For those who are not familiar with the comic book villain character, Joker has always been the nemesis to DC Comics’ Batman. He’s a mentally unstable man who dresses up as a clown and uses his crimes to upset and unravel society.
Throughout the past century, there have been a handful of live action cinematic interpretations. There has been the funny man Caesar Romero and Oscar winners Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson among memorable performances. Jared Leto’s interpretation does not need to be mentioned.
Now, Joaquin Phoenix is trying on the clown prince of crime’s oversized shoes.
In the first live-action interpretation completely devoted to the character, simply titled “Joker,” the story follows Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck. He lives with his elderly mother, played by Frances Conroy, is subjected to cruel gang violence all while his awkward stand-up comedy career is going nowhere. Its not a spoiler to point out that all of this piles up until Arthur embraces the chaos and becomes the infamous villain we all know.
Phoenix’s interpretation of the character has influences from his predecessors but still feels unique. Dedicated actors go through physical transformations and Phoenix garnered attention for losing 52 pounds, an effort that really pays off and brings out a grotesque body for the character.
Another noteworthy part of his performance is the Joker’s laugh. It sounds like Phoenix is using his lungs like a month old tube of toothpaste and the laugh is so strained that he ends up coughing afterward. It adds a really uncanny component to the character’s psychosis.
Before the movie was officially released to the general public, the online discourse had already pitched a pretty big tent. It won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, which usually hints at Oscar potential.
People have been viewing its disturbing protagonist as a symbol that would lead to violence perpetrated by those who sympathize with him, despite the fact that the movie itself does not condone the character’s actions. The Los Angeles Times has reported police cars being seen outside of movie theaters and the Los Angeles Police Department has acknowledged the concerns among moviegoers about the violence in the film. In Aurora, Colorado, the Century 16 movie theater that was the site of a mass shooting in 2012 when “The Dark Knight Rises” was released, will not be playing “Joker.”
Is all of this controversy worth it? No.
That isn’t to say it is not worth any discussion, because there are things that should be talked about and analyzed. It definitely stands a part from every other comic book movie this year like “Shazam” and “Captain Marvel,” but it does not stand on its own.
It is very important to understand that everything that is put into a movie is not done by accident. If someone is watching a separate movie in the story, the production team had to pay for the rights to put it in there and the director, Todd Philips, must have wanted it in there.
So when classic films like Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” and Fred Astaire’s “Shall We Dance” make appearances on screen, expectations are set up.
“Modern Times” would lead you to believe that “Joker” would be tackling themes of dehumanizing industries and “Shall We Dance” includes a scene with very specific racial relationships. Sadly, Philips didn’t seem interested in developing these themes. There is plenty of set up, but never an equal punchline.
The real core of the story ends up focusing on how the mythology of this rendition of the Joker is intertwined with Bruce Wayne, the boy who would grow up to become Batman.
While it is unclear that “Joker” is a purely standalone film or will tie into Matt Reeves’ upcoming “The Batman,” one can hope that Warner Bros.’ approach will tie these two together. The studio needs to give creative control to the director and let them make the movie they want to make.
This is particularly infuriating because if character names were different and Gotham City was just New York City, this movie would have never been made, because it was already made in the 1970s. It was called “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” and both of these deal with violent and delusional loners sans the comic book branding.
In some ways, it is the perfect “Joker” movie. It is hyperactive and too excited to stick to one point. Screaming and cackling may work for a comic book villain, but it does not work for what should be a thought-provoking film about society.