Why Joker can’t stand alone

They’re saying that Todd Phillip’s Joker, is not a Batman movie and a lot more people are saying not a comic book movie. Maybe it’s just redefining what a comic book movie needs to be?

Painting of Arthur Fleck with skin peeling off his face to reveal Joker makeup underneath.

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What does comic book movie even mean? More obscure comic book movies include Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition, David Croenenberg’s A History of Violence and Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain ended up better off as a comic.

Yet comic book movies are shunned by the arty-farty end of town in Hollywood.

David Croenenberg when discussing Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films referenced superhero movies saying that ‘they’re limited in their discourse and can’t really reach the highest level of Cinematic art’. Recently Martin Scorsese described the Marvel movies as ‘not cinema’ and more like ‘theme parks’. Scorsese’s comments are interesting in the context of this movie because so many comparisons have been made to his style, in particular his film Taxi Driver.

The origin behind the origin

And here we have Joker being lauded as a piece of cinematic art. Its director, Todd Phillips, is a bloke who until now was best known for directing the Hangover Movies. However Phillips in his early career was responsible for the documentary Hated, which was the story of punk rock sociopath GG Allin and his band the Murder Junkies. It is one of the most disturbing and compelling music documentaries you’re ever likely to see. It’s important to mention that here because he’s seen first-hand the results of someone who is clearly nuts, hoisted high on the shoulders of a community while in a constant downward spiral.

GG Allin was friends with one of history’s most notorious serial serial killers John Wayne Gacy (a bloke who incidentally used to dress as a clown). Phillips wrote to Gacy in prison and got him to design the poster for the Hated documentary, which he then sold to finance the film. So Gacy was kind of like the executive producer of Phillips’ first project. All of this might have been the perfect precursor for Todd Phillips to craft his own interpretation of the Joker.

Let’s face it, good guys are boring.

The most compelling element of nearly every film is the antagonist, and the Joker is one of the greatest villains of all time. The clown shoes seem get harder to fill with every iteration though. Even casting an actor as credible and delightfully unpredictable as Joaquin Phoenix had lots of people—including me, with the foul stench of Jared Leto’s hideous portrayal still steaming from the turd that was Suicide Squad wafting in front of my face—questioning whether it was necessary. It could be because Joker is really good.

The hype

The movie generated a tonne of buzz when it premiered at various film festivals, receiving standing ovations and people touting Phoenix as an Oscar nominee (some before they’d even seen the film). It courted controversy in relation to its influence over gun crime and generally received a whole bunch of attention that fuelled the hype. It worked too. Last year Venom broke the opening record for October making around $200 million worldwide and Joker smashed that making over $230 million.

In the States the news reported that people were afraid the film would inspire a similar incident to the one in 2012 where a gunman killed 12 people and injured about 50 or 60 others when he opened fire during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora Colorado. That didn’t stop it from breaking domestic records there and contributing over $90 million to that bottom line. Just like the disparity between audience and critic scores there is a disconnect between media speculation and the actual.

The story

The most disappointing part of the film is how much of the story is actually revealed in the trailers although, given the heritage of the character, it could be argued that the fate of the man who would become the Joker was inevitable.

The movie is a character study of one Arthur Fleck, a loner who is slightly out of step with society. It details his struggles with mental health, his past, his difficulty forming relationships and his metamorphosis into the Joker. We find out a lot about Arthur, as the movie dwells for a very long time during the first act on his crapy life. Gotham City is in the middle of a class divide that on the verge of becoming a war and Arthur is falling through the cracks having been failed by the all aspects of the system, healthcare, employment and justice.

The cast

The most impressive part of the film was Phoenix’s portrayal of the character, although the focus on him is relentless. Phoenix eats up so much screen by brooding, smoking and doing his crazy slow motion dance. Everything is from his point of view and it’s quite challenging to even pay attention to the supporting cast.

Frances Conroy who plays his mother Penny lets everyone in on why he is a certain way before he becomes something else entirely. Brett Cullen’s portrayal of Thomas Wayne, although brief was  really great and offered a fresh perspective on the family from the other side of the tracks. Robert DeNiro as late night TV host Murray Franklin, really effectively showcased the class divide in Gotham, the bright lights, warm colours and adoring public are in the same city but a world away from Arthur’s bleak abject poverty and mental instability. It would have been great to get more insight into his neighbour Sophie played by Zazie Beetz because she sets the moral tone as a character living in the same socio economic bracket, facing her own problems and getting by. She really highlighted why Arthur’s path, in spite of the audience wanting it to happen could not be justified.

The challenge

And wanting it to happen is the most challenging part because for 90 per cent of the film audiences are compelled to empathise with Arthur’s isolation and pain, he’s a guy who is just doing his best to be nice and makes himself to vulnerable to the cruel society around him. There really is no good reason to empathise with the Joker, he’s not vulnerable at all, he believes in nothing and that is what makes him such a delightful villain. A little too much time is placed on building empathy during his descent into madness and once the madness hits it ends quite abruptly.

The soundtrack to Arthur’s slow-motion dancing is fittingly chilling from Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir who actually wrote the title theme before shooting even began, which is almost unheard of. Her music sets the tone for what they committed to film. The cinematography is technically brilliant thanks to Phillip’s long time collaborator Lawrence Sher with a 70’s and 80s visual aesthetic reminiscent of movies like Serpico, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Sher uses this really shallow depth of field to focus on Arthur and blur the world around him and you can geek out over that being some kind of technical metaphor for the character if you like.

The verdict

Phoenix and Phillips gave us the origin story we didn’t even know we wanted and while it’s not perfect, its got people thinking and talking, like all good art should. Phoenix is a joy to watch in full flight and he pulls out all the stops to own this character. It’s a shame the gradient for Arthur’s descent into madness wasn’t a little steeper at the start and we had more time to splash down into the chaos at the end.

There is a burning question that needs to be addressed though.

Regardless of what other critics say, this absolutely is a comic book movie. It’s a good one too. But, if it really isn’t a Batman movie we may have a problem. Batman and the Joker are symbiotic characters, and now that Phillips has delivered us a villain we need to see a hero.

If there’s no plan for a sequel on the horizon, or the possibility of Batman entering the equation, what was the point other than to make a whole bunch of self-indulgent acting candy?

Phillips is well versed in comedy and It wouldn’t be the first time Joaquin Phoenix has fucked with people would it?

Perhaps the joke is on us?


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