It’s no secret that Warner Bros. has struggled to replicate the same success with their DC Comics properties as Disney has with Marvel Comics.
In 2016, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad” divided audiences over the dark approach to the popular DC characters, and in 2017 “Justice League,” which was supposed to be DC’s answer to “The Avengers,” series was a box office flop. In the past, however, DC Films have received praise for making darker, more serious films that the more family-friendly Marvel Entertainment would never attempt.
Never has DC been as dark as they are with “Joker.”
“Joker” is directed by Todd Phillips, and it stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz and Frances Conroy. It is an origin story for the iconic Batman villain, notably though, this film does not feature the caped crusader himself. It is a one-off film that is not connected to any larger cinematic universe. This is a movie solely about a villain.
It showcases the kind of world that would result in Arthur Fleck, a mentally-ill man living at home with his mother, to shed his skin and become the iconic clown prince of crime known as the Joker.
“Joker” is a brutally real, yet absolutely incredible film that I’m not sure is supposed to be liked.
While watching the film, you almost feel dirty. It's as if you’re in a dimly lit room slowly wading through sludge up to your knees. That’s because “Joker” carries an intense sense of dread from beginning to end. This dread is a result of knowing where this character is going to end up, the audience is constantly waiting for him to snap. It's a disturbing film about a despicable man, and that is why it feels wrong to like it.
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding this film. “Joker” has been criticized for its depiction of a mentally-ill individual who turns to extreme violence. In the context of the many mass shootings in our nation, some fear that it might motivate someone to commit similar acts. It’s important to note that while this film does make the audience feel sympathy for its title character at times, it never justifies the horrific murders that he commits. No matter your opinion on the matter, “Joker” has undoubtedly started an important conversation about mental health, violence and what its depiction should be in entertainment.
The entire film is told from the perspective of Fleck, and it’s hard to imagine any other actor bringing so much complexity to the character other than Phoenix.
Phoenix’s performance in the titular role of this film might just be the performance of the year. His character goes on a disturbing journey over the course of this film, and Phoenix is able to effectively (and often unsettlingly) convey every little emotion the character is feeling. Whether it be Fleck sitting down to talk with his therapist or a fully-realized Joker appearing on a late-night talk show, Phoenix was absolutely electrifying in every scene. It was an incredibly nuanced performance that highlighted both the human side of the character and the side that earns the title “agent of chaos.”
In addition to Phoenix's performance, the film's musical score by Hildur Guðnadóttir helped to build the relentlessly ominous tone of the film. It completely envelops the audience in deep, lone notes that emphasize the sourness of the film. Even during scenes where seemingly nothing dangerous is happening, Guðnadóttir's score keeps the audience uneasy.
“Joker” makes its audience uncomfortable. It paints a society that is not too different from the one we’re living in, and it shows what kind of negative effects society can have on a mentally ill individual. The film is a critique not only of a social mindset, but, by exploring the motivations of the extremely wealthy Thomas Wayne, of the overall social class system. It showcases an extreme divide between the 1% at the top, and the other 99%. “Joker” might be a work of fiction, but the scariest part of the film is that it’s not entirely disconnected from our reality.
“Joker” is a game changing film for the comic-book genre.
In 2008, Christopher Nolan proved with “The Dark Knight” that superhero movies could be taken seriously. Now, Phillips has gone one step further to show that they can be legitimately hard hitting pieces of art.
This is not a film everybody is going to enjoy. The dour and painfully realistic tone the film sets is going to turn a lot of people off, but that approach is also what makes this film so brilliant. The Joker is not a hero, he’s about as far from a hero as you can get. By telling the narrative of this film from the Joker’s perspective, Phillips shows the audience how a toxic society can create dangerous people. Phillips doesn’t provide any sort of solution, but he does ask an uncomfortable question about how much we each genuinely care about each other, and whether or not it’s nothing more than an act.