By Ian Walter (Toronto, ON, Canada)
Joker Has The Last Laugh: A Gripping Origin Story
Director Todd Phillips’ character study on Gotham City’s most infamous villain provides a deep social commentary as well as a dark look at what someone can become given the right cocktail mixture of a bad beat in life and toxic surroundings. His ability to humanize such an unpredictable and inherently evil/psychopathic individual will astonish you.
Joaquin Phoenix takes control of Joker as he carves out his own spin on the legend from DC comics. Rather than attempt an impression of the great actors that have embodied the role before him, he appears to go full method as you really see a transformation on screen from actor to portrayal. Before Joker there is Arthur Fleck, a down-on-his-luck clown-for-hire who seems to be slipping into madness as he battles with mental illness and a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably even though he’s not happy. Joaquin’s role in the film is chilling, somewhat disheartening, and even carries some meta qualities with it that will remind you of past moments in the media where the actor himself was seen behaving peculiarly on talk shows such as David Letterman’s. Of course Joker is meant to laugh, but this film’s protagonist (still not sure I can really call it that!) has developed a nervous laughter that’s got impossible range, going from almost happy to sad and depressed and maniacal in moments. Arthur lives in a low rent apartment with his delusional mother and has dreams of making it in stand-up comedy and one day appearing on Murray Franklin’s live talk show (fantastically hosted by Robert De Niro).
The writing in this film is very clever. You get to see a Gotham City without Batman, in which its greatest villain is born and will give rise to the need for a true hero that can save the city from itself.
There is a serious undertone throughout, with familiar superhero/comic book ideas present yet twisted to fit the story Phillips is telling (e.g. A news report mentions the city being over-run with Super Rats as opposed to some attack from the city’s resident super-villain).
The major focus is on Arthur’s character and how he is unravelling as each new disaster hits his life like a subway train. Zazie Beetz plays a love interest of sorts, and there are some great supporting characters but the audience is primarily stuck inside the mind of the Mr. Fleck. There are some unique takes on the familiar world of Batman that feel fresh yet also manage to fit inside the story without really contradicting or tarnishing the legacy that came before. Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen) makes an appearance, and it is suggested that the father of Batman’s Bruce Wayne might not be the gold standard that has been depicted in previous outings.
Joker has very much a stand-alone feel to it that it thrives upon, but it is also executed so masterfully that I could still see a version of Batman existing in that world and being the one that could bring balance to such a grim dark city.
There are beats inside of Joker, especially in the third act, that feel perfectly crafted to be part of the Batman universe. There are moments that remind you of The Dark Knight’s Joker (legendary role played by Heath Ledger in 2008) in a good way, and a particular alley scene will give a nod to 1989’s Batman. That said, if this is just a singular story with no intention of connecting to a larger universe, it does a wonderful job of conveying what makes Joker, and what kind of melting pot is necessary for brewing one of the most dangerous foes a hero vigilante could ever face while protecting their city.
There are some surprises and great moments in this film, but it is Todd Phillips’ vision and Joaquin Phoenix’ performance that ultimately seal this film’s fate as a must-watch for any fan of comic book/superhero/psycho-drama genre.
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