When Todd Phillips first pitched the Joker film to the Warner Brothers executives, he knew he was pushing the envelope. He was not pitching the standard superhero movie with big budget action scenes, A-list mega-stars or even an established franchise behind it. There would be no green screens, not city-crushing final battle and the good guys would not come through in the end. This is our version of a Joker movie review.
For although Joker is part of the DC comics universe, it is a far cry from the usual blockbuster comic-book fayre. What Phillips was pitching was something altogether darker; a bleak character study of how Joker came to be. A stand-alone movie that he felt could be the start of a whole new Warner Bros strand: DC Black.
The fact that his pitch succeeded will have been partly down to a leap of faith by the executives, partly down to Phillip’s absolute belief in the material and partly down to the fact that he was only asking for a $55m budget; a fraction of the usual bill for a superhero movie. With Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame costing a reported $356m to make, and DC’s own, disappointing, Suicide Squad costing $175m, it must have seemed a small price to pay for such an interesting idea. Following a record-breaking opening weekend of $96m in the USA and $248m worldwide, that faith would seem to have been repaid in spades.
From the beginning
Where Joker succeeds is in the detail of the origin story. This is as much a film about the life of Arthur Fleck as it is about Batman’s famous nemesis, if not more. Far from a single inciting incident, such as a convenient bite from a radioactive spider, or a plunge into a bath of acid, in this film, Joker’s creation is explored in far greater depth. His appalling treatment by the establishment, the medical community and society in general makes you root for him for far longer than perhaps you should. You are on his side because you understand what drove him there, and just like with Michael Douglas in Falling Down, you can’t help but wonder if you wouldn’t do exactly the same in similar circumstances.
All Fleck wants to do is make people happy, just like his momma, played with deft subtlety by veteran TV and cinema actress, Frances Conroy, has brought him up to do. He takes work as a clown, waving a sign on the streets for a closing down sale. He entertains young patients in hospital. He amuses bored kids on the bus. In short, he seems like a nice guy who repeatedly fails to get the breaks he deserves, until he finally breaks in response.
Under the skin
While this is far from a star vehicle, Joaquin Phoenix’s central character is the beating heart of the film. in an era where most comic book movie characters look like they could walk into the team of any of this year’s Super Bowl contenders, he is strikingly gaunt, having reportedly lost 53lbs for the role to give his character a vulnerable edge. But this performance is more than just physical; from the retching laugh that Fleck can’t control to the hypnotic interpretive dance moves he twists his torso through in his private moments, this is full body-and-soul acting of the very highest caliber. It is almost guaranteed that Phoenix will add to his existing three Oscar nominations, and fourth time may just be lucky for one his generation’s best actors.
Apparently, Phoenix and director Phillips worked so closely to develop the character that they would often text each other late into the night after each day of shooting before finally calling up to talk lines, scenes and movements. This would leave them just three or four hours sleep before they got up to do it all again. Yet the rewards for this intensity are clear to see. Phoenix says that they were still discovering things about the character right up until the final day of shooting, which marks a welcome change from the multitude of two dimensional caricatures that modern cinema so often serves us.
A controversial release?
Joker received an extended standing ovation when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and went on to collect its top prize, the Golden Lion. Yet it has split critics and the media right down the middle, with some calling it a work of genius, while others think it is exploitative and possibly even dangerous. Such is our sympathy with Joker, that many people have voiced concerns about copycat crimes or claim that the movie promotes civil unrest. This is, of course, complete nonsense. Joker no more promotes the overthrow of the rich than Bambi promotes deer hunting. Audiences are smart enough to tune in to these ideas and discuss them with their friends late into the night, but they are also smart enough to separate fact from fiction, even when that fiction is portrayed so convincingly.
A welcome change
After a summer of blockbusters, including the superhero movie to top them all, it is a welcome relief to be served something with a little more depth and character like this. Yes, Joker has its violence, but only where it is needed by the plot, and this scarcity of use means it has all the more impact when it does come. Joker is not morally cut and dry, and will leave you with many more questions than it answers, but at the end of the day, it is an origin story for a super-villain, so your loyalties were always going to be divided.
Joker has much to say about our uneven society, mental health, bullying and lack of care, and the tragic consequences that all of these can lead to, yet it never feels like a morality tale. It may be set in 1981, but it is just as relevant to today, and where you stand on each of these issues is left up to you. Only you can decide if Jokers actions are ultimately justified.
What is justified, without a doubt, is the admission price. As audiences across the globe are proving, Joaquin’s Joker is worth whatever your ticket costs, and is a tremendous return on Warner Bros’ $55 million dollar investment. Which could mean the dawn of a new dark-age from DC Black. Watch this space.