The latest iteration of Batman’s arch-nemesis is depicted by a skeletal Joaquin Phoenix in Todd Phillips’ controversial film.
All images: JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s tragedy “JOKER,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Niko Tavernise.
After Heath Ledger gave a career-defining performance as the Joker in 2012’s The Dark Knight, the role of Batman’s arch-nemesis has carried with it a weight that means any actor approaching the role has a high bar to meet. Following Jared Leto’s discomforting turn in Suicide Squad (that screeching cackle is forever imprinted onto our memory), it was revealed that veteran actor Joaquin Phoenix would now step into the villain’s oversized clown shoes. The new film from Todd Phillips, director of the Hangover trilogy, explores the origins of Phoenix’s outsider Arthur Fleck; who transforms into the psychopathic Joker figure after being bullied and rejected by society.
One leaked script and a doomed press trail later – Phillips claiming it’s impossible to be funny anymore because of “woke culture”, Phoenix walking out of an interview upon the suggestion that his character could inspire copycat violence – and Joker opened to both rave reviews and condemnations of the film’s supposed empathy for Phoenix’s loner-turned-killer.
Read our breakdown of the film below…
WHAT: If you hadn’t already heard about the film before it even opened, where had you been? Countless memes, hot takes and op-eds erupted onto the internet as the film hit theatres, with some people praising it as a cinematic masterpiece, others claiming to be unimpressed at both the subject matter and the content, and the worst people slandering critics online for daring to mention that they weren’t blown away.
WHERE: The “super rat”-infested, bleak world of New York’s fictional Gotham City, with its Reagan-era-esque classism reflecting today’s divisive political landscape, and anarchic unrest brewing among its streets. The cinematography may highlight the fraught society impressively, but the fact that the events leading up to some explosive riots are left unexplained for the majority of the runtime, results in on-the-nose dialogue such as “Is it just me, or is everything getting crazier out there?”
STAR OF THE SHOW: The cast of Joker is far from an ensemble one. With Fleck guiding us through the narrative, he features in basically every scene and dominates them all, too. His encounters with a would-be love interest are revealed to have been mostly fabricated and, obviously, he doesn’t have many friends. While Robert DeNiro’s talk show host and Fleck’s childhood hero, Murray Franklin, deserves an honourable mention – especially considering that DeNiro-starring films of the 70s including Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy provided ample inspiration for Phillips’ film – Phoenix’s Fleck/Joker has to be our choice here. With a disturbingly skeletal frame which constantly sees his protruding ribs flare, and an unnamed condition that causes him to hysterically laugh at the most inappropriate moments, Phoenix’s performance will undoubtedly be remembered for decades and will likely be difficult to top.
WHO TO WATCH IT WITH: That one filmbro you know that has a framed poster of The Dark Knight in his room, idolises Fight Club’s Tyler Durden unironically, angrily tweeted about “woke culture” when Ocean’s 8 came out and “just didn’t get” Hustlers.
STANDOUT SCENE: Sometimes the most memorable scenes aren’t memorable for the best reasons. One of the most controversial scenes in the film features an unfortunate song choice in convicted paedophile Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll Part 2”, which plays as Fleck dances down some steps near his house before he heads to the studio of Murray Franklin, where he’ll be a guest on the show. Although the filmmakers have confirmed that Glitter won’t receive any royalties from the use of the song, the soundtrack here still makes for an uncomfortable watch. Yet, it’s the scene that best highlights Fleck’s transition from disaffected loner to fully-blown cold-blooded killer – and it’s clear that the transformation is irrevocable.
WATCH IF: You’ve already read the multiple articles and debates surrounding the most talked-about film of the year, and you want to witness it for yourself. You also want to see what all the fuss is about when it comes to Phoenix’s performance (you won’t be disappointed on that front).
DON’T WATCH IF: While many of the scenes are visually stunning, the soundtrack and score perfectly fit the film’s tone, and you’ll be thinking about the possible theories surrounding that ending for weeks afterwards, the critics weren’t completely wrong when they pointed out the dangerous aspects of Joker. It’s true that Fleck’s descent into an unhinged killing spree isn’t completely triggered by a woman rejecting him, but there are unnerving links to be found between his character and the incel community. And while the violence isn’t anywhere near as graphic as a Tarantino or Scorsese film, what we do see feels so real that it’s extremely upsetting to watch.
WONDERLAND REVIEW: 2/5