JOKER review by Mark Walters – Joaquin Phoenix transforms into Batman’s greatest villain

JOKER review by Mark Walters – Joaquin Phoenix transforms into Batman’s greatest villain

With comic book films dominating the box office, many have wondered if moviegoing audiences have started to get superhero fatigue. Perhaps making movies just about the villains is the next most logical step. Last year, Sony saw big returns on VENOM, a movie about a character that has always been synonymous with Spider-Man, only the film had no Spidey in it at all. This year sees the release of JOKER, an origin story about The Clown Prince of Crime most famous for being Batman’s greatest foe. But there’s no Caped Crusader here, and as this is an origin, don’t expect to see anything terribly similar to the traditional potrayals of The Joker either. Set in the 1980s, the production depicts a gritty throwback style that purposely tries to emulate cinema from the 1970s and 80s, even going so far as to open with the classic Warner Bros. logo, and withholds the DC movie logo until the very end of the final credits. Director Todd Phillips has crafted a loving nod to early Martin Scorsese efforts like MEAN STREETS and TAXI DRIVER, or even AFTER HOURS. The end result doesn’t look or even sound anything like a typical comic book film, and yet somehow it still feels perfect.

Gotham City loner Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man with problems. He’s poor, working odd jobs in clown face, taking care of his ailing mother, seeing a psychiatrist regularly and taking multiple prescription medications. He suffers from a loud and uncontrollable laugh that sounds painful, and has vivid daydreams that convince him things are better than they actually are. To put it simply, his life is a mess. As he applies his clown make up for work, he cries and realizes he has to force his smile in an almost torturous fashion. By day he swings a sign for a small retailer that’s going out of business, by night he’s caring for his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and watching their favorite late night talk show, “The Murray Franklin Show” (Robert De Niro playing a Johnny Carson-esque host). In the news, the city seems to be on the verge of a class war, with the lower class struggling and hungry, and the upper class living the high life, shown at its peak by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) considering a run for mayor. After losing his low-paying job for unfair reasons, Arthur hopes that maybe he can find success as a stand up comedian, but no one seems to find him funny. As Arthur’s life gets worse by the day, his bad luck seems to culminate with a ride on the subway that turns horribly violent, and his act of self-defense becomes the spark for Gotham’s citizens to start fighting back. And since Arthur was in clown face when that act happened, that visual also inspires some of the city’s more passionate folks to wear clown masks as they revolt. For the first time in Arthur’s life, he feels like people are “noticing” him, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons.

It’s impressive seeing how Todd Phillips has evolved as a director, especially considering his comedy beginnings. JOKER is going to be called a love letter to early Martin Scorsese films for good reason – it’s basically TAXI DRIVER for a new generation, and cleverly uses the Batman mythos as a template to build off of, while never quite feeling like just another Batman movie… even the name Gotham is barely mentioned in the movie. The style and look of the film is classic 1970s or 80s cinema in every way, even the opening credits look old school, and the shots of New York… sorry, I mean Gotham, look like 1970s NYC. Joaquin Phoenix is superb as Fleck, the emaciated loser who can’t catch a break, and while we very much feel sorry for him and his run of bad luck, we also realize this is a dangerous and unhinged man. He is not a hero or even an anti-hero, more of an anarchist who just needed a little push to show his true power. He’s a broken man who figures out how to turn his failings as a human being into inner strength. I’m actually kind of shocked Phoenix hasn’t won an Oscar yet, but if there was ever a film to seal the deal, this is it. It’s a performance you can’t look away from, even when it’s at its most uncomfortable and painful. This is less of a character and more of masterful characterization of pain and mental illness… and it’s incredible to watch. Every ounce of hype you’ve heard is valid, this is the performance of the year.

The supporting roles are a mixed bag of greatness and at times underdeveloped potential. Brett Cullen gives us an interesting take on Thomas Wayne, father to Bruce Wayne, no longer a sympathetic millionaire trying to help his city, more of a wealthy fat cat who looks at the poor as an annoyance. It’s an interesting take on the Batman mythos, but somehow still works. Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin is played smartly as a cocky TV personality, but one that has a definite tone of phony humor to him. He’s more Jay Leno than David Letterman, a definite commentary on the manipulative side of media and pop culture. There’s a great daydream sequence early on in the film with Phoenix and De Niro, and it’s interesting how Phillips shows us every possible side of this character before we see who he really and truly is. I wanted more of Murray Franklin, but somehow I feel like we got just the right amount. Zazie Beetz is used sparingly as Arthur’s neighbor, a single mother who hates the hovel they live in, but becomes an unexpected muse for Arthur. This is one character I felt like they could have done more with, but also one of the more surprising characters in the film for a variety of reasons. Frances Conroy is also used briefly as Arthur’s mother, a sickly woman who has her own dark secrets and sordid history, and again seems to be a strongly sympathetic side to our lead character and perhaps the only thing in his life that gives him purpose.

There are some interesting twists and turns in JOKER that make it a strong origin story, particularly for a villain, and by the end you’ll feel a flood of emotions. The whole film is one big gut punch, and perhaps some strong social commentary on how all of us could be just one bad day away from going over the edge. Phillips recently complained about “woke” culture ruining comedies, and there’s been some suspicion that JOKER would end up being a hardcore Conservative fantasy film, showing someone killing annoying figures and rising up against social justice, or something to that effect… actually, it’s quite the opposite, at least from what I saw. The villains in the movie are the wealthy higher ups, and the story is more about the stepped on poor folks fighting back and taking them down. Not exactly a Conservative fantasy, more like their worst nightmare. But more importantly, it shows how easily violent acts could spawn chaos, and asks the questions of what would that ultimately turn into. Some of the other fears are that the film glorifies violence in a way that might influence troubled minds. Hard to say, as there are certainly scenes you could make that claim with, but the ending seems to show that thought pattern won’t end in victory or true happiness. All that said, there is some definite commentary in the film about the media and how they cover violent acts, and perhaps how the media’s coverage could very well be what allows it to spread.

As an origin story, JOKER is quite brilliant and beautifully performed, but as a movie it’s more of a fascinating nightmare. It’s a period piece that could easily be connected with today’s society, almost timeless in its storytelling and message. And it’s very interesting in that it’s meant to be its own universe and self-contained narrative, not a crossover by any means, and yet if it was the lead-in for a new Batman movie, it would totally work. What should be most important is seeing whether or not the gritty R-rated JOKER spawns more films like it, as it could be great to see other side characters deconstructed in this way… but man oh man has the bar been set high.

JOKER opens October 4, 2019

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.