Matthew R. Davies
Welsh Bookworm, Horror-Nerd, Musician, Freelancer and Aspiring Writer of the Macabre
As one of fiction’s most enigmatic and darkly appealing villains, the Joker has persistently remained a prominent fixture within our popular culture. The character is an actor’s dream role as it possesses a unique malleability that allows it to be constantly reinvented and reimagined.
Throughout film and television history, the Clown Prince of Crime has experienced an array of evocative iterations. From the psychedelic flamboyance of Cesar Romero to the gleeful mania of Jack Nicholson, each respective actor has constructed their own idiosyncratic version of Batman’s archnemesis with varying degrees of success.
Formulating an understanding of the Joker’s motivations has insistently been a murky endeavour. One popular origin story involves him falling into a vat of chemical waste. As a result of this, his skin was bleached a carnivalesque white and his body became disfigured.
Resultantly, the Joker was driven insane by his altered appearance and the ensuing chaos transformed him from a petty criminal into a fully-realised supervillain.
However, this background story was dropped in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight which introduced an inscrutable Joker that appeared devoid of the usual incentives but rather, personified political and philosophical anarchism. Heath Ledger created a villain that reverberated with threatening intrigue and appeared pervasively omnipresent.
Ledger’s Joker could not be traced by any of Gotham’s institutions and his rhetoric was designed to confuse and beguile his opponents - ‘Wanna know how I got these scars?’. - This dark portrayal steered the character in a new direction and it revealed a wealth of disturbing possibilities that could arise as a result of a lone man descending into the depths of insanity.
The Darker Side of Chaos
After the Joker’s full menacing potential had been alluded to in The Dark Knight, we were greeted with Jared Leto’s slavering tattooed gangster in the structurally confusing picture, Suicide Squad.
The amount of screen time that was required to bring his version to life was severely limited and several key cinematic moments were cut from the theatrical release. Fans were polarized by his portrayal with the most common complaint being that his performance paled in comparison to Ledger’s. Meanwhile, Leto’s method acting capers were symptomatic of a troubled production and the film was critically shunned.
Nevertheless, the characterisation of the Joker was growing darker, more psychotic and less like the roguish comic book interpretation with each release.
When it was announced that a new Joker film was in pre-production independently from the DC Universe, fans were more than a little apprehensive. On paper the film appeared doomed to failure. It was a Joker origin story directed by Todd Phillips, the director of the Hangover trilogy.
This was not a premise that appealed to most comic book and Nolan devotees. It was posited that part of the Joker’s allure was his supreme lack of genesis.
The argument posited was that the less the audience knows, the more intriguing the mystery. However, the internet became ablaze with rumours and speculations that proved to cement this new film into discourses of global cinema.
Speculation, Hype and Awards Buzz
Joaquin Phoenix had been cast as the Joker and it was announced that the film would be R-Rated (U.K. 15).
This was a promising start as Phoenix is a celebrated actor with a host of accolades that include three Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe. Phoenix had been mentioned as a fan favourite for the role for nearly a decade and after being cast as the titular villain, DC aficionados were resoundingly appeased.
The next big announcement was that Martin Scorsese, the legendary director of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Mean Streets, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, Casino and a host of other cinematic triumphs was attached to the project in the role of producer. Todd Phillips had written a screenplay with 8 Mile and The Fighter’s Scott Silver over the course of a year that drew inspiration from a range of 1970’s character study features, Scorsese and the graphic novel, Batman: The Killing Joke.
Phillips’s film was outed as a psychological thriller that followed the decline and rise of the Joker from the mentally unstable social pariah to Batman’s maniacal adversary.
The film would not be explicitly connected to any preceding DC films and would stand alone as a profound introspective examination of this beloved character.
Despite this interesting premise, moviegoers and critics remained sceptical of the film until its premiere at the 76th Venice International Film Festival where it was greeted with raucous applause and would go on to receive the prestigious Golden Lion Award (previously received by Roma, The Shape of Water and Brokeback Mountain).
However, as the film gradually accumulated acclaim an undercurrent of controversy began to build.
Critical Concerns and Controversy
Certain critics have suggested that the film’s depiction of mental illness is irresponsible and in the context of the film, Joker proposes that mental health issues are essentially a precursor to deplorable acts of violence.
These reviewers maintain that ultimately, the film will inspire horrific incidents in the real world.
During a period in American history that has been inundated with tragedy in the form of terror attacks, school-shootings and political upheaval, some critics were left disillusioned by the subject matter of the film. These anxieties were further exacerbated after it was implied that the film would motivate a repeat of the 2012 Aurora, Colorado mass shooting. In this incident, James E. Holmes opened fire on a packed cinema during a screening of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises which left 12 individuals dead and 70 grievously injured.
Further controversy was raised by another set of critics who concluded that Joker would appeal to the Incel community and of course, the controversial decision by the filmmakers to include a song by Gary Glitter has sparked furious twitter debates. However, it was revealed that Glitter sold the rights to this particular song during the 1990s so thankfully, he will not acquire any royalties that may be derived from the box office smash.
Another intriguing aspect that is worth mentioning is the case of Jared Leto who was understandably shocked and irritated at the prospect of another actor playing a role that he was originally meant to reprise in a sequel/spin off to Suicide Squad.
Phillip’s film has been divisive since the first whispers of the project began to emerge but as Joker laughs its way to the bank, the audiences predominately stand in unified support.
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The Cinematic Experience
Having recently watched and thoroughly enjoyed Joker, it is safe to say that Joaquin Phoenix is the outright star of the show.
His performance is nuanced, compelling and at times extraordinarily chilling. The film follows Arthur Fleck, a socially awkward man with a condition similar to Pseudobulbar affect (PBA) that compels him to laugh uncontrollably during moments of emotional stress and often at inappropriate times.
Fleck has aspirations to become a stand-up comic but lives at home with his mother and works as a sort of clown-for-hire within a Gotham City temping agency.
At the start of the picture, Arthur is spinning a sign on the pavement that reads ‘Everything Must Go’ (foreshadowing Arthur’s decline) and smiling exuberantly. A group of youths steal his sign and subject him to a savage beating so after he returns to work, one of Arthur’s colleagues presents him with a handgun to protect himself.
What ensues is a series of increasingly disastrous incidents that systematically grind an already fragile and unstable Arthur to a neurotic pulp.
Everybody has abandoned him and as we look on in horror, he reaches a terrible epiphany – ‘I thought my life was a tragedy but then I learned it was a comedy.’ - Without spoiling anything, we can assure you that Arthur’s life transitions spectacularly from this world of turmoil to something truly unforgettable.
This is not your average comic book movie but rather, a powerfully emotive character study that channels both the decline of Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin throughout its gritty narrative. Robert De Niro even appears in the film as the talk show host Murray Franklin. His role is a clear homage to The King of Comedy and Fleck’s devotion to Franklin mirrors Pupkin’s obsession with Jerry Langford.
However, it is important to note that Phoenix is not plagiarising any of Scorsese’s classic characters but rather, creating a new beast altogether. He grotesquely contorts his corpse-like body to emphasise the physical decline of the character and can often be found dancing serenely (and disturbingly) across the screen.
By the time the film reaches its zenith and Arthur is bearing full makeup while parading down the stairs to Glitter’s Rock and Roll, Part Two, the audience is smiling and laughing maniacally.
The film successfully tracks the character’s rise to self-realisation and despite the carnage that occurs as a result of his actions, I could not help but feel perversely triumphant for him.
A Worthy Addition
Time to construct an answer to the question at the back of everyone’s minds - ‘How does Phoenix’s Joker stack up against previous incarnations?’ – Well, this is particularly tricky as this is the first time any filmmaker has truly attempted to get to grips with the ins and outs of the Joker’s psyche.
Todd Phillip’s film attempts to ground the comic book pageantry and strives for realism above the fantastical. Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is tangible, well-developed and dare I say it, believable? Phoenix’s portrayal possesses an irresistible depth and dynamism that subjects the audience to a grim cognitive thrill ride.
It is difficult to look away as a range of emotions are dragged kicking and screaming to the surface in both Arthur and the viewer. I myself experienced disgust, humour, despair, embarrassment and elation in the space of a two-hour movie.
This certainly suggests that I personally enjoyed the performance but what does the rest of the general population think?
As mentioned earlier, critics are divided but the persistently influential Rotten Tomatoes scores detail an exceptionally high audience appreciation (currently 89%).
If I had to align Phoenix’s Joker with a previous iteration it would have to be Ledger in The Dark Knight.
Despite the differences, the overall tone of Joker possesses similar attributes to Nolan’s film and each film’s performances have much in common. They are both dark, foreboding, menacing and magnetic but they are both very much the respective actors’ own creations. It would be a disservice to Phoenix, who shines with an illuminating and potentially Oscar-worthy force, to not highlight his powerful reinvention of a much tried and tested character.
Strangely, if we stripped the rather subtle Batman references from Joker, it could stand happily as an independent picture that is far removed from any expanded cinematic universe.
Arthur Fleck feels resoundingly human with all the associated foibles and baggage firmly attached whereas Ledger’s Joker is impossible to trace and almost supernatural in his ability to strategically outmanoeuvre his enemies.
All other variations of the Joker arguably lean more towards the comic books apart from Jared Leto in Suicide Squad.
At this early stage it is tricky to predict where Phoenix will fall in the inevitable Joker rankings but as far as I’m concerned, he should be classified amongst the best.
Leaving the cinema after Joker’s final curtain call was not the end of my encounter with this interesting film. I could not help but marvel at the picture’s plot progression which felt seamless and carefully constructed.
It did not feel like a two-hour film at all but hurtled along at breakneck speed and by the time I had left, my mind was ablaze with insights. I thought of the Joker’s character more generally and how his anarchic ethos reminded me of the deep-rooted urge to rebel that inhabits us all. I considered how everybody has their breaking point and how a specific set of circumstances can lead anybody down a darkened path.
The Joker embodies chaos and there is something deeply romantic about the prospect of submitting to this primal instinct. I was reminded of Fight Club and how Tyler Durden lets go of the wheel of the car on the freeway. I thought of our current political climate in both the U.K. and America. But mostly, I thought of Phoenix and how captivating his performance was.
This is a film that demands a second, a third and even a fourth viewing.
Despite it having been announced that there would be no sequels, Phoenix has expressed interest in reprising the role. Now colour us intrigued…
So, what are your thoughts about Joker? Does the film live up to the hype? Would you be interested in a sequel and does Phoenix deserve an Oscar nod? As always, leave us your comments below.