The Joker is probably DC’s most iconic villain. You can make the argument that Lex Luthor or Darkseid may be on the top echelon of all of the bad guys in the DC Universe. But none of them ever had a comic chronicling their misadventures like Batman’s arch-nemesis did, have they? So it’s only fitting that the first ever comic book villain to get their very own movie would be The Joker. The question is if the movie is any good.
Since I’m coming in late with this review, I know a lot of you have already watched Joker based on its worldwide take at the box office. Even so, I would like to reassure you that, just in case you’re still haven’t seen it, this review of Joker is still a SPOILER FREE review. Anyway, on with the review!
Joker takes place during the early ’80s where a struggling party clown named Arthur Fleck is down on his luck. Crime is infesting Gotham City and he is having trouble taking care of his sick mother. This does lead him down the path of madness where the meek Arthur Fleck slowly transforms into the charismatic maniacal clown only known as Joker. Honestly, that’s the plot in a nutshell. Saying anything else would be a spoiler… which I won’t do since this is a SPOILER FREE review.
To those expecting this to be like a “traditional” comic book film, you’re going to be disappointed. There are no epic fight scenes nor any quippy quotes to be said here. This is a dark and gritty movie but not in the way DC’s other superhero films are. Joker feels more oppressive and depressing and it works it to its advantage. It fits the setting and there is a general feeling of uneasiness that permeates throughout the film. This does lead to a problem of it feeling plodding somewhat but it suits the overall tone.
A lot has been said about Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck and that he’s a strong contender for an Oscar for his performance in Joker. It’s hard to argue against it. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance never feels like he’s forcing it and he does give a lot of weight to the rather tragic character of Arthur Fleck. You do feel sympathy for him but, at the same time, you can’t help but know in the back of your mind that he’s just not right in the head. Joaquin Phoenix does a fine balancing act of making your feel sorry yet uneasy for the character. I also have to commend him on creating a unique laugh for the character. Just when you couldn’t think of anyone giving another iconic laugh for the character, he manages to squeeze one out here.
It’s not just Joaquin Phoenix that pulls off a fantastic acting job in Joker. Everyone in the cast does a remarkable job of coming off as extremely believable and, well, they all seem like real people you would meet on the street. Yet there’s a hyper-realistic feel to their personalities so that their defining traits are all magnified so you can instantly know what they’re like. Special mention goes to Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin, the comedian talk show host. He puts nice little flourishes like even doing a routine when he enters the stage like every late night talk show host. That really great attention to detail. I know his role is rather small but I think he deserves a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Joker while Joaquin Phoenix gets a Best Actor nod. Their performances are that good.
I also have to mention another character that they don’t really mention in other reviews: Gotham City. I never felt like the movies and television shows managed to really capture what a hellhole Gotham City is supposed to be like until Joker. This is a city where garbage is everywhere and there is a feeling of depression on every corner. It makes the entire movie feel heavy and it just amps up the tension, especially during the second half of the film.
While I really liked Joker, there are some things that I would say could’ve been better. One thing I didn’t like was the musical choices and the background music. Some songs, like Smile and That’s Life, work in an ironic way based on the scenes, but using Send In The Clowns just just felt too on the nose. The thing that I felt was weird was the use of the background music. Now, they do escalate things since the music at the start of the film is still soft but pounding and, by the end, the music does ramp up to make things feel more intense. But it does come off as intrusive. As if it’s hitting it over the head of the viewers that we’re supposed to feel dread at the moment. A little more subtlety would’ve worked much better.
The overall plot may feel unique and different but, for someone who has read a lot of comics and old movies like Taxi Driver, Death Wish and Falling Down, where we follow the exploits of a man at his breaking point, Joker may feel rather predictable. Now, I was along for the ride the whole time but I knew what was going to happen during each scene because I’ve seen it done before. It never took me out of the movie as everything was presented in a fresh way but I was never really shocked nor surprised at what was happening on the screen at any given moment.
The biggest hiccup of viewers may be the overall pacing of the film. Like I said, there really isn’t all that much regarding action or anything like that. Joker is more of a character study of Arthur Fleck and, while you know the destination, you’re there to watch his journey into his transformation into what may be Batman’s future archenemy. Because of this, there are a lot of scenes where it may seem like nothing is going on since it’s just Arthur Fleck interacting with the other characters or just walking around Gotham City. It’s a slow burn of a film so people expecting Joker just going crazy will be disappointed.
I will say that I really liked Joker and it is a beautifully made film. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a stellar acting performance. While I liked the film, this may not be a film that’s for everyone. You do have to be in the right mindset to watch this movie as this is a rather depressing and heavy film. If you do manage to get into that mood, I say watch it.
Have you seen Joker? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments section below!