Joker sets new standard for comic book movies

October 7, 2019

Something I’d never experienced before with any other movie in my life: a full TSA-style security check in the lobby of the theater before I went to see it. That movie was Joker, an in-depth character study of the oldest and most prominent of the superhero Batman’s rogues gallery, the clown prince of crime.

When the first trailer for the movie released in May, I could tell this would be different from any of the other movies DC had put out in its seven years of producing a cinematic universe of films in an attempt to imitate Marvel/Disney’s success with their own. No green screen backgrounds or carefully choreographed fight scenes here, just raw emotion and character-driven conflict. 

A month before its theater release, it won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. But my hype was lessened by the mixed critical reviews and from also mixed receptions by Californian and Australian audiences lucky enough to have been able to see the movie before me.

So with my expectations tempered, I sat down to just try and enjoy the next two hours of my life. And enjoy them I did.

Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker stars the incredibly talented Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. While drawing inspiration from comic depictions of the character, the movie presents a unique take as Arthur Fleck, a professional clown suffering from mental illness who aspires to be a stand-up comedian, standing out amid the urban decay and grime of 1980s Gotham City.

Joaquin’s performance is the undeniable highlight of the movie, as expected from the accomplished actor. He blends into the role seamlessly, losing 52 pounds to achieve the look of a malnourished, frail and sick man. The janky way he walks, the chilling, hyena-like cackle, his trailing and often interrupted speech makes you forget entirely that you’re watching someone pretending to be a character.

The Joker is easily one of the most interesting and versatile comic book villains ever written, so it’s natural that every actor to ever portray the character in cinema has brought something of his own to the table. Joaquin’s take on the Joker has elicited comparisons to the Oscar-winning performance of the late Heath Ledger as the character in 2008’s “Dark Knight.”

Ledger and Phoenix both give their performances their all, but the similarities end there. The Joker of this movie is an entirely different beast from anything we’ve seen in film or in comics before. Traditionally, when the origins of the Joker are revealed — if at all — then it’s that he fell into a vat of chemicals during a botched robbery as a small-time criminal that gets interrupted by the Batman, driving him mad and bleaching his skin white.

But the young Bruce Wayne depicted before the murder of his parents in Crime Alley aside, there’s no Batman here.

Arthur Fleck suffers from a plethora of mental conditions, including one that causes random, compulsive bouts of laughing. He lives alone with his elderly mother without a friend in the world and scraping by as a party clown, where he’s abused by his boss and coworkers. This is a man who’s driven to evil not by chemicals, but by a world to which he doesn’t even exist. 

To say that without Joaquin’s performance the movie would feel incomplete is an understatement. His acting is what carries this movie to greatness – and that’s not a bad thing at all. This isn’t to say that other aspects of the film aren’t exceptional.

The cinematography and score of the movie are absolutely on point. Lawrence Sher’s work as cinematographer is astonishing, and I can say with confidence that there’s not a single bad or even mediocre shot in the movie. Drawing inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s films of the 1970s like Taxi Driver, he makes Gotham feel like a place of darkness and desperation, overflowing with trash.

Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score is likewise worthy of praise. She creates a soundtrack evoking fear, anxiety, sorrow and tension at exactly the right moments. The Joker’s cello leitmotif is an absolutely haunting piece played during the character’s dark moments in the story. Upbeat period music from earlier in the 20th century is used strategically in certain places, echoing Arthur’s inner torments and his unreachable dream of a better life that taunts him.

Action scenes are sparse in the movie — something rare for a comic book movie, but it works to the film’s advantage and this is, after all, a character study, not your traditional “save the world” plot present in most superhero films. When they do happen, they’re short, brutal and violent, fitting well with the overall tone. It never feels gratuitous or out of place at any point.

There are some characters in the movie who I of course won’t spoil that feel like their potential is wasted or underused. In addition, there’s a subplot with the Wayne family that doesn’t really go anywhere or contribute to the plot. It just feels like the film’s way of saying “Hey, this is still kind of a Batman movie,” while also managing to set itself up for a sequel.

Some of the thematic choices made are questionable. While Arthur’s transformation into the Joker is mostly handled very well, there are some scenes which result in unintentional or even inappropriate comedy. For example, after a dramatic dialogue midway through the run time that’s set outside Gotham General Hospital, Arthur walks face first into a sliding glass door marked “exit.” These are the parts of the movie where it begins to show that the director was also responsible for the Hangover trilogy.

While flawed in these regards, the story manages to be outstanding otherwise. It’s a slow-burn progression that gaslights its audience and plays with your emotions at every turn.

Almost right away, it’s revealed that Arthur is an unreliable narrator, and certain scenes in the movie are nothing more than delusions of his. We’re explicitly told some of them, but others are left up to audience interpretation. Many other plot elements are left ambiguous, but not in a way that frustrates you. Just enough are given definite conclusions to be satisfying, but just enough are left open to leave you thinking about the movie for days after you leave the theater.

Even on my second viewing of the movie, I got just as much out of it as I did the first, finding small details I had missed that pointed towards certain answers for these unresolved questions, and some towards different answers.

All of the superb production values are best showcased during the climactic scene of the movie — those who’ve watched the movie will know what I speak of — a scene so intense you find your heart racing by the time its over as the score steadily builds, as does the tension between characters. It’s presented as a dialogue between the Joker and another character. While the former is obviously presented as having gone too far and insane, you can’t help but feel that what he’s saying is true in a way. And even though you know how it’s going to end already, it still shocks you nonetheless.

Of course, this is offset somewhat by a cut to a scene with “La Cucaracha” playing in another moment of tone-killing comedy.

This brings us to the message of the movie. The impression it leaves for the audience. And this is what the media was worried about. This is why myself and every other patron of Regal Palmetto Grande on Thursday was treated like a potential terrorist. Any review on this movie needs to at least touch on the controversy that has surrounded the film since its reveal.

What the movie is about — a young and socially isolated male taking out his anger on a society that he feels has wronged him — is a narrative that has become all too familiar in our country today. Mass shootings committed by people who fit this description have scarred us as a people. The 2012 Aurora, Colo. shooting where a man dressed as the Joker killed 12 at a screening of Dark Knight Rises certainly came into the memory of many when details for this movie emerged.

All it took was a handful of cynical jokes on social media being overblown for the media to break into full-blown hysteria over the movie being “incel propaganda.” In doing this, they completely miss the message of the movie and themselves embody it.

And that message is that the monsters in our society who commit horrible acts are created by us, through our refusal to help them and our mockery of them. It’s the real answer to the question posed by the title character in the aforementioned climactic scene: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?”

So in spite of the media firestorm that it’s managed to incite, Joker truthfully is a groundbreaking movie that will likely redefine the boundaries of what’s possible for a comic book movie, in the same way that Avengers or Dark Knight did. It presents a profound and tragic story capped off with an Oscar-worthy performance from Joaquin Phoenix worth seeing for anyone who’s been wanting a new high in cinematic standards.

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