Just as there have been multiple interpretations of the most popular (or best-selling) superhero character in DC Comics – Batman – to be found in multiple types of media from mere audiovisual to interactive (videogames), there is too, now plenty of versions to be found of the Dark Knight’s iconic nemesis, the Joker. Whether he is Cesar Romero’s Clown Prince of Crime opposite Adam West’s campy-fun 1960s Batman, to Jack Nicholson’s psychotic clown-themed crime boss against Michael Keaton’s 1989 Batman, to the hammy super-villain voiced by Mark Hamill versus Kevin Conroy’s gravelly animated Batman of the 90s, to the malevolent agent of chaos portrayed by the late Heath Ledger against Christian Bale’s grim Dark Knight, there is a Joker for any occasion.
And now, Warner Bros. and DC are putting the clown rogue of Gotham front and center as the villain protagonist of “Joker,” a one-off adaptation of the titular Batman bad guy that interprets one of the characters many varied backgrounds and origins from the comics. With Joaquin Phoenix taking the role under the deft direction of Todd Phillips, this movie takes a potentially unnerving psychological trip through the mind of a chaotic criminal in the making, enough that it could cause some (so far unwarranted) worries of real-life emulative violence.
To start with, Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a down-on-his-luck Gotham City resident who works as a party clown and sign-spinner to make ends meet, particularly in caring for his mentally failing elderly mother. It is bad enough that Arthur lives in Gotham, famous for being one of the crappiest cities to live in modern pop fiction, where random street crime is rampant and people just down care for the little guy. But Arthur himself has a problem in having a neurological illness. It causes him to involuntarily laugh even at inappropriate times; a creepy trait.
There lies the rub: for all intents and purposes Arthur Fleck could come across as any other man, even one with a lifelong ambition to become a standup comic. But he has his condition which easily turns away many people due to how “mentally unstable” it makes him appear to be. And to live in Gotham, here set in the 1980s but coming across more as a caricature of pre-gentrification New York in the 1970s, one can only watch as his very merciless surrounds begin to wear Arthur down until one bad day, he snaps.
Sound familiar, it might if you have watched the DC home-release animated movie “Batman: The Killing Joke.” That was in itself based on the Batman graphic novel by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, which featured another potential origin for the Joker. While not the same as seen in “Joker,” it did run off on the conceit that any ordinary person can be driven insane by the coming of “one bad day.” How much more then for somebody like Arthur who is no ordinary person as he already is? Between his laughing fits and the pressures of his dead-end jobs, seemingly impossible dream and mother’s health, he is doomed to break.
And audiences can really buy into the plot, and the titular character, thanks to the impressive acting chops brought to bear by Joaquin Phoenix for this role. It also helps that, comic shout-outs aside, he and Todd Phillips were given leave to tread their own ground with where to take the Joker’s storyline and characterization. Back to Phoenix, his dedication to the role cannot be downplayed with his preparations, including the physical one where we get to see his Arthur’s emaciated frame from the back. It is just incredibly scary.
Now while the spotlight of “Joker” is on the main character himself, the other cast members have their own parts to play in bringing his tragicomedy life to its twisted finale. Frances Conroy plays the part of Arthur’s addled mother well, that she could elicit such familial devotion from him even if the truth could change things differently. Zazie Beetz as a single mother and apartment neighbor of Arthur’s manages to pull off a double-play of characterization that underscores just how messed up in the head our protagonist is.
Finally, Robert de Niro as the jerk TV host that triggers Arthur’s vengeful rage is pretty effective for his comparably small screen-time. The fact that the film’s atmosphere takes a few things off 1976’s “Taxi Driver” (where de Niro was the emotionally-damaged protagonist) surely was not lost on the actor, who now occupies an analogous role to the one his old taxi driver character was gunning for. One might say these thematic shout-outs are deliberate and help to set the time and tone of “Joker.” This is set in a place that devours all hope to the point that – as its residents demonstrate – many people would like to see torn down by a larger-than-life personality like Fleck’s post-breakdown persona, the Joker.
It was not without reason that an R-rating was awarded to this film, the first for DC and Warner just as “Deadpool” had been for Marvel and 20th Century Fox (now under Disney). The violence and personal abuse can be very off-putting, and the attitudes of the people in the film run a chance of turning somebody’s stomach. But despite warnings from the military that moviegoers might be spurred to violence by “Joker,” as of the writing of this review it has not happened yet, to the relief of many.
While this movie does not at all tie into the now-loose continuity of Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe, it does make for a quick character study of one of the most enduring enemies of Batman, a pop-culture meme of legend himself. The borderline-grim darkness of the abuse and violence might be too much for some, but it fits the overall theme of telling the story of a man who felt sad because his life was a mess, and was driven to the brink until he no longer cared and embrace the insanity raging around him. This is the story of “Joker,” and it is good.
Image courtesy of Variety