Film Review | Joker: The burning powder keg of our modern times

‘Hangover’ director Todd Philips channels a decidedly darker variant of his comedic impulses with this oblique, off-kilter and impeccably realised take on the iconic Batman villain

Though nursing aspirations of becoming a bona fide stand-up comedian, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) appears to be sadly destined to remain among the bottom-rung dregs of Gotham City, which Hangover trilogy director Todd Philips, working off a script co-written by Scott Silver and himself, has styled as resembling an early-80s version of New York.

The era-appropriate rise of neoliberalism here is embodied by none other than Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), father to the would-be Batman Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson) of course, and eyeing the mayorship post as the city literally drowns in its own stench as garbage strikes continue apace.

Arthur ekes out a miserable existence working as a party clown while his sick mother, Penny (Frances Conroy) hopes against hope that Thomas Wayne himself will reach out to help them one of these days, owing to her own former service to the billionaire ‘first family’ of Gotham. But as the amoral engine of the city continues to grind down the afflicted and downtrodden, Arthur’s state-funded access to therapy and medication is cut off, right in the wake of the umpteenth attack on his person by cruel onlookers who are triggered to aggression by his meekness and tendency to burst out into fits of laughter at the most inappropriate moments.

Touted as being little more than a drama-cum-psychological thriller that wears its tributes to Martin Scorsese firmly on its thickly-padded sleeve, what is more surprising as you actually sit down to watch this much-talked-about tangentially related superhero cinema entry is that its genre plaudits far outweigh any arthouse pretentions it may harbour.

Yes, Philips’s film is certainly not part of any clearly outlined ‘shared cinematic universe’, though the action is set in Gotham City, and the Wayne family is very much present and accounted for. And sure, its grimy cinematography (courtesy of a well-judged, sustained effort by Lawrence Sher) and the presence of Robert De Niro – here playing the flip-side to his role in Scorsese’s King of Comedy (1982) – pays homage to a clear cinematic forbear with a specificity that streamlined franchises would not allow. But the film’s key beats are still animated by a not-unwelcome dose of plot-convenient melodrama; it may be more Charles Dickens than DC Comics, but it’s melodrama just the same.

It’s far more useful to consider Philips’s Joker as a genre film that’s very much part of the overarching superhero mythology… it just happens to be crafted with the individual zeal of legitimate film-making instead of a committee-driven and pre-emptive need to satisfy large crowds through sleek, over-produced entertainment that’s nervous to tick every single demographic box a priori. (The crowds turned up anyway; Joker’s box office taking has been quite healthy worldwide, and even local cinemas were bursting at the seams for it this past weekend).

Which means you can just sit back and enjoy/wallow in this immersive, wrenching and ultimately compelling and cathartic trip that details both individual and societal breakdown with a gusto that manages to be both topical and universal. In the hands of clever creators given enough free rein, Gotham City has always served as a handy repository, if not outright dumping ground, for all urban ills, and the build-up towards downright riot against the affluent elites is not exactly sketched out with granular complexity… but then again, genre fiction is here to compress and flatten our concerns into digestible chunks.

The complexity comes our way anyway, courtesy of an unforgettably raw performance from Joaquin Phoenix, whose despair is communicated to us through non-verbal means long before his creepy journal (or ‘joke diary’) entries grow creepier, and his ominous pronouncements edge him closer to the vanishing point that enables his metamorphosis into the supervillain we know and – yes – love.

Adding to an unimpeachable latter-day filmography that includes The Master (2012), Her (2013), and the equally morally queasy You Were Never Really Here (2017), he confirms his status as one of the finest actors working today, and the physicality he brings to the role is that magic ingredient that makes it, with a reference to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times sealing the deal both aesthetically and thematically.

Philips’s film was dogged by misguided controversies prior to its release, whose only significant effects seem to have been an unfortunate leakage of spoilers and additional attention that is likely to have benefitted its overall success. One accusation lobbed at it was it serves as an archetypal ‘incel’ narrative – a criticism that may have been valid if the fallout of the burgeoning romance between Arthur and the single-mum neighbour Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz) was portrayed as being the central trigger for all the unpleasantness that follows.

The other is a far more classic one: the hysterical fear that representing violence as a cathartic political agent will lead to copycat actions in the real world. If anything, Philips and Silver write their way headfirst against these reactionary defaults: Thomas Wayne and the assenting media consensus continually dismiss the legitimate socio-economic concerns of Arthur Fleck and unfortunates of his ilk as arising out of ‘resentment’ for the rich, in a similar way that right-wing charlatans like Jordan Peterson seek to pathologise dissent in our own age of daily online riots.

The verdict

While it’s hardly an arthouse dark horse free from the usual melodramas and excesses of the superhero genre and its many offshoots (actual and potential), Joker remains a cleverly constructed and compelling contribution to the troubled but still rolling mythos of the DC universe, refreshed into relevance not by Marvel-style pizazz but by a recourse to the grimier underbellies of late-70s cinema, employing an extended homage to early Martin Scorsese to great effect. It is a charred, bloodied and ultimately cathartic middle finger to the status quo, and deserves plaudits for its unlikely injection of fresh air into what has become a stiflingly corporate cinematic stratosphere.