It has been just over a decade since the last successful reinvention of one of the most enduring and iconic villains of all time; the Joker. There has been a spate of smaller superhero films focusing on antiheroes, so it makes sense for DC to take a risk with a darker villain-led film. Director Todd Phillips commits to a grim aesthetic to the extent that it actually achieves a kind of Burtonesque stylisation. This Gotham may not be as colourful as those seen before, but it’s definitely a hyper-real version of the modern metropolis.
The titular Joker is Arthur Fleck, a man experiencing mental health issues and a plethora of woes including a sick mother, unstable employment and a city riddled with crime. Pushed into a corner he soon learns that violence may be an answer and that in a mad world his insanity might just be an advantage.
There’s something a little anticlimactic about the film. Perhaps this is just because after experiencing the full misery of Fleck’s home life, it’s natural to hope that the transformation into the Joker might be a little more empowering. Comic books and their cinematic counterparts have classically dealt in empowerment. The moment in which Fleck finally dons the purple suit has been a key feature in the film’s marketing and it’s easy to expect that it may represent the turning point in which Fleck finally achieves control over his life and this dreadful city.
Instead, Fleck remains the underdog as the film is far more interested in it’s critique of the city that allowed the Joker to come into being. The institutions intended to support Fleck have been cut to the point of obsolescence. So perhaps Fleck becoming the criminal mastermind would undermine the film’s indictment of such systems. The Joker of this film is a righteously punitive victim.
The film references it’s mythic comic heritage and is most rewarding when it is critical of it. The Waynes are re-positioned from saintly martyrs to arrogant snobs who distanced themselves from the scum of the streets. Thomas Wayne’s attitudes towards the lower classes echo classic Batman attitudes towards the criminal class. It’s a fabulous critique of Batman and indeed all Randian heroes without actually featuring any capes.
Of course the highlight of the film is Phoenix’s performance. Tragic and intense, he’s a car crash that cannot be ignored. His role is a careful balance of cringe comedy, horror movie antics and genuine pathos. Phoenix manages all in a compelling performance that references earlier damaged heroes whilst finding something new and fascinating.
Joker is a film full of pain and pathos. It’s a darkly comic tragedy that feels like the super-dark, post-Watchmen graphic novels of the 80s and 90s. As a hyper-real and over-the-top alternative to Leto’s awkward camp and Ledger’s assured menace, it’s a very valid approach. The Joker as victim of a heartless system and as avenging angel against all of the cruelties of the world.