The Joker is one of the most iconic villains in comic book, and subsequently movie, history. He is also a character that benefits most from mystery and very little backstory. This was seen best with Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, who had a mysterious backstory which only added more intrigue and terror to his character.
With that being established well already, it is a bold move to release a film that not only attempts an origin for the character but dedicates the whole movie to this aim. It even goes as bold to remove the superhero who makes the character the villain. Luckily, this story is in the capable hands of both director Todd Phillips and actor Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. They also present a movie that is not a comic book film at all and something much more dramatic and certainly much darker.
This is a Joker who doesn’t need a vat of chemicals like Jack Nicholson’s version but instead slowly devolves into madness, through a couple of very bad weeks for Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck. It is this slow burn descent into the crazed mind of the most famous comic book villain which makes this movie stand-out. There is no huge, iconic moment that turns ordinary into super-villain. This is a movie about what happens when society lets someone with specific needs down and how slipping through the cracks can have devastating consequences. It also builds logically, not feeling like a comedic “worst week” but a series of linked and consequently brow-beating events which don’t just effect Fleck and his immediate family but also the wider city in a natural but very relevant way.
This film is bold in that sense. There is no shining light here, not even one that is ignored or represents the rest of society. This a hard stare into darkness and could be too much for some people. This isn’t just because it demonstrates the worst that can happen to anyone but also because this is a society where the disillusioned are fighting back and current events are not too far away from this reality.
To this end, Phoenix puts in a powerhouse performance. Never a comedic character but always a tragic one which elicits sympathy, even when he is doing some truly terrible things. This is not a movie set in the sugar-coated, slightly gentle world of comic book/superhero adaptation. This is violent, gritty and real and it makes Phoenix’s Joker one of the more terrifying versions. From the moment he is on-screen, with another perfectly iconic laugh, you are always unnerved, either scared for him or scared for what he will do to others.
With all comic book origin movies, there is a “reveal” where Phoenix goes full Joker. From this moments the film delivers a powerhouse in drama, tension and shock, with the finale being a breathtaking performance from both Phoenix and a perfectly cast Robert De Niro. It also finds a way to nicely link to the wider DC Universe, in a way that manages to expertly straddle the line between reality and coincidental fan service.
In fact, with Robert Pattinson’s version of Batman just around the corner, I would not be against Warner Bros and DC taking the plunge and placing the newest Dark Knight against this brilliant version of The Joker. This could offer a superhero movie the likes of which we’d never have seen and give more chance for Phoenix to deliver on what could be the best performance of his career.
Overall, Joker is a dramatic, bold take on an iconic character. It takes its time to to tell a story which offers an insight into madness, society and what makes people the way they are. Paired with a fantastic performance from Phoenix and you have one of the best comic book origin movies ever made.
Rating – 5!
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)
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