It is inevitable that we finally get the cinematic treatment of a standalone, origin story about Batman’s longtime foe, especially with the hero’s appeal waning throughout the years in the movie theaters. Director Todd Philipps has crafted Joker that consciously distances itself from the current crop of comicbook films. It is brutal, knowingly dark, and has borrowed a lot from noir and psychological thrillers. Philipps knows the strengths of his actors, particularly Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, and Joaquin Phoenix. Sadly, Zazie Beetz is criminally underutilized here.
Much adulation has been said about Phoenix’s performance, and all of those are true. You simply cannot ignore Phoenix, just by the sight of him alone in each frame. He has this gangly body like stretched rubber, one that is always at the point of breaking. And break he did. This is an acting that is tremendous, almost grotesque in its unhinged ferociousness. Comparisons to Heath Ledger's Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight are valid. But Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck—the character before it became the infamous Joker—is different. Here is an unlucky man-child who works as a hired clown, dreams of becoming a standup comic, and lives with an ailing mother in a world that is systemically determined to make their lives miserable. It doesn’t help that Fleck has a condition that prompts him to laugh, painfully, at the most unfavorable times.
The movie has its funny moments (it is The Joker after all), but unlike the quippy Marvel humor, these moments still involve chaos and bloodshed. Yes, bloodshed. And poverty. And confusion. And government budget cuts. And secret bloodlines. And the good old cruelty and manipulative injustices of society. This sounds bleak and hopeless, but that is the point.
And it makes this movie dangerous.
It is basically a vivid representation of our flaws, of all that we usually ignore and the consequences we get from doing so. Despite its (successful) attempt at fleshing out the grey areas of our regular excuse of “us being simply humans,” it is terrifying to imagine the glee, the affirmation, people who have been equating mental health issues to something abstract and purely evil could get from this film. It is also difficult to shake off the feeling that it has the potential to heighten the stigma around said issues and to validate revenge fantasies—especially for people with impressionable minds in the age of violent instant gratification, Trump, and Duterte. With a pop culture subject that is as massive and influential as The Joker, it is not funny. It has just become too real and scary.
[ image borrowed from this site ]