Todd Phillip’s “Joker” is the first effort in the new DC Universe worth seeing in theaters. It’s an arthouse-styled production that not only transcends the label of “superhero movie,” but also poses questions about how we define that genre. After all, “Joker” shares few elements with the conventional superhero movie—a main character with extraordinary powers or skills, a virtuous moral code, a supervillain, a mission—yet it is a better film for having ignored those tropes.
The film’s first striking defiance of the superhero genre is its cinematography, which looks more like a movie distributed by A24 than anything from the Marvel or DC universe, especially when considering Marvel’s usually grey and flat color-grading process. The camera also moves more intimately, giving us many soft-focused details of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) applying his clown makeup…bathing his aging mother…and talking to himself, alone in his apartment.
The whole movie is shot like a drama because it is a drama, following in the footsteps of other character studies like Martin Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “The King of Comedy” (1983), and alluding to narrative motifs within both those films. Similar to the conception of Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” the new DC film directly exposes Fleck’s worldview and the series of cruel events that lead him to justify the crimes he commits. At the same time, Fleck’s dreams of becoming a comedian/talk show host mimic Robert De Niro’s role in “The King of Comedy,” as De Niro plays a man with exactly those delusions. Phillips has creatively fused elements of these two storylines into the plot structure of “Joker.”
Yet, “Joker” manages to portray an even more sympathetic view toward its protagonist than these films. This is partly due to Joaquin Phoenix’s acting, which contains a physical theatricality that the other films don’t (with all due respect to De Niro). In his pained laughter and manic dancing, Phoenix demands a level of empathy for Fleck’s situation that I didn’t feel he had even earned—but through the power of his performance, he took that empathy from me anyway. The actors in other DC and Marvel movies are good, no doubt, but Phoenix is a higher class of actor—or, at the very least, a much more intense one. The unconventional casting choice recalls the public’s widespread shock at the 2008 announcement that Heath Ledger would act as the Joker. Phoenix has certainly crafted a performance that could, in time, be considered equal to (and possibly better than) Ledger’s now-iconic portrayal.
Should they even be compared? “The Dark Knight” is clearly a superhero movie, albeit one grounded in realism and a truecrime feel. If not for the Joker’s comic book character origins, this new version could just be considered an indie movie focused on critiquing society’s treatment of those with mental illnesses. That’s part of what makes “Joker” so exciting: Even if it isn’t the most profound or comprehensive reflection on certain marginalized populations, it is still a promise that superhero movies can return and surpass the levels of psychological complexity and narrative depth that we haven’t seen since the Dark Knight trilogy. Furthermore, it assures the audience that these kinds of timeless stories and myths can be retold with the sensibilities and aesthetics found in less mainstream styles of filmmaking.
It occurs to me that this movie has been plagued with too many comparisons, too much controversy, from the very day it was announced: Todd Philips as director, Phoenix as Joker, pearl-clutching media coverage, worries about the public sympathizing with a homicidal man. This very
article is part of that unhealthy whirlpool. If we were to strip all that away, we are left with simply a very good movie about a man with mental illnesses. He’s been beaten, tortured, gaslit, played with, let down, deceived and abused—if, at the end, he happens to take that pent-up anger out on someone who pushed him a little too far, who is truly to blame? The answer is purposefully ambiguous. “Joker” is at once a criticism of the man himself and the society that molded him, because it would be the ultimate dishonesty to say that the responsibility lies entirely on one side or the other.