Headlined by Joaquin Phoenix’s spellbinding performance, Joker is uncomfortable, visceral and raw; setting a new standard of quality for all comic book-based films
Directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Clown Prince of Crime, Joker is a hauntingly chilling tale grounded in the type of reality that makes your skin crawl. The film presents itself as a character study, completely serious in its approach and uncensored in its message. Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian riddled with demons as he devolves into a dangerous force of nature. Taking the “One Bad Day” from The Killing Joke and turning it into one bad life, Joker serves as a living nightmare on multiple fronts and delivers on a villain that is more terrifying than any world-ending supervillain or child-eating clown. Joker feels almost too real for today’s world, a testament to the vision of Phillips and Pheonix.
Joaquin Phoenix – The New Gold Standard
At face-value, Joker is just another comic book character to be given a film treatment. Yet, unlike most films in the medium, Joker brings a level of prestige that hasn’t been seen since the last time DC’s clown prince of crime mesmerized audiences in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. In Joker, Joaquin Phoenix takes the character in his boldest direction yet, realism. Pheonix’s performance is nothing short of spellbinding. Where Ledger’s Joker had a sense of charisma, Pheonix’s performance is beautifully ugly in the most honest way. There is no hilarious quote to come from him, nor does it look like his Joker is enjoying himself, rather it is a tale of agony, hatred, resentment, and pain. It would be a shock if Pheonix does not come away with at least a nomination for his chilling, yet perfect performance as Joker.
If there was one word to describe Joker, it’s haunting. The film operates almost like a horror story grounded in reality. From Hildur Guðnadóttir’s incredibly terrifying score, which seems to get crazier and more experimental as Joker himself does, to the dark and cold cinematography of Lawrence Sher, Joker does not hold back from the audience on any level. Todd Phillips brings his absolute A-game for this film on the director’s chair, with the best film of his career by far. Most of all, this is Joaquin Phoenix. The film starts and ends with Phoenix’s gut-wrenchingly beautiful performance. He might just have the singular greatest performance we have ever seen from a comic book-based film and it is worth celebrating.
Joaquin Phoenix’s encapsulating performance as the Joker is a game-changer for the comic book film medium. Over the last forty years, only a handful of comic book films ever changed the status-quo. To do it, the film needs to uproot the established norms, create something unique and increase the storytelling potential of these characters on screen.
Joker – Changing the Status-Quo of Comic Book Movies
1978’s Superman: The Movie is touted as the gold standard of superhero movies to this day was because it took the character more seriously than ever before. It brought a level of prominence and eminence to the hero, much like what Todd Phillips did with Joker. The point being a film’s tone or message is not the deciding factor as Superman and Joker are polar opposites, yet both are genre-defining films in the same medium. Today’s superhero climate has been riding the wave of an interconnected blockbuster model, where homogenized popcorn movies are more important than speaking to society, making it the perfect time for Joker to change things once again.
Joker is the latest film to challenge the status quo for comic book films and it does so by turning its back on the cinematic universe model. Joker is not a sequel to any other film, nor is it a part of an interconnected universe. The character does not live in the same world where Superman defeated Zod or Aquaman rules the seas. Rather, the character simply exists in his own microcosm, having familiar DC Comics character names and designs, but finding its own unique voice in the process.
To change comic book films for the better, studios need to bring something fresh to the table consistently. While having a couple of heavy-hitting blockbusters from both DC and Marvel every year is great, embracing one-shot experimental films using these characters should be equally as welcome. In today’s era of every comic book film gunning for a billion dollars, there should be room for these films that hone in on a specific character, story or vision that doesn’t fit a model that targets the tried-and-true family blockbuster audience. The best part about Todd Phillips’ Joker is that he isn’t a backstory of Heath Ledger’s version, nor is he somehow tied to the DCEU or Matt Reeves’ Batman film. The character exists in his own bubble for a singular, focused film, and that is exactly what’s needed.
Dark Themes & Darker Performances – Joker’s Unforgiving Approach
Todd Phillips does not heavily rely on the comic book that birthed Joker. Joker is not based on any single comic book story. It does not borrow from any of the multiple origin stories Joker has had in the past, nor does it inherently tie the character’s origin to Batman. The film barely makes Gotham City feel like its comic counterpart, rather opting for a 1970s New York City feel. Joker is the antithesis of how general audiences think of comic book films today, which is why it is so special in the first place. Joker feels intensely realistic. Between its gruesome displays of violence, extremely unforgiving final message and themes that feel like a gut-punch, Joker wants its audience to feel as uncomfortable as possible through each and every minute of the film.
Comic book films are at their best when there is parity. 2019’s comic book films might just be the best examples of this. Shazam and Spider-Man: Far From Home were comedic and family-friendly. Captain Marvel and Dark Phoenix both had a badass superheroine in an action-heavy plot. Avengers: Endgame spoke to the largest audience in movie history and capped off a decade of interconnectivity and world-building. Finally, Joker takes the most complex approach, performing a case study of one of the most iconic and dangerous comic book villains to ever be created. The difference between Joker and the rest of 2019’s comic book offerings is the ability to take the highest risk without worrying about the box office reward. The mark of a great film is for studios and creative talent to focus on the film before the spectacle. Putting great filmmaking ahead of the box office draw is not an easy sell to studios. Director Todd Phillips revealed it took him over a year to convince Warner Bros to say yes to an R-Rated vision for Joker. This ultimately paid off in spades with a film that will shake audiences to the core with an uncomfortable tension and lack of any sympathy. Joker seems to be on a path destined for award recognition with Joaquin Phoenix’s performance leading the way.
Joker has a chance to lead comic book films into their next era. Todd Phillips compared comic books to America’s Shakespeare. These characters will be interpreted and reinterpreted for years to come. The key is doing something unique and different with the characters, bringing something new to the table each time. With most Comic book films have been hell-bent on fitting into an established universe model, maybe it is time for more riskier, non-blockbuster interpretations with these established characters. Joker is indeed successful in its auteur style approach to the character, and it might lead to other directors and high-profile actors taking a chance at the genre. That is not to say the MCU or DCEU should disappear. In fact, both can and will thrive for years to come. The key is parity. For every few billion-dollar blockbusters, there should also be a couple of risky, experimental films to keep the comic book film medium fresh, exciting and healthy. Bringing iconic comic mythology and imagery to screen is always amazing to watch but creating new mythology with these characters should be equally as important. Joker has successfully done that. Will it also usher in an era where WB and Disney continue the trend? Or, will it remain one of the few gems in a sea of cinema. Only time will tell.
Joker is an absolute masterpiece. Todd Phillips crafts a film that does not hold back in its message, nor does he aim to create a popcorn film for everyone to enjoy. Rather, each element of the film is meant to feel like a punch to the face with graphic symbolism, haunting composition, and heavy themes. None of it would be successful without a masterful actor leading the way and Joaquin Phoenix surpasses even his own high bar. Pheonix’s performance will be forever embedded in the minds of audiences as the most terrifying Joker to date.