An origins story for Batman’s most iconic and frequently portrayed villain, Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a disturbed stand-up comedian who seeks an outlet for his psychosis after a string of misfortune to rival Judy Garland.
This has been a bad year at the cinema for coulrophobes, so it’s surprising this feels more similar to a Judy Garland biopic than It Chapter Two. Both films take gleeful pleasure in abusing their main character from beginning to end. But where Judy is a martyr, Joker becomes a murderer, in this brutal and nihilistic comic book adaptation.
It has a lot going for it, chiefly its central performance from the best dark Phoenix we’ve seen all year. As ever, he gives 110%: when he runs, he sprints, when he shouts, he spits, when he punches he looks like he’s breaking his knuckles. He’s an excellent choice for the part, even if the script doesn’t allow him to embody the theatricality of the character’s previous incarnations.
It’s grounded in the most realistic-looking Gotham ever, which makes the violence feel all the more unpleasant. But a dark story with a twisted central character shouldn’t be confused with substance, and Joker’s limited ideas have all been explored better in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, as part of genuinely entertaining films.
The most obvious similarity is the plot based on economic degradation leading to social unrest, but the characterisation of the Joker as a nihilist with a bleak past mirrors Heath Ledger’s mysterious, defining version. Yet he was one aspect of a complex and interesting crime story, whereas this Joker’s madness is the sole focus of the film, and the failing stand up comedian element, the one thing not done by Nolan, feels traced from King of Comedy, down to the casting of Robert de Niro, this time in the role of TV host Murray Franklin.
I kept waiting for the joker in the pack, but the twist never came. This leaves the film feeling oddly empty. An already disturbed man finds an outlet for his insanity, but he doesn’t have a goal and so there’s nothing you don’t get from watching the trailer. The end result is a case of style over substance, a well made film lacking in both fun and purpose. And I thought my jokes were bad.