A mentally troubled stand-up comedian embarks on a downward spiral that leads to the creation of an iconic villain. A mentally troubled stand-up comedian embarks on a downward spiral that leads to the creation of an iconic villain. A mentally troubled stand-up comedian embarks on a downward spiral that leads to the creation of an iconic villain.
Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks — the one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he’s part of the world around him.
Every good hero/heroine needs their villain and for fans of Batman it is the Joker that is surely the most famous and memorable of them all. Whether you grew up watching Cesar Romero take on Batman in the 1960s TV series or found yourself bowled over by the late Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning turn in The Dark Knight (2008), the Joker has remained one of the classic antagonists. Personally, growing up my earliest affiliation with the character was Jack Nicholson’s assured performance in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). However, in recent years it is Heath Ledger that tends to garner the plaudits for depicting the Joker, his portrayal one that – sadly with many of his roles – contributed to the actor’s troubling insomnia and he is said to have delved very deeply both physically and emotionally to get to the core of the character. Ledger’s untimely death in January 2008 from an accidental drug overdose at the age of 28, followed by a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar in February 2009 further cemented the claims his was THE defining performance of Batman’s greatest rival. Some fans even wanted the character retiring, believing no one else could compete with Ledger. In 2019 Todd Phillips teamed up with Joaquin Phoenix to try and defy the sceptics and offer a new take on the Joker.
Set in 1981, Joker focuses on Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) who works as a party clown but has aspirations of being a stand-up comedian. Arthur suffers with a condition that leads to bouts of uncontrollable laughter, requiring medication, support from social services, and he even carries around cards explaining his illness to anyone intimidated by his spontaneous outbursts. Living with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), Arthur dreams of comedic stardom, but laughs are hard to come by in an unstable Gotham City which is struggling with recession, not to mention unscrupulous characters to be found on the streets, ones that see vulnerability in an individual such as Arthur. When Arthur is dealt a series of blows by Gotham society, he begins to look at the world around him in a different light and starts, albeit slowly, to fight back.
I had heard of Joker when it was first released but I knew nothing about the story or how it tied in with the DC Universe. First of all, the film offers an alternative look at the character of the Joker, giving us his origins in the form of Arthur Fleck and providing a detailed and compelling character study. Those expecting another Batman may be disappointed. Joker is a gripping and often gruelling drama, having us spend two hours on the lower rungs of the societal ladder. Arthur earns a meagre living as a party clown before gazing adoringly at late night talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro), seeing in him the kind of future he wants. Arthur desires to be loved and to make everyone laugh. The problem is, no one is laughing. Todd Phillips took a huge gamble here with this alternative depiction of the Joker and from what I have read, not all critics warmed to the film. Personally, I was left astonished by the film. The undoubted highlight is Joaquin Phoenix whose performance as Arthur Fleck and his eventual journey towards becoming the Joker is flawless. Phoenix offers a powerful depiction of a mentally fragile and vulnerable young man but one capable of uncompromising acts of violence. I found myself sometimes gasping as events in the story unfolded. Some scenes are horrifically violent and shocking. This isn’t your typical superhero flick. It is dark, it is gritty, it is chilling, but it is utterly gripping from start to finish. Frances Conroy, Robert DeNiro and Zazie Beetz, who plays Arthur’s neighbour Sophie, offer excellent support but this is Joaquin Phoenix’s show and the Oscar he would go on to win for his performance was thoroughly deserved. It isn’t fair to compare Phoenix to Ledger or vice versa. Both actors brought something unique to their portrayals but the inevitable debate will continue about the best Joker performance. In terms of the DC Universe, we do have some small nods in there, especially with a mayoral candidate by the name of Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) floating around but Joker stands very much on the periphery of the Batman mythology and could be treated as its own separate entity. It offers the potential to go further, to incorporate the Joker into that universe but it also stands alone as a truly stunning piece of cinema.
Verdict: Dark, brooding and troubling, Joker is a magnificent achievement, led by a stunning performance from Joaquin Phoenix.