*** Warning the following review contains certain spoilers for Joker ***
If you’re going to make the Joker a protagonist in your story, you’re not going to have an easy go of it. After all, the pages of DC’s comic book history are stained crimson with the blood that the deranged Batman villain has spilled over the years.
He’s not exactly the most likable dude, but somehow, Todd Phillips (The Hangover) and Joaquin Phoenix (The Sisters Brothers) make it work in Joker (in theaters Friday). Not only have they passed the exam with flying colors, but they’ve also broken the mold of the superhero genre as we know it.
In fact, you wouldn’t even know Joker was an origin story about Bruce Wayne’s greatest nemesis during the movie’s first 20 minutes (save for the title card), which introduce us to Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a socially awkward party clown for hire with an uncontrollable affliction that causes him to laugh without meaning to. He’ll be sitting on a bus or on the subway, and break out into high-pitched cackles with no warmth behind them. During these fits, Arthur’s visage is affixed with a nightmarish rictus of pain and sadness as he tries to get a grip on a Tourettes-like trait that will come to define his destiny.
You can keep your Thanoses and your Darkseids, because Joaquin Phoenix is the “Big Bad” we've been waiting for
As Fleck, Phoenix is tremendous, the biggest presence on the screen—and perhaps any screen of recent memory—that none of his fellow cast members, from Zazie Beetz to the great Robert De Niro, can even come close to replicating. He’s a gaunt husk of a man, a failed stand-up comedian with mental health issues and the belief that the world has abandoned him. This capricious cocktail is a powder keg of insanity just waiting to blow.
It’s hard to overstate just how incredible of a performance Phoenix gives and at times, it feels like he studied the idiosyncratic comedy style of the late Andy Kaufman for inspiration. You simply cannot take your eyes off of him. Fluctuating between charming and nightmarish, jubilant and incredibly melancholy, Arthur feels very real and also very dangerous—graceful like a ballet dancer one minute and jerky like a poorly-oiled automaton the next. You never know what he’s going to do, whether it be an interpretive dance in a filthy public restroom or pulling out the shelves in his fridge, so he can huddle inside of it after a rough day.
The actor shed more than 50 pounds for the role (one he was certainly born to play) and his jutting ribs and spinal cord make him even more of an imposing presence—as if he’s merely a walking cocoon waiting for a spiky insect to burst forth from beneath the surface of waxy skin. Even when Arthur is clothed, the camera often shakes to convey the character’s ever-crumbling frame of mind. By not giving Arthur the help he so desperately needs, Gotham ends up creating its greatest threat.
Speaking of Gotham, this take on the famous fictional city might just be the seediest version ever committed to film. Since the story is set around the early 1980s, the town is a cesspool, a veritable den of iniquity piled high with garbage, rats, corner-camping prostitutes, rampant graffiti, flickering subway lights, and 24-hour porn theaters.
Joker takes a deep dive into heavy human themes like mental health and wealth inequality
The urban decay recalls a similar period in the history of New York City, and that’s not an accident. Phillips (who co-wrote the screenplay Scott Silver) has said several times that he wanted to channel iconic films of that era such as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Like those features, Joker is an intimate character study about a troubled individual more than it could ever be a comic book adaptation. In particular, Phillips directly pays tribute to The King of Comedy by casting De Niro as Murray Franklin, a late-night talk show host who serves the purpose of Arthur’s personal comedic hero.
The sweeping cinematography of Lawrence Sher, lavish production design of Mark Friedberg, and detailed costumes of Mark Bridges all mix together for an effective period piece that wraps you in the world of the film like a straight jacket at Arkham Asylym. Further displaying a Tarantino-esque talent for pitch-perfect musical cues, Phillips fills certain scenes with the mellow crooning of Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” or the out-of-control guitar solo from Cream’s “White Room.” The contrast of these tunes further delineates just how volatile and delusional Arthur can be.
