When the Martin Scorsese inspired Joker film was announced and revealed to be separated from DC Films’ current universe, fans felt a sense of trepidation. That is until it was announced that Joaquin Phoenix would lead the film helmed by Todd Phillips. The writer-director has described his upcoming Joker film as a “slow burn,” and a “different approach to comic book films.” That’s vague, but still big talk for a film about the most famous comic book villain in history. As plenty of images and the first trailer were released, we started to see that the director’s statement would hold true. With the release of the final trailer, the hype around the Joaquin Phoenix led Joker film had become monumental and as select genre press discovered earlier this week at a screening ahead of the film’s Venice Film Festival premiere, Joker more than lives up to its own hype.
Like James Mangold’s Logan before it, Joker elevates the genre to new heights, treating audiences to a layered, and dark character study of DC Comics’ notorious killer clown. It avoids almost all of the most well-worn narrative beats associated with him, and at the same time offers some very relevant-to-current-events social commentary. It even pulls off a somewhat-subverted take on Batman’s origin story. Going in, fans should note that Joker has no connection to Warner Bros.’ Justice League universe films. Think of it like the studio’s first live-action “Elseworlds” tale, a standalone story set in its own universe and unrelated to the ongoing canon established by movies like Batman v Superman and Aquaman.
It’s 1981, and Gotham City is in the grip of a serious depression. The crime rate is at a record high. A garbage strike has crippled the city. And the gap between the haves and the have-not — or, let’s be honest, the 99% and 1% the film clearly wants to invoke — is becoming critical. In this mess is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a damaged and barely employed aspiring comedian, whose pathetic life is summed up in the film’s opening scenes. To make a long story short, Arthur is a sad, pitiable person barely keeping it together — someone who could easily break with just the right push.
Playing the Joker would seem a thankless task given that 11 years later, Heath Ledger’s astonishing turn in The Dark Knight is still regarded as the character-defining performance. But Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur/Joker is riveting. His rail-thin physicality alone makes him unsettling long before he slaps on the greasepaint, but he also brings a creepy vulnerability that dares you to sympathize with him… until he turns full supervillain anyway. It’s less the Joker as a terrorist mastermind (like Ledger’s) or a bedazzled crime lord (like Jared Leto’s) and more something along the lines of what would happen if Steve Buscemi’s character in The Big Lebowski turned mass murderer.
It’s certainly one of the better takes on the character, and, I think, an argument can be made that someone has finally managed to step out of Ledger’s long-standing shadow. The film’s explosive third act is the Joker we have been waiting for Arthur to become and Joaquin Phoenix chews up the scenery. Phillips meanwhile, best known for The Hangover, provides subtle and nuanced direction of a surprisingly complicated story (co-written with Scott Silver). They’re backed up by Lawrence Sher’s amazing cinematography, Mark Friedberg’s gritty production design, and a haunting score by Hildur Gudnadottir, all of whom ought to be talked about a lot this coming awards season.
As for the other Joker cast members, Zazie Beetz delivers a terrific performance as a single mother while Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker descends into madness. The actress shines when she’s opposite Arthur Fleck. Frequent Martin Scorsese collaborator, Robert De Niro also appears as talk show host Murray Franklin and while he’s serviceably great in the role, it’s a clear homage to Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. Marc Maron has been in a bit of controversy surrounding his comments toward some comic book films and it’s clear why he feels that way as he barely has any screen time in the movie. From what little we see of Marc Maron during Joker, it’s clear why he chose the role as he definitely delivers in the scenes he shares with Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro. Joker features some great performances all around, but Joaquin Phoenix has quickly become one of my favorite Joker’s and his performance alone is worth the ticket.
Overall Thoughts: Joker is a masterful film and one of the best comic book films in recent years. It certainly is a “different approach to comic book films,” and an approach that works well with the DC brand. Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of The Joker makes the actor the only person to have played the character and stepped out of Heath Ledger’s shadow. Honestly, the only bad thing I have to say about the movie is the fact that we will never see this version of The Joker square off against the Batman of this universe. You’re gonna want to want to see Joker as soon as possible.