Comic book movies have taken Hollywood by storm over the last decade, having gone from being considered fringe and nerdy to being nominated for Best Picture at last year’s Academy Awards (“Black Panther”). This success has sparked filmmakers to get more creative with comic book movies and branch out. Just a few days before the release of “Joker,” iconic filmmaker Martin Scorsese compared certain comic book films to “theme parks,” saying “it isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” This film, however, seems to be the exception to Scorsese’s remark.
“Joker” is not a CGI-heavy action flick about a muscular hero saving the world, but a psychological thriller about the origin of the titular Clown Prince of Crime played by Joaquin Phoenix. Known mainly throughout the film as Arthur Fleck, the protagonist is an extremely distraught, mentally ill man who works as a party clown and dreams of being a stand-up comedian.
“Joker” was co-written and directed by Todd Phillips, who had found success in the 2000s and established himself as a noteworthy comedy writer-director with films like “Old School,” “Due Date” and “The Hangover” trilogy. Because of his films featuring provocative, over-the-top humor, Phillips has come to be known as a polarizing figure in Hollywood.
The film is set in a 1981 Gotham City, which is portrayed as a filthy concrete cosmopolis for its citizens to navigate. The infrastructure of peeling wallpaper, trash-ridden curbs and dimly lit subway stations provide a sickly view of society. The film had the opportunity to overcook the nostalgia, but Phillips excluded anything that could’ve painted the city as appealing.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as a disturbed man who has never felt happiness was phenomenal. His transformation is marked by episodes of blissful dance, which is a highlight of the cinematography. His magnetic marionette-like twirling provides the perfect counterpart to his nervous stammering. With the bar for this character set colossally high by Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight,” Phoenix was tasked with creating a Joker that the world hadn’t seen before. Robert De Niro turns in an impressive depiction of a smirking, tongue-in-cheek late-night talk show host, and Zazie Beetz is enticing as ever as the girl down the hall who catches Arthur’s affection.
Phillips did a splendid job of pacing, which is difficult to do when the film starts in such a dark, rotten place. The film keeps audiences on their toes, even when there’s nowhere to go but down.
The film, while entertaining, was not as challenging as the weeks of controversy leading up to its release indicated it to be. Because of the central character being an isolated, low-class man feeling absolutely rejected by society, the idea of real-world crimes being inspired by the film has circulated the media intensely. There is, no doubt, a toxic community of moviegoers that may put Arthur Fleck on a pedestal as an amalgamation of problems society poses, and this community is responsible for “Joker” receiving disapproval that this movie exists even before audiences view it. Instead of the Joker being a psychopathic intellectual that sticks out in a crowd, he is an everyman molded by the abuse by civilization. Many believe there is an inherent danger for this movie to be released at a time such as this.
As for the Scorcese influence, the film felt more like Phillips was imitating works like “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” rather than learning from them to create something with a bit more depth. It has the look of Scorcese but lacks the feel of Scorcese. Nihilism has now become somewhat of a fad in cinema and it seems like “Joker” may be just along for the ride, rather than inventing a new path.
“Joker” is a film that can be watched a number of times and have a different meaning or message after each viewing. This reconceptualization of one of the greatest villains of all time provides a twisted perspective on a variety of issues including mental illness, abuse, political power, and socioeconomic status. If you go to the theater looking for another run-of-the-mill comic book adaptation, well joke’s on you.