Now, there’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s jump straight to it.
This is a unique entry into the superhero genre, in that it doesn’t feature a superhero. Instead, we follow Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) as he transforms into the villain Joker. Arthur lives with his mother (Frances Conroy), who has an obsession with Gotham City’s billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). Arthur works as a sign-spinner and clown during the day, getting mugged and beaten up on the regular. This movie follows his transformation from helpless victim into homicidal lunatic. We also have a neighbor in Arthur’s building played by Zazie Beetz and a late night talk show host played by Robert De Niro.
Joaquin Phoenix disappears here, becoming Arthur Fleck. It’s uncomfortable and disturbing but his performance will undoubtedly be nominated for an Oscar, and he’ll likely win. What makes this difficult to watch is that there isn’t a hero, there’s no happy ending here, so you just watch the downward spiral of this man into a life of crime and terror. Instead of trying to recapture what made Heath Ledger’s Joker work, Phoenix does something very different here and it absolutely works, especially the new take on the Joker’s signature laugh, which is simultaneously saddening and terrifying.
The film as a whole is beautifully shot, with vibrant colors, and has an amazing score, often used in unique ways that make you conflicted about how to feel. It’s a masterpiece of a film, but a film I never need to see again. It’s dark and brooding and upsetting, nothing I’d need to rewatch. It reminded me of an Aronofsky movie, like Requiem for a Dream. Beautiful and tragic, yet an experience you only need once.
As a “comic book movie,” it mostly succeeds. There are plenty of ties to the Batman mythology, yet I highly doubt we’ll see Phoenix’s Joker show up again. The ripples of what happens in this film however could totally lay a groundwork for the upcoming The Batman, even if not directly referenced. Gotham becomes Gotham in this film and it’s all because of Arthur Fleck.
What doesn’t work?
Usually in this section I tell you in what ways the film failed, but this film nailed almost everything. Instead, I’m going to tell you why you might not like it.
The film is problematic, in that it focuses on a mentally deranged murderer who becomes a hero and icon for an entire city, so yes, it can be easily misconstrued by today’s soon-to-be terrorists. People may see this movie and say “That can be me” and that’s absolutely terrifying. But this isn’t new and I don’t think film should shy away from difficult and problematic topics. If you don’t want to see or endorse that particular journey, it’s also your right to vote with your wallets and not see this.
You also may not enjoy this film because it’s just so absolutely bleak. It’s violent and dark and upsetting and altogether lacking humor, which is beautifully ironic. It’s a hard watch though, so if you want popcorn escapism, this isn’t it. This is a movie that will haunt you, and no one will blame you if you don’t want to be haunted.
Joker is a divisive film. People will be divided on whether movies like this should be made. People will be divided on the effect of this film on the world, or young impressionable viewers. And then people will divided on whether this, as a film, is good. To me, this film is nearly perfect in how it’s made. It’s got intense moments, award-winning performances, and (not sure if this is good or bad) it will stick with you for a long time to come. It’s a unique entry into the superhero genre and I doubt its success can be replicated with other villains, I feel like this is a one and done sort of success. The goal was to create a movie that is upsetting to watch and they’ve done a nearly perfect job at that.