It can be argued that the Joker is perhaps the greatest comic book super villain of all time. Created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson, the Clown Prince of Crime made his debut in the pages of Batman #1 (April 25, 1940). Since then, Batman's greatest foe has appeared in all forms of media including movies, TV shows, and video games. Now, the Joker has his very solo film in "Joker" directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix as the titular character.
Set in Gotham City in 1981, Joker is an origin story that revolves around Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an impoverished party clown turned struggling stand-up comedian with mental illness who lives with his elderly mother. After failing with audiences, his deteriorating mental state, and constantly being put down by the world around him, Fleck turns to a life of violence and murder, becoming a menace to many, a hero to others.
When a solo Joker film was announced, I wasn't really sure what to make of it. I like the Joker, but I'll admit that the character seems highly overrated to me, which was made more prevalent in 2008 after the release of "The Dark Knight." I guess in a way, I was also a bit annoyed because to me, it just screamed over saturation. Then I began to be more open to the idea when it was made official that Joaquin Phoenix would be portraying the iconic Batman villain.
Joaquin Phoenix is great actor. To this day, I still remember him best for his phenomenal performance as the Man in Black, Johnny Cash, in the 2005 biopic "Walk the Line." With Phoenix cast, I was pretty confident that he would do great. Boy was I right! Phoenix nailed it, in my opinion. His performance rivals that of the late Heath Ledger's take on the character in "The Dark Knight." In fact, I certainly hope Phoenix lands an Oscar nomination and win much like Ledger before him for his performance.
I really enjoyed the way Phoenix was able to portray a man whose life was spiraling out of control to the point where he eventually snaps. He did a very good job of letting the audience get a personal glimpse of his psyche. This is not just some clown who goes crazy and starts killing people; this is a tortured individual, and in many cases, the audience can really sympathize with him. In ways, Phoenix's Joker brings to mind the image and notion of the "tragic clown" like in the opera Pagliacci.
Speaking of tragic, the film's musical score composed by Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir is nicely done and compelling. Much of it sets the tone of the film; for scenes that are sad and depressing, the score perfectly captures those emotions. I would also like to point out that the film's soundtrack includes the songs "That's Life" and "Send in the Clowns" by Frank Sinatra — both of which are very fitting.
Another thing that makes "Joker" so good is its social commentary. Throughout the film, you see the depictions of mental illness and its effects. In fact, this may sound controversial, but the way mental illness and violence are portrayed may seem to echo the recent waves of mass shootings that are flooding the news in the United States. You also get the stark contrast between the rich and wealthy and the impoverished and disenfranchised. This film gives us a gritty and gloomy Gotham City that is plagued with crime, poverty, and unemployment, and you see exactly how those conditions affect its citizens, including the Joker himself. Meanwhile, you have the privileged who are portrayed as ignorant and unsympathetic to those in need.
In fact, this film's portrayal of the Wayne Family patriarch Thomas Wayne, father of Bruce Wayne, the future Dark Knight, is much different than the traditional kind-hearted incarnations. In this film, Thomas is less sympathetic and comes across as snobbish and arrogant, all while running for mayor with the promise of "helping the less fortunate" and "making Gotham a better place" if elected. I can't help but think that this was intentionally done as a way to echo the current political landscape. That's where I'm going to leave it, as this is not a political discussion.
I'm pretty sure there's a lot more I can say about this film, but I don't want to ruin anything for you. I would highly recommend the solid film, well deserving of praise. Todd Phillips did a splendid job in directing the film, and Joaquin Phoenix gave the performance of a lifetime. If you're into dark psychological thrillers, I think you'll enjoy it. And of course, if you're a fan of all things Batman, go watch it!