The Joker character has been around as long as the 1940s. He has been portrayed by some of the greats such as Ceser Romero in the 60s Batman Series with Adam West, Jack Nicholson in the late 80s Batman Movie and the late Heath Ledger in the 2008 Christopher Nolan The Dark Knight. Mark Hamill even lent his voice acting skills to become one of the most iconic voices for the Joker in The Batman Animated Series as well as the Arkham Knight Game Series.
Now, Joaquin Phoenix is joining the already impressive roster as Joker (2019) by breaking the box office record for October films with a taking of $96 Million - a record that had been previously held by Venom.
Is Joaquin Phoenix's performance Joker worthy? Does he belong up with the greats such as Heath Ledger?
Joaquin Phoenix is an Oscar favourite for a reason. The new portrayal of Joker is twisted and uncomfortable. Unlike past portrayals, this origin story is a lot more disturbing. One of the appeals of the Joker is that his backstory is ambiguous. The closest Joker backstory is in the controversial comic The Killing Joke in where the character became the Joker through one bad day. It can be said this film draws inspiration from the comic as there are similarities within both stories. For instance, the Joker’s alter egos are both failing comedians. But there is one significant difference – the spiral into madness is far more intricate in this recent script.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker plays with your emotions. He really makes you feel sorry for the character which is something most people thought unthinkable. Joker has always been a vile character that is really difficult to sympathize with. Sure, he had one bad day but it doesn’t excuse the people who died in the process. Joker is a hard character to sympathise with; until now.
Let us introduce Arthur Fleck.
Without going into spoilers, Arthur Fleck is a character that is on the lower spectrum of society. Arthur suffers from a mental illness that causes separation from his peers. He is isolated, different and increasingly displays an inner struggle with understanding social norms. In this cruel Gotham, Arthur battles to find any shred of help or sympathy.
On the opposite spectrum the viewer sees the character Thomas Wayne as being on the top of the societal ladder. Thomas Wayne is often portrayed in Batman movies as being a good man; a good husband and a good father who gave back to the community. However, this Thomas (portrayed by Brett Cullen) was shown as cold and bitter towards the majority who were under his wealth bracket. It was a stark yet compelling contrast to the usual telling of the Waynes.
An important side plot in the story that happens around Arthur is the breakdown of society in Gotham. The differing class spectrums end up going to war and it is a very symbolic feature for the film.
Part of the controversy surrounding the film has to do with the frantic outbursts of violence and Arthur's relationship with his neighbour, Sophie (played by Zazie Beetz). To clarify, the violence is shock inducing but it is a rare addition to scenes in the film. The physical altercations are incredibly realistic to the point it makes you cringe away from the screen but it is not as prominent a force for the narrative like the all-out gruesome brutality featured in Deadpool.
Arthur's relationship with Sophie is not the most important part of the film. But it does add a vital aspect of explaining how Arthur is breaking down. The relationship shows that Arthur is extremely mentally ill in a society that doesn’t want to help him. While that doesn’t excuse his actions in the film, it’s not hard to imagine how he got to that point.
The cinematography provides a glaringly uneasy display for the viewer. Gotham as usual is depicted as a dark, gritty city that gives off an aggressive inhospitable feeling to outsiders looking in. It is an incredibly unnerving sight to behold- devoid of colour and featuring only a cold bleak darkness. The film utilises a lot of shots in where Arthur is up close and personal which in frankness breathes an uncomfortable atmosphere for the watcher.
It’s provides an intimacy to the point you feel as if you are no longer watching a creative form of media but in fact- the unravelling true story of a neglected man who falls into an almost understandable madness.
To be short, the moral outcry surrounding this riveting feature is undeserved. It is a film like no other in terms of comic book films. Joker is uncomfortable, dark and beautiful. It’s a cautionary tale of what happens when society turns it’s back on the vulnerable. It makes its audience leave the cinema reflecting on how our society today could bring the possibility of Joker becoming real?