In terms of story, the plot mainly revolves around Arthur trying to learn more about his past and where he comes from. True to the comics, the movie remains rather murky about his origins—drawing some general plot beats from Alan Moore’s influential Killing Joke—but this journey of self-discovery brings the Wayne family into the mix and for once, they’re more like the bad guys than anything else.
Arthur, our “hero,” doesn’t feel like Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen)—who is considering a bid for mayor—really cares about the neglected citizens of Gotham. Of course, Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson), Martha (Carrie Louise Putrello), and Alfred (Douglas Hodge) are all present, too, but they’re just periphery characters. They’re not fleshed out, but that’s super refreshing since we’ve seen their story told six ways to Sunday.
Like Arthur, we view them as apathetic, personality-lacking rich folks who couldn’t give less of a f*** about the hoi polloi, proving that there are always two sides to the same bat-coin. There’s something very cyclical about the entire thing, which has more in common with Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman effort than you might think.
As the plot progresses, Arthur somewhat inadvertently sparks a clown-centric revolution against the elite members of society that brings the city to its very knees. By the time you reach the last third of Joker, you’ll be on the very edge of your seat, your skin buzzing with electricity, and your mouth hanging open in shock.
You’d never want to emulate Arthur’s ultimate violent actions, but you can still empathize with him as a sad individual struggling for a purpose in a world that’s grown accustomed to turning a blind eye to the downtrodden. Choosing to forgo the classic “vat of chemicals” origin story, Phillips gives us the most relatable and realistic version of the Joker we’ve ever seen.
There have been several amazing performances and interpretations of the character since Cesar Romero first splashed white paint over his mustache for the '60s-era Batman TV show, but Phoenix's take is like nothing we've ever seen before. Similar to Heath Ledger's looming embodiment of chaos in The Dark Knight, he has given the world another definitive iteration of the Caped Crusader's biggest foil.
It is inevitable that this staggering achievement in acting will be dissected from every possible angle in papers, books, and video essays. With that said, this doesn't maker Phoenix the best Joker we've ever seen, it just makes him one of the best, a clever and compelling re-contextualization of everything we ever thought, suspected, or wondered about the long-running bad guy. That being said, Romero, Nicholson, Hamill, Ledger, and Leto (yes, even Leto) have all brought admirable and praise-worthy attributes to the paradigmatic jester of mayhem.
And while this is technically a DC movie, you should really check your Bat-spectations at the door. Joker is adjacent to the superhero genre without ever falling into that definition. There’s no post-credits scene or active world-building for future installments. It’s simply an exploration of what can happen when a person chooses the darkest path imaginable, with some recognizable faces and imagery thrown in to add a little more flavor.
It won’t satisfy the comic die-hards, but if you can think of it as a wholly separate beast—perhaps one published under the Elseworlds imprint—you’ll really enjoy yourself. Phillips treats Joker as a self-contained fairy tale of sorts—albeit one conceived by the Brothers Grimm.
The filmmaker, who is known for his more humorous efforts like Old School and The Hangover, proves here that he can take the comedy genre and spin in on its head in a depraved way that gives you a new outlook on what it means to find something funny. While there are a few scattered moments of light-heartedness in Joker, it never devolves into an all-out chuckle-fest.
You could say that it’ll have the opposite effect, making you laugh in a nervous sort of way when something particularly awkward or disturbing is unfolding on the screen. It’s pure comic book movie alchemy, a darkly beautiful and haunting anomaly that has single-handedly redefined Hollywood's approach to comics on the big screen.
All in all, Joker opens up the door for all kinds of avant-garde takes on the world of comic book cinema from here on out. The bad guy can be the good guy, the story can be firmly grounded in reality, and audiences can jive with a “superhero” a story that doesn’t utilize capes, cowls, or grandiose visual effects. If that ends up being the case, then Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime will end up having the last laugh.
Joker co-stars Frances Conroy, Marc Maron, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Brian Tyree Henry, Bryan Callen, Josh Pais, Shea Whigham, and Bill Camp.