The latest incarnation of the Joker played by Joaquin Phoenix is terrific with his performance being the greatest ever in a comic book movie.
But Joker isn’t your typical superhero fare, rather it is more of an Elseworlds or What If? style story where the premise is basically “What if the Joker existed in the world of Taxi Driver or The French Connection“?
Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck a nice, compassionate and weak man with some mental problems (schizophrenia and a neurological disorder that causes him to start laughing whenever he gets nervous). He dreams of being a stand-up comedian as he works as a third rate clown for hire at a second rate company. As the story progresses we see him unravel as the world treats him worse and worse until he finally snaps. This Joker is like a hybrid between Travis Bickle and the All-Star Batman and Robin version of the Joker by Frank Miller and Jim Lee combined into some ugly reflection of society.
This movie really isn’t about the Joker, but more about the nature of people and the constructs of society. The strong prey on the weak. The smart take advantage of the dumb. The rich exploit the poor.
For instance when the city cuts funding for Arthur’s therapy and medicine his social worker tells him “They don’t give a shit about you and honestly they don’t give a shit about me either.” There’s a profound truthfulness in the frank and gritty realism presented here.
When Arthur finally snaps he decides he’s not going to be weak anymore. He has to become a monster worse than the monsters that victimized and exploited him his whole life. And boy does he.
My criticisms are small. I would have preferred that they incorporated more of his traditional origin, namely the Red Hood backstory that left his skin permanently white. Even the much-maligned Suicide Squad incorporated references of this into the Joker and Harley Quinn backstory. I also could have done without Batman’s origin being shoehorned in at literally the second to last minute.
I’m hoping that WB continues to this series with movies in this style about other villains in the DC Universe such as Deathstroke, Lex Luthor, Catwoman, Scarecrow and the Ventriloquist.