Joker is the origin story based on the famous comic book villain of the same name. The film was written and directed by Todd Phillps (The Hangover, War Dogs), and stars Joaquin Phoenix (Her, To Die For), and Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2). Despite the movie’s connection to the character from DC comics, Joker is less of a superhero movie, and more of a character study. The film follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), as he shifts from being your average working-class man into a vigilante champion for Gotham City’s lower class.
Joker is set in 1981 in the crime polluted streets of Gotham city, heavily inspired by New York City. From the opening lines of the film, the viewer is told via radio that the city is overrun with trash and poverty and the lower class is rioting. Much of the city’s funding is cut, leaving those in need helpless. Gotham is a ticking time bomb, and all it needs is a spark.
Enter Arthur. Suffering from a mental illness, Arthur has been walked over his entire life. He is ignored and often ridiculed but is expected to smile through his problems. Arthur dreams of admiration from his mother, coworkers, and city, but is tossed aside like garbage in the street. After being beaten, fired from his job, and rejected by society, Arthur’s sanity begins to unravel. His descent into madness is juxtaposed with Gotham’s decline. Arthur forms a persona around his struggles, eventually becoming a symbol for the oppressed lower class, who, like Arthur, are tired of having backs turned on them. As Arthur metamorphoses into a masked clown figure, his happiness is no longer forced. Arthur finds a sense of acknowledgment through his mantel as the Joker.
Joker is one of the most interesting films I have seen this year. Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker is haunting, and the film is worth a watch just to see his performance. Prior to the release of Joker, I was skeptical of Todd Phillip’s directing style, specifically if it would align with the grittier tone of the film, considering his past light hearted comedies (Old School, Due Date). To my surprise, the direction is one of the strongest aspects of the film. The lighting, cinematography, overall tone, and direction were consistently enticing throughout.
From the opening shot the tone is clear: this is not your average superhero tale. The story grabs your attention and does not let go. Much of the film is a commentary on the social and political status of our society, mainly focusing on the disparities between the upper and lower classes and on the ways in which society views and treats those suffering from mental illness. These themes are clear and do not feel forced. In the end, a large portion of the film is up to interpretation. The way the deeper themes are viewed can vary from person to person. Whether you view the story as an allegory for systemic racism, or for the way in which media attention can shape a person’s worldview, is entirely up to you.
While Joker was very entertaining, it did have some faults, mainly regarding the story. The film’s biggest issues stem from unnecessary and redundant plot points. For instance, one of the film’s storylines revolves around Arthur attempting to uncover secrets about his relationship to one of Gotham city’s wealthiest inhabitants, Thomas Wayne. While Thomas Wayne’s character does work as a way to show the vast differences between the upper and lower classes in Gotham, his subplot feels forced. The film also depicts a few minor scenes with his son Bruce Wayne, which happens to be the secret identity of the caped crusader, Batman. The scenes that include Bruce Wayne have little to no plot progression, and only serve as a reference to comic book fans. In addition to the superfluous storylines, some of the film’s biggest reveals are made to be redundant. Even after the big twists become obvious to the viewer, the film still replays previous scenes in order to re-explain how what the viewer is shown is not what really occurred.
Despite these few flaws, Joker is still an extremely entertaining adaptation of the famous comic book character. The direction and performances are phenomenal, and it is clear the crew of the film put tremendous effort into giving this iconic character a fresh story we have not seen before. This makes it difficult to compare Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker to those of Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger, both of whom previously played a live action version of the character. If you are debating whether or not to see Joker, I highly recommend you put a smile on that face and give it a chance.