In many ways, it’s surprising that it took so long for a solo Joker movie to be made. Easily Batman’s most iconic villain and arguably the most beloved comic-book baddie period, Todd Phillips’ Joker doesn’t feel like the Clown Prince of Crime as embodied by Nicholson and Ledger (glossing over Leto) before Phoenix. It’s not surprising, then, to learn that Phillips pitched this project to Joaquin Phoenix as a dark crime thriller disguised as a comic-book movie, and it certainly feels like it: this isn’t the Gotham City you know and love. It’s seedier, with conflict bubbling under the surface of charity galas and late-night talk shows, with one person the catalyst for chaos: Arthur Fleck.
Director Todd Phillips has been heavily defending Joker on the press tour, particularly around the topic of copycat violence from the incel-based fans that have adopted this film, and Arthur’s ‘me-against-the-world’ struggle as a call directly to them. Although Phillips likely didn’t mean to drum up this furore, it’s clear to see how this conclusion has been reached. Fleck, clearly a very troubled man, never seems to confront responsibility for his actions. Every bad thing he does is almost-excused as information about his past, his employment and his home life are revealed, and this paints a troubling picture of those with mental illness, implying they are just a few setbacks away from becoming the criminal that Fleck inevitably becomes. Updating the Joker origin for a 21st-century audience is a good decision from Phillips, but the way he handles it is pretty lazy.
What isn’t lazy, however, is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck. Taking over the role from Jared Leto, whose Suicide Squad performance is still ridiculed and often brushed aside, Phoenix completely carries the film when the barebones script hits dry narrative patches. His physical performance is consistently unsettling, and the way he makes Fleck interact with others – notably with Robert De Niro’s Murray Franklin in a truly captivating sequence – is unparalleled, reinforcing the alienation Arthur feels in a very unsettling manner. His dedication to the role – losing masses of weight that really hits home when you see him in topless scenes – must be commended, and while Phoenix’s tendency to play the character in a very larger-than-life manner means there’s not much subtlety to his performance (arguably what made Ledger’s Joker so iconic), it ultimately makes the conclusion of his character arc both satisfying and logical within the film’s rules.
Phoenix, however, cannot bear all the weight of a script that often lets his performance down. Joker certainly feels like a film that may have benefitted from being set outside the confines of DC Comics lore – it’s telling that Phillips and co-screenwriter Scott Silver used just one comic, The Killing Joke, as a basis for the plot – as the moments that tie Fleck’s descent into chaos to Gotham City and pre-existing Batman characters often feel shoehorned in. There’s an entire subplot devoted to Fleck wanting to meet Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), and while this thread shines a refreshing new light on Batman’s father, the resolution is ultimately bittersweet, setting a new course for Fleck while abandoning the fresh ideas it could pose.
Also bittersweet is the plodding second act, which often repeats narrative moments from the first, and uses time that could’ve been spent fleshing out the star-studded supporting cast – particularly Zazie Beetz’ Sophie – to instead retread old ground of society kicking Arthur while he’s down, which gets pretty tiresome. Nonetheless, the film ramps up for its conclusion excellently, with a finale that feels like a spiritual successor to The King of Comedy, and a final scene that encapsulates comic-book Joker and sets the stage for potential sequels.
It’s telling that Todd Phillips’ filmography has previously explored anarchic men who feel isolated from society and violently react against it, with his 1993 documentary about GG Allin, Hated. Not to suggest that Allin and Fleck are identical, but it’s hard to ignore the obvious influence that Phillips’ debut has had on his latest release. This comparison compounds the fact that Fleck is a pretty hard character to root for as he is portrayed as someone completely wronged by society, with no absolution for his sins, similar to Allin. Of course, this is a better approach to a villain-centric film than last year’s Venom: if Joker had ended with Arthur Fleck battling against an even more morally-reprehensible figure, it’d be getting slaughtered by critics and fans alike. Thus in terms of villain-led solo films, it takes the only possible (only good) route, but the ethics behind Arthur’s representation in the script certainly need to be questioned.
Joker has become a far more politicised film than maybe Phillips intended: its anti-establishment message is clearly labelled as an inadvertent consequence of Fleck’s actions, mirroring both his and Phoenix’s outburst against those who claim the film could cause copycat violence: an inadvertent consequence. While it clearly doesn’t condone Fleck’s behaviour, it treads a tricky path by attempting to crafting a sympathetic protagonist. Controversy has followed this film for months, and its incendiary portrayal of violence, mental illness and society makes it clear to see why.
A provocative and wholly original experience, Joker‘s deeply unsettling take on the Clown Prince of Crime breathes new life into a classic villain, anchored by Joaquin Phoenix at the absolute pinnacle of his powers, despite being let down by a slapdash script that has unsurprisingly caused a lot of controversy in the way it handles its delicate subject matter. An immensely watchable character study, compounded by a gripping finale that harkens to The King of Comedy while going further than Scorsese ever did in 1983, it’s definitely not for everyone, and it’s definitely not narratively or thematically consistent, but it works as the first step in a new direction for comic-book movies.