’s removed we see the true evil underneath.

    As for the Scorsese nods, I really liked them. But I saw them as just that…nods. This is still a very different film than either Taxi Driver or King of Comedy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey bro! Thanks for dropping by.
      Glad to hear we both took this the same way. I loved the many layers to it too. There’s plenty going on here and the nods to Scorsese we’re quite clever in themselves. It was the social commentary that I really appreciated and Phoenix’s performance was just majestic.

      Liked by 1 person

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