As the superhero film genre has evolved, so to have the expectations of the audience. Whether it’s Marvel or DC, the stakes rise with every new movie. The subject matter becomes darker and edgier. Experimentation. Stepping outside the traditional narrative of a superhero film. This approach has created some of the most memorable comic stories told on the silver screen. And that’s exactly the kind of path Todd Phillips’ Joker follows.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Clown Prince of Crime, Joker seeks to tell the origin story of arguably the most enigmatic comic character of all-time. Fanfare and controversy have surrounded the movie since day one. So, the question is does it live up to the hype?
A new kind of comic film
Ever since Heath Ledger’s career-defining moment as Joker in The Dark Knight, many have thought his portrayal to be unmatchable. But Phoenix or Phillips aren’t interested in trying to rehash what’s come before. Joker tells an original story set in 1980s Gotham about a down-on-his-luck man called Arthur Fleck.
Everywhere Fleck turns, society wants to take a piece of him. Whether it’s a bunch of kids who steal his clown sign, or a woman on a bus who treats him coldly, Fleck can’t catch a break. It doesn’t help that Fleck comes across as an oddball with an uncontrollable laugh (a real-life medical condition called pseudobulbar affect).
But even through all the pain, Fleck continues to put on a happy face because that’s what his mother always told him to do. He continues to smile even when everything is decaying around him. Gotham decays in a physical and societal sense. So does Fleck’s sanity as he learns the only way to solve his problems is to think of his life as a “fucking comedy.”
An acting masterclass
As Fleck reaches his breaking point, Phoenix revels in every moment of it. From the sinister twitch in his eyes, to a madcap dance routine in his underwear, Phoenix rides the crazy train all the way over the edge until there’s no turning back. His version of Joker is completely different to Ledger’s and he deserves all the praise in the world for putting on such a livewire performance.
Much of the controversy around the movie has to do with the idea of giving sympathy towards a mass murderer. While watching Joker, I didn’t get any sense of that. Joker is a cautionary tale of a damaged environment producing even more damaged people. Gotham itself is presented as a sick entity, caving under the weight of its own corruption and inequality.
What the movie does is show the inevitability of Fleck’s transformation. The violence that has always lived inside him unleashed without any apologies or restraint. And as a result, Joker has pushed the boundaries of what is possible for a comic story on the big screen.
If films like Deadpool and Logan opened the door for R-rated superhero movies, then Joker has succeeded in kicking the door off its hinges and setting the house on fire. The genre continues to be reimagined and as fans, that’s all anyone can really ask for.