The comic book movie genre has exploded in popularity over the past decade, with a multitude of superhero flicks being delivered in countless forms and fashions. While viewed as entertaining and highly profitable, they are typically met with a lack of critic approval. In recent years, however, this general consensus of inferiority has begun to shift. These films have continued to evolve and, in many cases, act as a trojan horse, revealing intriguing, underlying stories disguised within the realm of superheroes. Notable examples of this occurrence have been demonstrated with comic book movies being recently conveyed as crime sagas (The Dark Knight), westerns (Logan), and political thrillers (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). It’s a method that has proven advantageous, adding an extra layer to the genre and keeping its stories fresh and entertaining. Joker can be included in this distinction of successfully modernized comic book films, serving as a 70s-esque urban crime drama that just so happens to revolve around a character that would go on to become Batman’s greatest nemesis.
The story centers on Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an aspiring stand-up comedian struggling with mental health issues while trying to make a living as a hired clown in Gotham City. Fleck lives in a poverty-stricken apartment with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), where they routinely watch local tv host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro). As struggles mount, Arthur begins to unravel and gradually morph into the iconic supervillain known as Joker.
Everything about this story hinges on the performance of Joaquin Phoenix, who appears in just about every scene of the movie. It’s no question that he absolutely nails it. Phoenix lost 52lbs for the film, disappearing within the role and mesmerizing audiences with a wholly authentic take on a classic character. The way he incorporates body language to enhance his performance with facial expressions and the obscurity with which he carries himself throughout scenes is wonderfully done. He fully encapsulates Arthur Fleck, singlehandedly carrying the story with an amazing performance that is the best of Phoenix’s career, as well as of the year thus far. There isn’t much contribution from the supporting players around Phoenix, but that doesn’t matter as this is truly a one-man show. Effective production designs and cinematography, along with a good soundtrack establish the atmosphere of the time period and allow Phoenix to do the rest.
The biggest drawback of Joker is its extraneous use of a comic book landscape to tell it’s tale. The story plays as much as a crime drama spotlighting the harshness of society and what circumstances can do to a person as it plays a supervillain origin story, and in some ways the former is carried out better. Overt references are made to the world this character is inhabiting to remind the audience that we are in the universe of Batman, which creates unnecessary moments, distracting from the main focus. This is a story that did not need to exist within the world of Gotham City, though in doing so, it will no doubt attract more viewers so the logic behind the creative choice can be understood.
Overall, Joker is a dark and violent urban crime drama with an amazing performance propelling it forward every step of the way. It dragged at times and isn’t the best iteration of the character portrayed on the big screen, but those are smaller criticisms that shouldn’t overlook the highly intriguing character transformation on display. Led by the emaciated frame of Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, Joker succeeds in telling its intended story, even if its one that didn’t need to be told within the confines of Gotham City. I give it 3.5 out of 5 Stars and recommend it to fans of crime dramas and the Batman mythos.