Joker, Gotham City’s Clown Prince of Crime, has made his long-awaited return to theaters. Joker is set in the early 1980s and is DC’s first standalone film since the establishment of the DCEU. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Todd Phillips, the psychological-thriller takes on the origin story of Batman’s archenemy and DC’s greatest villain. Spoilers after the trailer.
What the Fleck?
Joker is an iconic comic book villain who has countless live-action adaptations, from comical to dark and psychotic, the character has been through it all. Let’s address the
elephant in the room clown in the clown car, this is the third adaptation of the Joker in slightly over a decade. Within that time, we’ve seen great actors deliver the greatest performance and the worst performance of the character, so where does a great actor like Joaquin Phoenix’s performance rank?
This version of the character sees Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely failed standup comedian with mental issues who lives with his mother, turn to a life of crime. Phoenix’s performance brings a lot to the character and his commitment to the small details makes his character enjoyable to watch. Phoenix has perfected Joker’s maniacal laugh in a way that was funny and disturbing.
The movie is at its best when it captures Joker’s full transformation from the awkward 40-year-old mentally-ill man to Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime. Arthur Fleck is bullied by his peers, was abused as a child by his mentally-ill mother, and he lives in a society that does not care about his well-being. The audience gets to understand the things that have caused Arthur to snap.
Joker created controversy because people feared that Arthur Fleck would inspire real-world violence from incels. As of the time of this writing, nothing tragic has happened. Phoenix read books about political assassinations so he could understand the motivations of killers. On top of that, Joaquin also lost 50 pounds and there is a scene where he looks gaunt.
Storytelling and Filmmaking
Inspired by the work of director Martin Scorsese, Tom Phillip’s direction and storytelling in Joker pays homage. Phillip’s direction has a lot of camera movement and the movie has a slick style to it. Framing throughout the film adds to the script’s character study of a broken man.
From a storytelling aspect, the film knows when to add humor in a way that isn’t distracting from its narrative. Having a seasoned actor like Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role helps too. There are offhanded comments by side characters and short jokes that make funny visual gags.
Pacing of the film starts off strong, but by the time the first hour comes to a close the movie feels like it’s spinning its wheels. A lot of the plot points take too long to develop and the film keeps repeating itself. The storytelling isn’t focused and 15 – 30 minutes of this film could’ve been cut off and you wouldn’t miss a thing.
Gotham City finally has adequate representation on the big screen. It’s filled with personality, the streets are dirty, there’s graffiti everywhere. The 1980s aesthetic also gives the city the antithesis of charm. Ironically, the city has more personality than some of the living characters in the film.
Arthur’s love interest Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz) is a story beat for the film to work. Fleck is delusional and he thinks the two are in love, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Joker botches the big reveal that she and Arthur aren’t dating. He is in her apartment uninvited and she’s in shock, yet the movie still insists on a flashback scene. It’s a shame that Zazie does not have much to do in the film.
Watching Thomas Wayne have a character in a DC film was the most refreshing part of this film. He’s not a nice person, the upper class in Gotham look down on the poor and working class. When Arthur confronts Thomas in the bathroom about the possibility of being his son, good guy Thomas punches him in the face. Brett Cullen played the role of rich tycoon well.
Finally, Joker knocked it out of the park when it reached its climax. The stunt that Joker pulled on Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) on his own talk show was shocking and disturbing. After executing the headshot, the chaos that ensued throughout Gotham paints a vivid picture of why the city needed a hero.
The biggest problem with the climax is that the film just rushed through it instead of letting it breathe. Every time the film would take two steps forward, it would take one step back. Adding the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents felt crowbarred in. It would’ve been better if their deaths were implied, we do not need to see Martha Wayne’s pearls hit the ground. We get it, it isn’t clever.
Joker is a dark origin story, yet Joaquin Phoenix shines brighter than the Bat Signal in Gotham’s dark night. This is far from a perfect film; however, it is a giant step in the right direction compared to other films that are centered around villains. The pacing issues in the first half of the film do bring down the enjoyment of Arthur Fleck’s disturbing story. Unfortunately, the oversaturation of the character and Batman’s origin creates a couple of eyeroll moments. That same oversaturation is also why the film feels underwhelming compared to the hype it was getting.
Phoenix had a fantastic performance, but it wasn’t quite Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight status. Joker’s last hour is where the memorable moments happen, but it feels like the last 30 minutes are rushed when they should’ve been flushed out more. The good thing about this film is that it ends in an open-ended way to leave room for a possible sequel. Did Arthur make the whole film up? Will Joaquin Phoenix return for a sequel or be inserted into the DCEU? I am sure director and writer Todd Phillips will have questions to answer about this film for the rest of his life, hope he puts on a happy face.
[All Mames Wey]
Joker was released in theaters on October 4, 2019.
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