Joaquin Phoenix gives an unforgettable performance as the most popular of Batman’s adversaries in “Hangover” writer & director Todd Phillips’ “The Joker” (** OUT OF ****), but this brooding, violent, DC Super Villain standalone saga qualifies as largely routine and forgettable.

Indeed, this ‘origins’ film shares more in common with the television ‘origins’ series “Gotham” (2014-2019) where the heroes and villains who would later either align themselves with or against the Caped Crusader were depicted in their own embryonic stages of growth.  Accordingly, in “The Joker,” the villainous maniac appears briefly in a scene with young master Bruce Wayne at stately Wayne Manor.

Phillips treats “The Joker” as a victim skewered both by fate and society.  Shaped in the callous crucible of a decadent society where only the strong survive—yes, a Darwinist society, we watch as Arthur Fleck, an ignominious rent-a-clown, metamorphosizes from a friendly but forlorn fool into a full-blown psychotic fanatic.  Phillips’ sympathy for the Devil interpretation of the Joker represents yet another step in the never-ending evolution of the DC Universe’s characters.

If you’re looking for a standard-issue clash of wits between good and evil during the Joker’s emergence as evil incarnate, you may be disappointed.  Batman doesn’t participate in these rudimentary antics because he hasn’t grown up.  Phillips’ sociological storyline charts Arthur Fleck’s rise from the bottom, but there is little to admire about the character apart from Phoenix’s dynamic performance.

Phillips’ “The Joker” exemplifies what happens when an individual is treated as a victim of society rather than an architect of its evil. Phoenix’s Joker is neither as flamboyant as Jack Nicholson’s sarcastic prankster in Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1988) nor as fiendish as Heath Ledger’s demented but cerebral nemesis in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008).

We must not overlook Jared Leto’s creepy Joker in David Ayer’s spin-off “Suicide Squad” (2016), but who explored the Gotham villain in traditional terms like his predecessors.  Meanwhile, despite its sketchy plot and ponderous two-hour length running time, Phillips desires praise for his imaginative evocation of everything 1970s, when New York City loomed as a sleazy, dark, dangerous setting that spawned the pugnacious “Death Wish” movies as well as violent stalker movie “Taxi Driver.”

You may either know or have known somebody like Arthur Fleck. A wholly pathetic but blissfully ignorant fellow, Arthur means well, but he winds up as his own worst enemy.  At one point, he proclaims his mission in life is to make people smile.

Fleck shares this laudable goal about himself when he finds himself transfixed in the spotlight of a local Big Apple television talk show, hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro of “The King of Comedy”) who amuses himself by ridiculing our protagonist.  Star-struck by Murray and his moment in the limelight, Arthur aspires to be a stand-up comic.

Sadly, he is far too perplexed by the puzzle of his warped psyche to succeed as a gifted comic. He spends more time crying than jesting when he appears in front of an audience at a nightclub. Earlier, Arthur revealed he resides with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy of “Catwoman”), in a huge, anonymous apartment building where the residents are packed in tighter than sardines.  Penny spins different versions of her own misguided life.

A former employee of Thomas Wayne, Penny assures Arthur that she toiled faithfully for the elder Wayne until she had to sign certain hush agreements before she landed in Arkham Asylum.  Penny deludes poor Arthur into believing he is the offspring of a broken office romance with the titan of finance.  “The Joker” treats Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen of “The Dark Knight Rises”) as an ill-mannered, snobbish, billionaire who lacks his son’s sympathy for the plight of others. Indeed, “The Joker” separates everybody in its universe into the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’

Eventually, this disparity between the impoverished lower classes and the affluent upper classes eventually erupts into a class war. Although he doesn’t realize it, the Joker finds himself the messiah of the ‘have-nots.’ By this time, clown mania has swept New York, and denizens in white-face spark terror as they plunge into a rampage against law and order.  This hysteria climaxes when a man in a clown mask—not Arthur Fleck’s Joker—murders a well-dressed couple in a Gotham back alley but leaves their adolescent son unscathed with their blood spatter on his face!

Joaquin Phoenix has a field day as Arthur Fleck as well as the Joker.  The devastating transformation during this two-hour opus is truly memorable.  He gives the performance of a lifetime, and you cannot help but admire everything that Phillips and he do in his revisionist stab at the Joker.  Not only does Phoenix make absurd faces, but he relies on genuinely bizarre body language to accentuate his inner wickedness.  At times, he strikes postures that resemble a spider in its death throes.

During a scene on a bus, Arthur amuses an African American lad with his facial frolics, but the child’s mother is not amused.  She reprimands Arthur, and he bursts into gales of hysterical laughter that mimic the Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz.”  This laughter alarms everybody on the bus, but it creates the kind of atmosphere where you’re tempted to join in with it.

Earlier, Arthur was doing a street gig outside a store that was going out of business when juvenile delinquents who stole his signboard, lead him on a merry chase, and then nearly beat him to death in an alley.  The best scene occurs during a subway encounter with three drunken businessmen.

Arthur triumphs over evil, but he goes beyond the pale in an incident comparable to the Bernhard Goetz subway shooting in Manhattan in 1984.  Instead of shooting African Americans, Arthur guns down three white guys with gusto.  This launches him on his career of crime.

Ultimately, “The Joker” serves a greater purpose as an eye-opening casebook of mental health issues rather than a comic book fantasy extravaganza.

For More Great Movie Reviews Just Click Here:

Planet Weekly is reader supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. We appreciate your continued support.

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.