Todd Phillips’s origin story for Batman’s famous archenemy has already been called many things, from being a deranged film all about everything that can push a man too far to a dangerous film that would do more harm than good purely from the reputation of its lead character alone. Yet unlike most other comic book-based films of its era, it’s also unique on the count that it’s played at the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion at the former. But given the sort of character that the Joker was known to be among moviegoers of all sorts and those who have closely followed the comics, it was always set to be difficult to try and explore how he had come to be for he was simply known to be a character that always enjoyed violence for the fun of it. Yet knowing that writer-director Todd Phillips never took any direct inspiration from the comics when crafting a story of how he had come to be, seeing how he would experiment around a character of this sort was set to be quite the ride – and it turns out rather worthwhile too.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, who we see in the film’s opening sequence with clown makeup performing in the street and spinning a sign before getting jumped by a gang of youths. He lives alone with his mother (Frances Conroy), whom he always takes great care of, but her reliance on Wayne Enterprises comes to Arthur’s annoyance. Having built himself a fascination with Gotham City’s local comedian Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), the clown’s own descent into madness spirals into violent psychopathy after he gets fired from his job for bringing a gun to a children’s hospital, as it leads to the murders of three employees from Wayne Enterprises. Taking inspiration from New York City of the 1970’s and films of said era directed by Martin Scorsese, Joker doesn’t want to sell itself off as another comic book movie the way you know it but rather a film all about how these dangerous people come to establish names for themselves, after having been cast out by the people around them for so long.
In creating an origin story for the Joker, there was always the risk of turning a character who was something of an entity representative of pure evil into a sympathetic figure but it’s clear enough that Todd Phillips is not aiming for that. Rather instead, the film’s nihilistic approach in terms of the violence and the gritty atmosphere shows Phillips’s own lack of interest in creating a film that wants to be a part of the superhero culture that has defined the public’s interest in comic book films – and he found the perfect setup by making it a film all about Batman’s famed archenemy. Phillips, being known for directing comedies like the Hangover series, Old School, and Road Trip, never holds back on the violence and every moment it comes on the screen, but even his attempts to distance himself from that sort of tone never always work in his favour. Among many factors that don’t help include the film’s poor writing, and being centered around a character who embodies pure evil for fun’s sake only obscures the film’s message: supposedly being about a psychologically damaged person being driven to his own limits because everyone around him continually pushes him without end.
Like the many great onscreen incarnations of the Joker that have preceded him, whether they be Cesar Romano, Mark Hamill, Jack Nicholson, or the Academy Award-winning performance by Heath Ledger, Joaquin Phoenix gives the character of the Joker his all. If there’s anything else that Todd Phillips does successfully with Joker, nailing a perfect visual look in order to create a grim atmosphere for Gotham City, creating it in such a way that would perfectly set it apart from other incarnations of Gotham onscreen even with the ongoing DC Extended Universe. The score by Hildur Guðnadóttir is every bit as haunting as you could ever want it to be for a movie about one of the most infamous comic book villains in history, and on top of all that, it’s also a gorgeously made film too. While I’m not entirely convinced that Todd Phillips already has everything in him to fully transition away from comedy into genre film because of where he fumbles with wanting a story of this sort to be taken so seriously, there’s still potential I feel for what could be another great film under his eyes if he is willing enough to stick to this style, but in trying to create a social commentary with a character who embodied pure evil for many generations, he fumbles a great deal – as the film also feels distracted by having too many ties to the Batman lore.
When trying to create a social commentary of sorts akin to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, this is where Joker becomes messy – because it seems to be misunderstanding what it was that made said films as effective as they are. Because neither film showed their protagonists in wholly sympathetic lights, what made Joker fumble on this level was the fact that it never really seems to know what it wants to say about people who believe the exact same things that the Joker does. Even as a portrait of the rise of anarchy against an authoritarian ruling where the rich always succeed at the expense of the poor, Joker falls down to a slump because it seems to have nothing to say whatsoever about everything that drove the Joker to his carefree onslaught of violence. In part, you see many factors that range from his mental condition which is portrayed in a poor light, but also with his moments together with his mother trying to make him seem more sympathetic, yet it almost feels impossible to come along with that too. Perhaps Todd Phillips intended something different in that regard, but even here it also comes off fairly irresponsible and him taking it all so seriously never works too.
That’s not to say that Joker is all terrible though. It’s straight up horrifying as a portrait of how danger rises up in society when pushed to a certain degree, but given the film’s setting part of it also reads as being outdated too. If anything, Todd Phillips has perfectly nailed how to make an outright terrifying venture all about how one of the most infamous villains of comic book history had come to be, though there’s also something rather icky about attempting to humanize him. Yet for what it’s worth, this is also one of the most terrifying films that could ever be made about noted icons and the impact that they leave behind on the world, for better or for worse. People will love Joker for what it’s worth, others will be completely repulsed – I’m not one to comment on how dangerous its impact is because even to me parts of it still feel like they’re too tame. But nonetheless, Joker boasts its best aspects with ease and it’s still worth watching on the count of those. There’s a great film that could be made here if Joker still felt like it were part of its own lore, but as it stands, it’s solid enough.
Watch the trailer right here.
Images via TIFF.
Directed by Todd Phillips
Screenplay by Todd Phillips, Scott Silver, based on characters from DC Comics
Produced by Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper, Emma Tillinger Koskoff
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy
Release Date: October 4, 2019
Running Time: 122 minutes