By Nick Maylor
Todd Phillips’ R-Rated film starring Joaquin Phoenix is without question, an impressive piece of filmmaking. It features a brilliant performance by Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a mentally distressed loner living with his mother in 1980s Gotham City who, through a series of unfortunate and troubling circumstances, transforms himself into a familiar archetype, a nihilistic criminal who aims to fuel the fires of civil unrest and turn society on its head.
Eventually donning a brightly colors suit, green hair and clown makeup, Fleck reinvents himself, creating the persona of “Joker”.
I have not been shy about my skepticism when it comes to this film. While I instantly agreed that Joaquin Phoenix was a brilliant choice for the role of Joker, I fundamentally disagreed with the idea of this film. An origin story for the Joker in a film with no Batman always seemed wrong headed to me. The Joker is usually defined by his ambiguous backstory and this was a huge part of the character’s intrigue and mystery in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), a film that won Heath Ledger the Academy Award for Best Supporting actor for his role as the Clown Prince of Crime.
Phoenix delivers a brilliant performance in Joker as Arthur Fleck, the man who would become the Joker. Nevertheless, I do not believe what Phoenix does surpasses the work of Heath Ledger. On a more important note, I personally do not recognize Arthur Fleck as The Joker; at least not the Joker I know from years of comics and adaptations. Fleck is a Joker, but he is not THE Joker. He is a deranged psychopath hell bent on terrorizing Gotham City; but he is not the genius, Clown Prince of Crime that most of us die hard fans will recognize.
Does this ultimately matter? Perhaps it is just a distinction without a difference. It should be noted that nowhere during any of the trailers for Joker, does the DC Comics logo appear. It does not appear during the film’s onset in the studio logos or opening credits.
While widely considered to be a “comic-book movie”, Joker is not directly based on any comics. It takes some inspiration from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke but it takes much more of its inspiration from the films of Martin Scorsese, namely Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982). In this endeavor, it succeeds very well and the film certainly justifies it’s own existence.
Todd Phillips beautifully directs this dark horror/character study that pays homage to the Joker from the comics and acknowledges the connection to the Batman legend, while functioning largely as a stand alone picture with an original story created specifically for the film.
I do not believe this film to be superior to Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece The Dark Knight, but it is certainly a great film that will be recognized as a great achievement in the genre. It is bold as hell, embracing its R- rating fully with earnest and realistic violence.
It has a biting social commentary to make in an age of financial uncertainty and income inequality.
Arthur Fleck’s actions are taking by the public of Gotham as those of a folk hero, a twisted modern-day version of Robin Hood.
The film is certain to be fodder come Oscar season as Phoenix will almost certainly be nominated for Best Actor. He may likely win. We shall have to wait and see.
I was dead-set against this movie for a long time but eventually realized that my resistance was futile. It has been embraced across the board by critics and our own founder and namesake, John H. Foote (a man who has openly expressed how jaded and worn out by comic book movies he has been) liked this film a LOT; more so than myself, this website’s resident geek and superhero aficionado.
Whether or not I personally recognize Arthur Fleck as the Joker will ultimately be meaningless. The film is guaranteed to be a massive success both critically and financially. Hopefully it will encourage more comic-book films that can fully embrace dark and sinister themes that are a far-cry from the polished, family friendly fare of Marvel Studios. Joker deserves respect for going there. I didn’t see this as a film that needed to be made, but it ended up being a film that screamed out loud that it deserved to exist, and it does.
I cannot, in good conscience, say that Joker is anything other than a must-see film; one that deserves to be experienced and viewed as a stunning and worthy cinematic achievement.
It’s a riveting and affecting thrill ride, to be certain.
Put on a happy face and send in the clowns.
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is the current Foote & Friends “expert” on all things geek/superhero/comic-book related. Nick is the host/producer of the official Foote & Friends On Film podcast. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor