Let me make it clear to all of you readers. The movie Joker is NOT a superhero movie at all even though it is a cinematic adaptation focused on one of DC Comics’ biggest super villains. It is also not a movie to watch for fun and enjoyment, but it is still engaging in a very different way.
The truth is, Joker is a large art film made to shock viewers with darkness, deep grit and some graphic violence. The good news here is that the movie is very engaging and easily reminds me of two certain movies that Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese worked together on. It’s a victory for Warner Bros. and DC Comics.
Joker follows the exploits and Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a struggling man who is hardly surviving working as an entertainer (a clown, specifically) supporting his mother and dealing with the hard life of Gotham City which was stylistically made to look like 1970s New York City. Arthur, who is living with a condition of uncontrolled laughter, looks up to TV show host Franklin Murray (played by Robert De Niro) as an inspiring figure to try out comedy and hopefully make it big to free himself and his mother from poverty.
While performing as a clown surrounded by children in a hospital, Arthur accidentally drops a gun he just received from a co-worker. Because of this, he gets fired and learns that the man who gave him the gun lied to their boss. While riding the subway still looking like a clown, he gets beaten up by three business executives who were drunk. In response, Arthur kills them with the gun and gets away. This incident starts a chain of events that causes friction between the upper class and the lower class, and then protesters wearing clown masks multiply.
On face value, Joker is clearly inspired by character-driven films of the 1970s. While it is not necessarily based on any particular comic book, it carried some slight elements from Batman: The Killing Joke. What is more obvious is that it took inspiration from De Niro-Scorsese films Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.
As a psychological thriller, Joker is a great portrayal of how low a desperate man could go only to strive and survive. Arthur Fleck is greatly played by Joaquin Phoenix who carefully blends drama, anger, violence and even humor altogether. He really made the cinematic Joker his own and along the way, his Joker laught is more effective than that of Heath Ledger and the Joker physical appearance is almost as memorable as that of Jack Nicholson’s. The movie is indeed very violent but it is not overly violent. To be specific, there are a lot more deaths, acts of violence and shooting in Brian De Palma’s Scarface than this movie.
Joker also has a lively portrayal of the conflict between social classes. The scenes of the clown-masked protesters filling the trains and the streets still resonate with the socio-political rallies that happened in modern society. There is also the aspect of poor and desperate people depending on government for survival and they are easily vulnerable to getting cut off whenever resources run out.
Desperation is also a solid theme in the narrative. To see Arthur Fleck look up to Franklin Murray and imagine sharing the stage with him on TV reminds me a lot about some real-life people (who don’t have too much money) I encountered in Cebu City who can’t help but stop studying (even the older ones quit their legitimate jobs) and get into local entertainment hoping that fame and fortune will lift them up. Of course, when things get worse, desperate people would either get back to what they can live with or, worse, turn to a life of crime just to survive. With regards to Arthur’s attempt to become a comedian on screen, that easily reminds me of similar people in real life who thought they are very talented to be the next great superstars but ended up failing.
With its very solid direction by Todd Philips, great dramatic performances, nostalgic presentation and in-depth characterization, Joker is a must-watch movie mainly for moviegoers who want to be engaged with psychological thrills and bouts. As a DC Comics movie that is NOT connected with Warner Bros.’ current franchise of superhero movies (that started with Man of Steel in 2013), Joker works as an adulterated, standalone movie. To compare it with comic books published DC, I should say Joker is very much like an Elseworlds story. For the new comers reading this, Elseworlds was a franchise of comic books published by DC Comics that had stories using established characters but were told outside of DC universe canon.
Joker is highly recommended. Just don’t expect to see the usual superhero movie elements in this very solid DC Comics movie.
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