“Joker” in review: Masterpiece or Mockery?

Joaquin Phoenix gives an Oscar worthy performance in “Joker,” but does he present a sympathetic version of a psychotic killer?


(Screenshot from “Joker” Trailer / YouTube)

David Anderson, Writer

“Joker” is the best DC movie since the “Dark Knight” trilogy. Warner Brothers have struggled in the past few years to make any decent films with its many DC properties, but at least for this one, they got it right. 

Despite its title, this film is as far away from a comedy as you can get; which is ironic in a way as its director is known for comedies. Director Todd Phillips, who’s most notable film is “The Hangover,” decided to step away from comedy films due to a wariness to continue in the genre in today’s “woke culture.” 

The film follows Arthur Fleck, by day he works for a rent-a-clown service and by night he is a failed stand up comic. We see Arthur’s descent into madness as he is repeatedly beaten down by society and slowly, but surely transforms the way he views his world and his role within it. Arthur is played masterfully by Joaquin Phoenix, a three-time  Academy Award nominee, who perfectly encapsulates the metamorphosis of his character into the infamous comic book villain The Joker. 

The Joker is perhaps the most widely known comic book villain of all time. The archnemesis of Batman, The Joker has terrorized Gotham City for decades. While “Joker” acknowledges its comic book roots it is a noticeable diversion from the many comic book movies in theaters of the past decade. 

Despite the many recognizable comic book locations and characters, and even though the film technically falls under the comic book movie genre it feels nothing like one. Unlike the high-octane, quick, intense nature of many of its predecessors. “Joker’s” cinematography and editing feel careful and precise, providing the viewer with a much more thoughtful experience. 

Everything in the film feels purposeful. The colors in the film surely are. Many of them surrounding Arthur prior to his transformation are dark and bleak, but once he finds his identity as The Joker they become vibrant and bright. The city of Gotham feels dark and dirty, but not as if this darkness is a byproduct of the city, but part of the city itself. 

The movie challenges the viewer because towards the beginning of the story you want to root for Arthur. He is a man down on his luck in a consistently unforgiving world and it becomes quite difficult not to sympathize with him even, for comic book readers at least, when you know the monster he will become. However, as the film progresses and Arthur’s actions become more and more depraved you can no longer root for him, but continue watching out of morbid curiosity instead. It is as if you wish for him not to snap, but once he does there is no turning back. 

Many think that Phoenix deserves an Oscar for his performance and I must say that I agree. Phoenix undoubtedly gives it his all in this movie. There is not one scene in the film without him and in each and everyone he is the highlight. His body is skinny and wretched which I am sure was intentional.

Arthur suffers from a condition in the film that causes him to laugh uncontrollably, usually at times where it doesn’t match his emotions. This is a real condition called the Pseudobulbar affect that Phoenix studied sufferers in order to prepare for the role. His performance and his devotion to it is quite fascinating. It is the best version of The Joker since Heath Ledger’s in “The Dark Knight” and perhaps the best ever. I hope to see him in the role again in the future as it would be fantastic to see him face off against Batman. 

Although it seems at this time that “Joker” was a one time deal for Phoenix. However, the film could suggest otherwise. A young Bruce Wayne, the alter ego for Batman, appears in the film which takes place in the 1980s. The upcoming Batman film starring Robert Pattinson is said to take place in the 1990s and it just seems too perfect for the two incarnations of the characters to not cross paths. There is also a significant event from the comics that takes place in the movie that I would rather not spoil here that leads me to believe this even more. 

As any movie that follows a maniacal mass-murderer would be, “Joker” is uncomfortable, disturbing and hard to watch throughout quite a few portions. Despite the unpleasantries,  your eyes are glued to the screen throughout the film as its story and central character are so compelling. 

While director Todd Phillips intended to escape the “woke culture” by leaving comedy, he may have gone too far in the other direction. “Joker” has come under fire by many viewers and critics claiming the film glorifies a killer and makes a mockery of those with mental illness. Across the nation, the film has been a cause for alarm as many fear it may cause those with a similar mind frame as the film’s protagonist to turn to violence. In fact, when I went to view the film myself there were two police officers in the theater for its duration. 

While I admit that today, with 283 mass shootings in the US this year as of Sept. 1, the fear surrounding “Joker” is surely justified. However, the film does not glorify a killer, nor does it mock those with mental illness, it is a film meant to provide an origin to one of fiction’s most mysterious and evil characters. Whether on film or on the page, the character is not meant to be relatable.

It must be understood that the entirety of the film is conveyed from Arthur’s perspective which the viewer comes to understand is quite unreliable and utterly warped. It allows you to draw your own conclusions by the movie’s end and most will understand that Arthur’s actions are not justified and can only be seen as righteous through his own eyes or by similarly deranged individuals.

With thoughtful cinematography, a compelling story, and a commanding performance from Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker” is a comic book movie in a league of its own. It shall be regarded in and out of the comic book community and will be remembered for some time to come.

While the film may delve into some uncomfortable subject matter, I think it is a piece that while aware of its topics provides a respectful and realistic origin to a rather far-fetched character.

“Joker,” a film about a villain, a film many were uncertain could stand on its own, not only proved itself but elevated the comic book movie genre as a whole.

Email David at [email protected].

Facebook Comments