“Is it me… or is the world getting meaner?”
Bill Finger’s creation The Joker has remained one of the most fascinating figures in all of pop culture and comic books medium. Every new generation finds an angle upon which to examine the Joker and how he’s so much more than a simple Batman villain. It has fascinated artists for decades how someone can sink so far in to the murky depths of madness that they can’t even see the light anymore. Christopher Nolan set a high bar that director Todd Phillips almost touches with the ugly, grotesque, depressing and yet quite fantastic “Joker.”
Set in Gotham City 1981, Arthur Fleck is an aspiring comedian and working Joe who suffers no end of getting beaten around by everyone. Even people with the slightest edge on him manage to get their licks in. Committed to his mother, he dreams of being a guest on his favorite late night comedy show. But after one nasty incident on a train, Arthur sets out to finally right all the wrongs that have been committed to him. Armed with a revolver, and clown make up, he intends to set Gotham on fire, and make his mark.
“Joker” is that kind of film that aims to become something so much more than a movie based on a comic book, and much like Nolan did with Batman, Phillips helps us to see the Joker in a brand new light. No one origin of Joker has ever really been accepted as canon, but Todd Phillips does explore what it’s like to lose your sanity in a world that’s become so much more vicious. Phillips presents 1981 Gotham as a world very similar to our own where the ill are tossed away and forgotten, the general public is obsessed with fame, politicians have zero connection to real world problems, and average citizens have just about had enough.
The Joker in here is not the harbinger of this vicious violent despicable world, he’s merely the ultimate product, the one that’s taken the cruelty and turned it in to the ultimate joke. Only when Arthur begins to leave bodies in his wake, only when he begins to convey his sheer sense of madness does he begin to grab attention from the world around him, and the more he attracts, he gains an insatiable hunger. Phillips is never above committing to the idea of irony and plot twists, injecting every single plot with a thread of irony that’s pretty brilliant when dissected. “Joker” is going to be one of the many comic book adaptations that will warrant analyses, and for good reason. Even in the end, Arthur can’t help but laugh at everything he’s seen and done and wonder if perhaps he’s made an impact.
Or maybe he’s made absolutely none at all. Maybe he was just what Gotham needed the whole time. Or maybe it was all one big funny accident. Phillips creates the least stylish comic book movie ever filmed with a world that’s muted, and flushed in grimy browns and ugly yellows. They’re complimented by Joaquin Phoenix’s absolutely incredible performance as Fleck. With his lanky build and wide grin, Arthur is a man who delights in laughter, but is very disconnected from society’s view of what is conventionally funny. That’s exemplified in a scene in a comedy club where Fleck, studying another stand up comedian, laughs at all the serious elements of his bit, while gawking confused as the audience chuckles the actual intended comedy.
Phoenix steals the movie away from just about everyone, and his performance as this forgotten man with delusions of grandeur who is finally let in on the joke is an absolute sight to behold. If I have anything negative to take away from “Joker” is that Todd Phillips borrows heavily from Scorsese. He apes the templates of films like “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy” almost religiously. If you’ve seen those films, you know what “Joker” is and where it all leads in the end. While that doesn’t hinder the whole of the film in the end, Phillips’ obvious influences distract from the overall sum of the parts or its impact, it becomes quite obvious as the film winds down. In either case, “Joker” is a surprising feat. It’s a masterful dramatic thriller about an ugly world and an ugly society, and how one individual caught on to the inherent humor of it all.