As I start to write this, I've just got back from seeing Joker, a film that for whatever reason is staying on my mind, and I just want to say some things about my personal experience with the film.
Going back to when the film was announced, my first reaction was, like some people, to scratch my chin extensively. I do think that the DC films are generally a mess right now. There are great films in the DCEU, but the franchise is haunted by actors who don't seem all that committed to their roles, Warner Bros.' initial attempts to prematurely set up a universe rather than focusing on just making episodic, competent films, and films that don't actually seem to serve any purpose to the universe's overall story or felt that they had at least no reason to be made, which is what a Joker standalone movie felt like at first. Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that the film would not be part of the DCEU and that Joaquin Phoenix was in talks to play the title role, which was enough to make me reserve some judgement until we saw the final product, even if my reaction to Joaquin Phoenix's Joker look wasn't positive at first. As time passed, more castings were announced and trailers were released, showing a troubled character trying to spread joy in an uncaring and cruel world. These trailers unintentionally made me anxious; I mean, how difficult was it going to be to watch the scenes of Joaquin's failing stand-up comedy and him creating unpleasantness and awkwardness when uncontrollably laughing in public? And when the film was finally released and everyone went crazy over it, not just in terms of critical acclaim but controversy for its depiction of violence, it made me even more anxious. Just how violent was it? Was it going to be a disturbing level? Was the Joker going to do some messed up shit? (It didn’t help that two separate plans to see the film fell through, drumming up more anxiety.)
However, after finally watching the film, all I can say is that the uncomfortable nature surrounding the film surprisingly helps it. The film tells a story where our Joker-to-be, Arthur Fleck, who initially surprised me as he starts already mentally ill as opposed to being a regular Joe who has one bad day (there's your reference to Killing Joke, you're welcome), has the worst possible week (or month, I don't know). With the shit he has to deal with, it kinda makes sense why he'd go insane. To make it worse, our protagonist lives in an unapologetically cruel world, one which the varied camerawork at times shows to be quite a large, unending one. The film even has a great foreboding soundtrack to go with its tense nature. As such it makes total sense why I was unsettled while watching it, although important to note, once Joaquin Phoenix fully becomes the Joker in terms of looks and actions, all my anxiety just vanished. It made me connect with him in a very weird but fascinating way. On the topic of Joaquin Phoenix: simply put, he's Oscar-worthy in this film, one of the best performances I've seen in a while. Throughout the film, you really do believe that he is a quiet, introverted guy that has issues, so much so that I did doubt whether or not he could play an actual Joker, but it wasn't until the film's climax, which partially takes place on a chat show, that I was floored. As the Joker, Joaquin Phoenix is yet again perfect, he understands the spirit of the Joker and has made it his own. Maybe it's his sing-song pronunciation of the name “Murray”, the rhythm of his voice, clownish antics or lack of care in his eyes but what it boils down to is this; Joaquin Phoenix is the Joker. On my ranking of Jokers, including the likes of Mark Hamill, Jared Leto, Cameron Monaghan, he's definitely near the top. He's not going to be the next Heath Ledger but as I'll go more into detail shortly, he's not trying to.
The writing/storytelling for this film is also top-notch as the screenwriting go hand-in-hand with the storytelling; like Fight Club, all lines of dialogue seem to serve their own purposes and it's difficult to remember one line I questioned for being in the film, but not only is the writing purposeful, it's also deep, touching mainly on themes of classism, and mental health; how society views it and treats it. One thing I liked about this film is its use of dream/fantasy elements and delusions. I saw one online theory (LINK BELOW) digging into its heavy inspirations from films like The King Of Comedy and Taxi Driver, films that leave you wondering if certain events you watch even happened. This theory is quite accurate, as the only positive things that happen to our mentally ill protagonist don't entirely feel real. The film even has one of those endings that make you doubt if anything you saw was real.
(PROPER SPOILER WARNING: to quickly give my own analysis of the ending, I believe Arthur, now fully insane, is telling the film's story from his perspective, treating his killing of the woman who was interviewing him and his chase from the orderly as an old fashioned comedy film, hence the fancy “The End” card at the end. Although it really should be left up to the audience if events leading up to the ending is a fantasy, though I'm personally curious as to how similar the asylum Arthur was shown in before the events of the film, in that flashback, is to the one he was in at the end, the question comes up that if it was a delusion, why create such a detailed story? Simply put; he finds such a story funny, and that is very Joker).
However, what would normally come off as a cool audience interpretation aspect sadly comes one of the film's only flaws. Now, as I said in my LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS review, I don't necessarily have a problem with copied elements from other forms of media as it can also feel familiar as opposed to just feeling duplicated, but Joker's problem is that it seems to take away the interpretation part of it, having two separate scenes that acknowledge the fact that Arthur is delusional, one near the beginning of the film; a clear fantasy exchange between Arthur Fleck and Murray Franklin (played by iconic actor Robert De Niro, who was in both Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy), and the other being a revelation concerning a subplot. The latter plot twist made sense in the story, adding to its tragic nature, but it answered questions that should've been left unanswered. I also don't understand the film's use of dancing scenes, but I may have some ideas, and one scene where Arthur gets into a fridge and closes the door behind him.
Now getting back to my previous points; why are they making a Joker film that isn't in the DC universe? Why doesn't he look like him? Why even tell this story in the first place? I still had these questions in the back of my mind when watching it; it wasn't a film we were asking for, so why? It wasn't until the film's climax that it all finally came together for me; I wasn't watching a DC film, obviously, but a mature artistic interpretation. This film is two hours’ worth of “what if Todd Phillips created the Joker and not Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson”. That's why the Joker had a slightly different look and acted slightly different than what we're used to, it's because they weren't trying to make a film about the usual Joker we know and love. Would I like the film more if it showed more faithfulness to the source material? As a comic book fan, I'd probably say yes, but what we've been treated with is enough to instantly respect it entirely on its own. Todd Phillips has created a near-flawless experience, one with depth to its tragic storytelling yet still being understandable. The reason Joker assumes the look he does makes sense, the reason why he takes on the name Joker makes sense, the reason he goes insane in the first place makes sense, etc. There is no thread left loose. Besides, as the film nears its climax it slightly leans into more traditional Joker aspects, including a small darkly funny scene and an overall chaotic feel.
As we start to wrap this up, there are some questions I should ask that have arisen because of the film's controversy; there has been talking about how the character shouldn't be romanticised, is he? I can't say. You do feel sorry for him and understand why he does what he does. Is that enough to say he's a romanticised character? I'll leave it up to you. Does it promote violence? Again, I can't say; it does have a rebellious “anti-fascist” tone that reminded me of Fight Club but the smart people who watch it won't go out on a spree of violence because of it. Besides, there are much more violent films out there, like Rambo (2008) and Evil Dead (the 2013 one). The only way you will find answers to these questions is if you see the film for yourself. That's why it's so fantastic, Phillips has made a deep, near-perfect film that will make you think deeply about it while you're watching it and even after you're done watching it. It may not be going on any top superhero film lists but that's perfectly fine for what it is. This film is for true fans of the cinema but there's still something for fans of DC to enjoy. No matter which one of the two you are, I absolutely recommend this film.