DC might trail Marvel in terms of film success, but there is one thing that DC does better than the other guys: they don’t let canon hold them back. DC utilizes the Multiverse theory, where there are 52 (or 104, going by current storylines) universes that each have their own heroes and villains, and some are familiar, and some are new takes altogether. This is important to note in the new film, Joker, as it isn’t tied down by any version that came before and is allowed to live and breathe on its own merit.
By adapting the Multiverse to the various movies and TV shows, DC properties are all canon and all exist at the same time. Michael Keaton’s Batman and Christian Bale’s Batman are both canon, as is Ben Affleck’s. This takes the shackles off of the storytellers, and allows them to tell stories without trying to match up with what came before.
That said, Todd Phillips’ new film is canon — it’s just a Joker in a Gotham from a universe we’ve never seen before, and this lets Joaquin Phoenix bring his own take to the character without having to genuflect to Jack Nicholson, or the late Heath Ledger and Caesar Romero. Because of this, Phoenix is free to be as dark and crazy as he wants, and it works. Oh how it works.
Joker is the story of Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a down on his luck clown-for-hire by day and a wanna be comedian by night. Arthur lives in a world that is violent and angry, modeled after New York City in 1981, and we first meet him as a damaged soul. He cares for his ailing mother (Frances Conroy), who has an infatuation with Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) after working for him years before. And he simply exists. Arthur has a condition that forces him to laugh uncontrollably — like Tourette’s — due to a brain injury he suffered as a child.
Phoenix completely loses himself in the character of Arthur. I don’t think I ever felt sorry for him, but I sure empathized with him, and I think that was the intent. Thousands of words will be written in the coming weeks around the world comparing this performance to the Jokers that came before. And it won’t matter, as Joaquin Phoenix has turned in the comic book performance of a lifetime — any lifetime.
When we meet Arthur, we find a man already irreparably broken. This isn’t the kind of story where a good man goes bad, and we watch in horror as he slowly turns to evil. No, this Joker is the story of a fragmented man with a plethora of issues, both mental and physical, who uses the violence around him to rebuild himself into something that is a byproduct of his world and his place in it. Audiences shouldn’t root for this man, or revel in his eventual rebirth as the iconic Batman villain. And never does Phillips film even try to do that.
Joker is unapologetic in its story, pushing the boundaries of what a comic book movie can do. The script by Phillips and and Scott Silver creates a dirty, overcrowded Gotham, punctuated by a Garbage Union strike, adding actual trash and bad smells to the tensions between the working class, represented by Arthur, and the 1%, represented by the Wayne family, of course.
Class warfare sits under the surface of Joker, and it boils over in a third act that was relentless in its violent beauty of the tensions no longer rising, but exploding all over. There’s even a tie-in to an iconic comic book moment — one of the very few — but it’s almost an afterthought after the film has played the audience for almost two hours.
If Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is The Godfather of comic book movies, Joker is easily the Citizen Kane. I find it oddly humorous that only DC can’t seem to get Justice League right, but can tell a story like this. Joker is not tied down in trying to connect with any movies before or after it, and there will most likely never be a sequel, as this story is done.
At the end, the audience has seen this universe’s Joker begin from nothing and rise, also to nothing — but a violent, apathetic nothing that has no remorse, and exists as the world has made him. A man dressed as a bat didn’t drop him into a vat of chemicals, nor is his origin an ongoing mystery. We see it play out, as chaotic and sometimes frightening as it is.
I found myself in tears at the end of Joker, but not because it was amazingly accurate to the stories I’ve read for the better part of my existence, but because this film is the comic book movie as true high art. Phillips and Phoenix, and Silver, and the cast, have created something unique; something incredibly special. Never in my life did I ever think anyone could take a comic book property and elevate it to the same levels of some of the biggest, most important movies ever. And yet here it is. The joke’s on me.
And while Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame will hold the box office record for the foreseeable future, I will be haunted by Joker well after the final battle with Thanos fades from my memory. And if I begin to finally forget what I saw in this film, all I need to do is pick up a newspaper, or turn on the TV and see it playing out all over the world in real time. That almost makes this funny in a dark, sardonic way. The Joker would be proud.
Joker is rated R and is in theaters now. All images courtesy of Warner Bros.
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