What makes the Joker such an enduring figure in the collective consciousness of our culture?
Is it that iconic look; the green hair, the bleached skin, the purple suit and the manic grin? Or is it his personality? The Joker’s characterization has undergone significant change across his nearly 80 year run from the eccentric bank robber of the Silver Age to the nihilistic psychopath of Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Frank Miller.
This drastic disparity carried over into the countless portrayals of the character in film, television and video games. Jack Nicholson’s performance in Tim Burton’s iconic 1989 film, “Batman,” made the character a cold-blooded gangster with a penchant for the zany, while the late Heath Ledger’s Academy Award winning turn as the Clown Prince of Crime in Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed 2008 film, “The Dark Knight,” reveled in presenting him as an enigma whose sole purpose is to cause mindless havoc and destroy the very sanity of Gotham City.
So what is it that, among all of these various interpretations and incarnations, causes fans and writers alike to continually return to this one figure? Regardless of all these differences, what the Joker represents to the public has always stayed roughly the same. He is a sinister reflection of society. His deranged grin and piercing laugh mock the morality that all of us blindly accept. He lives to be the antithesis of all law and order and sanity in the world. He appears as a clown because, to him, our reality is all one big joke … and director Todd Phillips understands that better than almost anyone.
I am happy to say that “Joker” meets and exceeds all expectations and unequivocally set itself up as one of the year’s best films.
First, to address the film’s greatest strength, Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely mesmerizing in his performance as Arthur Fleck, a man who watches helplessly as what little he has in life is wrenched away from him, causing him to spiral further and further into madness and cruelty. Despite some of his more heinous and unsettling acts, Phoenix truly makes us care about Fleck, sympathizing with him as he is repeatedly beaten down and mistreated by an uncaring world. There are glittering moments of brilliance sprinkled all across the performance, from his uncontrollable laughter to his use of movement and physicality.
However, the point where Phoenix truly shines is when he finally casts off the shell of Arthur Fleck and becomes the Joker. In truth, the Joker as we know him appears only sparingly in the film, as the main focus is Fleck’s progression toward becoming the character, but when he finally arrives, we are treated to what I believe is the most accurate live-action adaptation of the character ever put to screen. While the length of his appearance is minimal, Phoenix’s Joker perfectly projects the vibe of the comics through his tongue-in-cheek demeanor and joyful exuberance at all things chaotic. This feels like the kind of Joker capable of perpetrating the absurd, megalomaniacal schemes for which he is so famous.
In creating this new origin story, Phillips wisely borrows from a wide array of classic sources. Certain scenes and arcs in the film are clearly reminiscent of moments in Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” and Moore’s “The Killing Joke.” There is also a strong sense of homage to the works of Martin Scorcese, particularly his films “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” Aside from the obvious connection that Robert De Niro starred in both of those films and has a role in this film as well, all three films explore very similar themes with a lonely, disturbed man as the protagonist. Thankfully, despite certain similarities, it never feels like this film is a direct copy of any of those, instead taking inspiration in order to tell a unique story with this character.
The film boasts beautiful cinematography by frequent Phillip’s collaborator Lawrence Sher. The aesthetic feels gritty and raw while still operatic and stylish. The vintage font used for the opening and closing credits help “Joker” feel like one of the classic Scorsese films it was inspired by. With such a distinctive visual style, the film is easily able to differentiate itself from the surplus of comic book films Hollywood is currently overrun by.
One thing that anyone viewing this film should be aware of before buying their ticket is that it is very intense and may be difficult for some people to view due to its unsettling subject matter. That being said, this has been clearly marketed as a film about the Joker, and anyone familiar with that character should not be surprised that this film contains gruesome and frightening sequences. The Joker is famous for being a nihilistic murderer, and this film pulls no punches in reflecting that.
Because of its disturbing content, some critics have labeled this film as dangerous and irresponsible, but I find this to be one of the film’s strongest elements. For the first time, we have been given a film entirely from the Joker’s perspective. Until now, the character has always played a secondary role to Batman, whose strong sense of morality provides the driving influence on the audience’s interpretations. Despite his ominous presence, Batman always carries with him a clear sense of right and wrong. He doesn’t kill anyone and he protects the innocent. Without Batman, we are treated to the Joker’s point of view. Unlike Batman, the Joker carries no moral sentiments or codes, killing without a second thought.
With no morally upright center, we as viewers are left to make up our own minds on what we are seeing on screen. It is for the individual audience member to determine the justification, or lack thereof, of the Joker’s actions. Given no clear answers, many audience members may struggle to figure out the “right” answer, even siding with Fleck/ the Joker on occasion. This is exactly what the character would want, making this film the perfect way to represent his motives and ethos.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the whole film concerns its creator, Todd Phillips. Until now, Phillips’ most well-known work has been the “Hangover” trilogy. While well-received comedies, “The Hangover” is a far cry from the dramatic tour de force on display in “Joker.” Coincidentally, the co-writer of the second and third “Hangover” films, Craig Mazin, directed the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” earlier this year. Just like Phillips’ work on “Joker,” “Chernobyl” was a critically acclaimed drama that represented a massive departure from Mazin’s earlier works. While there is probably no connection between the timing of these projects, it is still curious that two men known for their work on the same series of light comedies would produce what many are calling the best film and television series of the year.
This film is not going to please all audiences, as evidenced by the polarizing critical response it has been receiving. It is relentlessly bleak and extremely graphic at times. If you do not enjoy those types of films and prefer more lighthearted fare, you probably will not enjoy “Joker.” If, however, you can appreciate a well-written character piece with great visuals and top-notch acting and are not bothered by some scares, this is not a film to pass up. “Joker” is not only the second best DC film I have ever seen (surpassed only by “The Dark Knight”), but is definitely one of the best films I have seen all year. Its story and imagery have lingered on my mind since I got out of the theater, and that, to me, is the mark of a truly excellent film.
Rating: 5/5 Stars
Thumbnail photo courtesy of @jokermovie Instagram.
Evan Burns is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.