A year ago, I wasn’t sure how I felt about a standalone Elseworlds Joker film. I mean, I was open to the idea of it and I would surely give it a try, but I was uncertain of just what WB was going to do and how they were going to pull it off.
I now know that at the very least, I was foolish to doubt their plans for it. Very foolish.
Wow. I mean, just……WOW.
Joker, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a deeply disturbed man with a lot of issues that eventually help lead him to become the Clown Prince of Crime, is one of those movies that when you watch it, you can just tell it’s not going to go away, even if you don’t necessarily like it. To say that it is a transcendent piece of work is to really wonder if that even does it justice in the long run.
To be clear, this movie is fantastic and that’s not being hyperbolic. For years, many of us have talked about how comic book films are regarded as a genre by critics, film elitists and the audience itself, and there are times when we wonder if a comic book movie can ascend higher than its blockbuster, popcorn film, general audience approved status tends to place it, and would some of these films ever be considered in higher regard with other prestigious work that gets all the awards attention and high critical praise.
Joker isn’t just one of that kind of comic book movies, it’s arguably THE ONE of that kind. Seriously.
You really don’t get more artistic and highbrow than what Phillips and DP Lawrence Sher have done with this film. It’s by far the grittiest, grimiest, most realistic portrayal of Gotham City that has ever been done on screen, while by the same token is so artfully crafted in terms of how it personifies and represents the absolute insanity and unbalanced world of Arthur Fleck’s mind and his perception of everyone and everything around him. Make no mistake, as frighteningly real as this movie feels throughout, there are times when you don’t know what’s real and what’s in Arthur’s head, and the blend between the two realities is seamlessly executed.
I’ll echo what has been said already many times about Phoenix: Give him the Oscar now. Awards season still really hasn’t kicked off and there will be more movies in the next few months to consider, but I cannot imagine any performance this year topping what Phoenix has done with Arthur Fleck. It’s visceral, unsettling, maniacal, horribly violent at times, and purely psychotic in the worst possible way, because of the circumstances surrounding his character in the film. When you first see Arthur, you might start the film feeling sorry for him just a bit, but it doesn’t take long for you to start thinking “lock this guy up now or a lot of people are going to get hurt,” which is pretty much what happens as a result of his being “ignored” the whole time.
Phoenix is an accomplished actor without question and has gotten a ton of praise for his past roles, but this is seriously a level that I don’t know we have seen from him. For all the talk and assumption of how heavy the crown of playing the Joker would be for him, he took the crown, carved his name on it and then stared us all in the eye with a look of “I just did that, what are you going to do about it?”
By the way, that’s exactly how I would characterize WB with its decision to even greenlight a film like Joker. In an audience dominated by the “other franchise” that has convinced millions across the globe that all comic book movies should be safe, fun and family friendly, WB just dropped the most chaotic, depressing, NSFW comic book movie of all time right on the table without so much as a how do you do. That is a level of testicular fortitude by that studio that is not only surprising given the current comic book movie climate and other decisions made by it in the past few years, but also EXTREMELY refreshing because it not only shows the capacity for range and depth with comic book properties on the big screen, but also the capacity for variety within the genre itself. Indeed, not all comic book movies have to be fun for the whole family, and this is one that you shouldn’t even watch with your kids in the house.
Only WB could do a comic book movie like this, and Zod bless it for doing so.
Phoenix is the grand prize performance here, but he is ably supported by Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen and others, who all do a great job of pretty much staying out of Arthur’s way for most of the film. Make no mistake, this is HIS story and there’s never a point where you care all that much about the others in the film, despite the absolutely loaded easter eggs from DC lore that a few of them may represent. There’s a handful of obvious ones that lead to an incredible moment at the end of the movie and if you’re a fan of the vigilante that is classically known as the Joker’s arch-nemesis, you will greatly appreciate it as I did.
The unsung hero of Joker though, is composer Hildur Guonadottir and her absolutely sublime score for the film. The use of strings throughout her composition gives the movie its most haunting feeling and lets it sit with you in a way that is all parts terrifying, tense, and utterly unforgettable. It’s atmospheric composition that at times evokes Hans Zimmer and others in an ethereal sense but stays tied directly to what is the most appropriate origin story for a character like the Joker that possibly could ever have been created on screen. I’ve seen a few people say they wish this movie was canonical, and to be honest with you I’m content to look at this film as if it is always playing in the Joker’s head whenever he’s in operation, as his story of how he believes he came to be.
Joker is a brilliant film that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt just how serious comic book films can be taken by its creators. When we talk about film as an artform and what we mean when we want to see more comic book films treated that way, this is exactly what we mean, in every sense. Bravo Joaquin Phoenix, bravo Todd Phillips, bravo to all involved, and of course bravo to WB. Thank you for not giving up on pushing the boundaries of what this genre can do on screen. I hope this is just the beginning.