Joaquin Phoenix takes on Batman’s cackling archnemesis the Joker in a standalone origin story that attempts to make us sympathise with the bad guy.
The supervillainous character created in 1940 by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson has always had a scary mystique, although he tends to appear in movies without any kind of backstory, because that would detract from his freaky mystery.
In the camp Batman TV series and film from the 60s (with Cesar Romero) and the recent Suicide Squad (with Jared Leto), the Joker is an established menace, while in The Dark Knight (with the late lamented Heath Ledger, naturally) he just appears from the shadows. Only Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman gets close to the character’s usually accepted origins, with his betrayed mobster falling into a vat of chemicals.
But that’s not how it all happens in this psychodrama from co-writer, co-producer and director Todd Phillips (The Hangover), as we open in what looks like a grimy, scuzzy late 70s in Gotham City – shot on the grunged-up streets of New Jersey and New York. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) works as a clown and entertains ambitions to be a comedian, but he’s a fragile guy and evidently has a background in self-harm and institutionalisation.
Heavily medicated, Arthur cares for his frail Mom Penny (Frances Conroy from TV’s Six Feet Under) and grows increasingly obsessed with Murray Franklin, a Johnny Carson-like TV talk show host played (with surprising restraint) by Robert De Niro. And yes, the roles are reversed from Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy, in which it was De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin who idolised a talk show host (played by Jerry Lewis), but Scorsese is also evoked as things grow seriously Taxi Driver-esque and Arthur starts to lose his already tenuous grip on reality.
However, you might too after all the mocking, bashing, humiliation and general abuse, during which Phoenix allows us to see him at his most grotesque and abject. He cries, bleeds, dribbles, contorts his rubbery gob, frequently reveals his emaciated physique (and icky Y-fronts), winces in pain (or is it eventual ecstasy?) and keeps breaking down in fits of maniacal laughter due to an uncontrollable neurological condition.
It looks like Arthur is simply going to flip out and become a standard bad guy, recruit a few dispensable goons and dash off to be an evil influence in and around Gotham but, somewhat controversially, he instead starts an uprising and becomes a kind of revolutionary figure. And it’s here that Phillips’ film is at its most dangerous, with Arthur/Joker inspiring – or radicalising – Gotham’s poor into violent action. Although, of course, amid the riots and flames we can plainly see that they’re all men.
But, then again, perhaps all the moral concerns about this one are nullified by the fact that, in the end, despite its smash-the-state/rise-of-the-dispossessed edges, and no matter how much Phillips, Phoenix and the DC/Warner Brothers corporate brains trust want it to be some profound examination of masculine malaise, this too is just a comic book movie.
Joker (MA) is in cinemas now