While the spin-off is hardly a new phenomenon in modern cinema, Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019) succeeds at completely upturning the spectator’s view of Gotham City, that classic urban setting brought to life by DC comics. Veering away from the all-encompassing action-packed spectacles of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, Phillips instead chooses to portray the backstory of the quintessential comic book villain, the Joker. The resulting product is a film that prides itself as much on its realism as on its grandiose, set-piece scenes.
It is on this point that the film is simultaneously most and least successful. Heath Ledger’s mysterious Joker, while evidently evil and malevolent, stood out for his wicked intelligence and cunning. Phillips instead invites us to pity the struggles of a lowly man living in the suburbs, with a serious mental health condition that results in him laughing uncontrollably in unprompted situations. Rather than striking awe and fear into the spectator, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker induces pity and compassion as his difficulty fitting in and avoiding the torment of others is made paramount.
While aspiring to be a stand-up comedian, the Joker (aka Arthur Fleck) instead struggles as a clown on the street, advertising for a shop with a banner. Given a gun by one of his colleagues, his situation declines as the weapon is revealed during a performance at a children’s hospital and he loses his job. Following this, his murder of three Wall Street workers who harass him on a subway train leads him to become the anonymous inspiration for a new anti-capitalist movement whose followers dress themselves in clown make-up and wear clown masks. Here the film’s attempt to embed itself in the present moment feels gratuitous and overworked; the creation of this anonymous anti-capitalist movement, evidently modelled on the likes of Anonymous and Occupy, is intended to contextualise Joker in the modern climate but instead creates the impression of a film labouring to appear culturally relevant while in fact making itself feel a tad far-fetched and fantastical. Of course, fantasy and farfetchedness are a staple of the Batman franchise, but when they are employed as an attempt to add gritty realism to the film it falls flat and leaves us unsure of the film’s intentions.
Nonetheless, as one might expect, the cinematography of the film is exquisite, meaning that Joker is a particularly impressive spectacle on the big screen. Phillips’s Gotham City is also depicted very convincingly; a decaying urban environment hit by austerity and plagued with waste management problems and rodents makes for a credible setting for the Joker’s struggle. Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal is similarly excellent, despite the confused identity of his character.
The film’s critical reception remains very mixed; while the film won the top prize at the Venice film festival in August it will be interesting to see how it goes on to fare when it comes to major awards. Many critics lamented the film’s excessively sympathetic portrayal of a homicidal white man in an urban environment, in an era where gun crime and white supremacy are more of a threat than ever. The film does nonetheless effectively elucidate the stigma still faced by the mentally ill in society, and the exclusion people with conditions like Fleck’s invariably suffer from.
While Phillips must be admired for the audacity of a film that diverges quite considerably from the tradition of the Batman franchise, Joker fundamentally gets a bit lost as it tries to bridge the gap between cutting-edge social commentary and outlandish action drama, resulting in an entertaining spectacle that lacks credibility upon closer inspection.
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