The DC universe, incorporating the Batman and Superman franchises has in recent years turned to the dark side. In comparison with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), box office suggests audiences have preferred the lighter and more humorous MCU.
Director Todd Phillips has taken this to heart and gone in completely the opposite direction. If you thought Batman/Superman illuminated the darker side of humanity, those stories are like a ray of sunshine, compared to this tale of mental illness and descent into madness and anarchy.
The director and writers have attempted to create an origin tale to justify the maniacal psychopathic clown the Joker becomes in later movies. In this they have been successful, there is plenty for “Arthur Fleck/Joker” (Joaquin Phoenix) to be angry about.
Arthur is a loser, a clown for hire, pasting on a happy smile in 80’s reminiscent Gotham, whilst his life and sanity gradually ebb away. Living with his seemingly devoted mother, they watch the local show featuring “Murray Franklin” (Robert De Niro) the avuncular host of a family chat show.
As events transpire, all safety nets designed to catch Arthur’s mental deterioration fail him, leading to a show of unjustified violence. Realizing his actions fail to affect him as they should, he continues his violent spree. This leads inevitably to a final act, which inspires others to join his nihilistic vision of the world and those around him.
The film neatly segues into the Batman story, interacting with Bruce Wayne and his family before their date with destiny.
There have been justifiable critiques, arguing that depicting someone with a mental illness and thereby justifying his actions is the wrong message to send. There are millions who may have been similarly affected by mental illness, yet manage not to turn into flamboyant murderous clowns.
The movie largely depicts the story as “real life”, with contemporary social issues of injustice and lack of care for the downtrodden. Attempting to set a superhero story in a real life setting, inevitably sets the wrong tone, a mistake the first “Ironman” film made. Having your cake and eating it, if you will.
Phoenix proves the perfect choice for the role, inhabiting the part in a very believable way, which arguably is where the fault in the film may lie. This makes for an uncomfortable watch at times, with such believable acting proving a double edged sword.
This is no Heath Ledger Joker character, bad yet somehow watchable. This Joker is a seriously mentally ill man, forgotten, ignored and let down by those who should care or even acknowledge he exists, thus depriving him of any moral anchor.
De Niro riffs on his back catalogue roles with his character necessary to drive the story and he makes the most of a relatively small part.
There are also sequences with single mum “Sophie Dumond” (Zazie Beetz) as Arthur’s girlfriend, leaving audiences wondering at her lack of judgment which is addressed later. This raises the question, are any recollections actually real.
With streets thronged with protesters, police brutality and burning cop cars on the streets of the US (viewed June 2020), is this really “escapism” when TV news looks so similar?
A cinematic, well made film with an Oscar winning performance from Phoenix albeit with a downbeat trajectory to an inevitable conclusion, like “Taxi Driver” with a clown mask.
Destined to remain a divisive, talked about film both loved and disliked in equal numbers.
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