I don’t even know where to start. Joker absolutely blew me away. This film is unforgettable. Uncompromising. Confronting. It is the only movie I’ve ever seen that made me deeply uncomfortable but still had such a positive effect on me. It is beautifully made, written, and performed. It is slow paced but intense and hard-hitting. This is far and away the best DC film ever made, and I really hope DC/Warner Bros can continue on with this approach for their future movies. As I often do, I’m going to rant about all the things I love most about this film, and I will endeavour to do so without spoilers, but there are some things I want to discuss that will contain spoilers, so fair warning: SPOILERS ARE IN THIS REVIEW.
Okay, now that the spoiler warning is out of the way, onto the things I love about Joker!
Exploration of Mental Illness
Films about mental illness can be very hit-or-miss; it’s difficult to portray such delicate and potentially triggering material in a powerful but sensitive way. As someone who has dealt with mental illness both firsthand and secondhand, my opinion is that Joker handles it incredibly well. This is the story of a man who has been utterly forgotten, a man who is in dire need of help and support, and who receives neither throughout his entire life. I really love that to create a character study of the Joker, the most famously insane character in all of comic book history, the writers and director began by creating a character who has a complex and problematic mental health record. As much as I love the Killing Joke, which is perhaps the most well known and canonically accepted origin story for the Joker, its portrayal of the Joker being created in “one bad day” is frankly ridiculous. I know it’s a comic book, and realism isn’t exactly the point, but no one becomes that irreversibly, psychotically dangerous after one bad day, no matter how awful it is. So having an origin story that shows the man who becomes the Joker as a damaged and mentally ill person from the beginning is a great way to explore the character. I loved that his transition from Arthur Fleck to the Joker is slow, tense, and takes a cohesive path that doesn’t exactly justify his actions, but at least shows why he is who he is.
Character Study of a Villain
I absolutely LOVE the premise of this film; a character study of a very famous DC villain, which sits outside of and separate to any of the existing DC movies and doesn’t form a shared universe. According to DC and Warner Bros, this is going to be their approach from now on; each film that comes out will be its own story, with no Marvel-style build up to another massive blockbuster franchise full of CGI and wisecracks. As much as I love the MCU, I cannot begin to express how phenomenally excited I am that Warner Bros is FINALLY showing an understanding of the content and atmosphere of DC comics. For a studio that has historically only focused on formulaic approaches to movies in order to appeal to the widest possible market and maximise profit, this huge step towards creative integrity is exactly what could turn the tide on the quality of their films (which ironically will hopefully bring them even more profit and push them to focus on story and characters rather than money).
Focus on Atmosphere
This film is TENSE. From the very first frame, all the way through, it is absolutely enthralling. Even when danger is not immediately present, the atmosphere of Joker is just constant threat and anxiety. It’s truly incredible. Every other DC movie I’ve seen (which is literally all of them) focuses on spectacle and action far more than character and atmosphere; including Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. This film eschews all of the high budget spectacle and explosions of the typical superhero movie and replaces it with a personal, gritty, terrifying look at humanity. It feels real, and dangerous, in a way that no other comic book movie ever has before; In fact, in a way that almost no other movie has before, regardless of genre. The film is a slow burn, with probably the majority of it being build-up, and the payoff is just massive. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is another level of amazing, and if he doesn’t win awards for it there is something seriously wrong. Todd Phillips as a director has truly created a masterpiece. More than that, he’s done it completely out of left field; who knew the guy who made the Hangover movies could pull of the best movie of the decade? (I’m saying that with no thought whatsoever, don’t quote me on that because I really haven’t actually thought about the potential contenders for that title)
Style and Cinematography
Joker was inspired by three films by Martin Scorsese; Taxi Driver, the King of Comedy, and Raging Bull. In terms of style, its resemblance to films of that type is very clear, with the opening credits even written in a font reminiscent of ’70s and ’80s crime films. The soundtrack is also full of old school songs, including such artists as Frank Sinatra and Fred Astaire. Considering the inspiration from Scorsese’s earlier (and perhaps best) work, and the fact that the character of the Joker didn’t receive an origin story at all until the Killing Joke in 1988, I think a ’70s/’80s feel is perfect for this film. One thing I absolutely love about the cinematography is the gradual but noticeable change as Arthur’s journey continues into madness; the camera angles get lower as Arthur descends into chaos, and the film gets darker as Arthur’s mind does the same. The camera also doesn’t shy away from violence and conflict where most films would; we see everything, and the camera sits on some images long enough to make you uncomfortable, which I think is a great technique that suits the tone. Slow, patient shots are shown throughout the film, which is indicative of confident and mature film making. Todd Phillips has created a film that speaks entirely for itself, without any shame or reservation or self consciousness. Its style is clearly pulled from existing works, but it still speaks in its own voice and tells a unique and powerful story.
As I said earlier, this film was heavily inspired by a few Scorsese films. I watched one of them before seeing Joker, and I watched another just before writing this review. The three main influences were the King of Comedy, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull. All feature Robert De Niro, who as you may know has a fairly prominent role in Joker also (in fact his role in Joker is a very clear homage to his role in the King of Comedy). I watched the King of Comedy before going to see Joker, and I have to say I’m very glad I did. There are some clear parallels between the two films which really helped me to get behind the style and atmosphere of the film from the very first frame. When it comes to comic book movies (especially DC/Batman), I can be very nit-picky and pedantic. But getting a sense of the film by watching an inspiration for its creation first helped to get me out of that sort of expectation and closed mind, so that when I sat down to watch Joker I was as open and accepting as possible. The other thing that helped me get rid of my cynicism for another adaptation of the Joker was the fact that very early on, Todd Phillips announced that this was not a typical comic book movie, but instead a character study that was completely separate to Batman and any other DC movies. This was a brilliant move by Phillips and Warner Bros in my opinion; it meant they could really explore a character without having to pander to the very narrow expectations of comic book fans. They didn’t pander to anyone in making this film, and that comes across as confident and strong as film makers.
My absolute favourite thing about this film is that it holds nothing back. It explores the ugliest aspects of humanity without censoring itself, without cushioning the fall. It is as beautiful for that as it is unsettling. It works as a character study of a famous and iconic Batman villain, but also as a stand alone thriller that explores one broken man’s attempt at connecting with the world and his fall to tragedy when he is cast out. It works as a black mirror to aspects of our current society, but also as a noir comic book movie that will thrill even the most stoic of DC fans. It is brilliant, powerful, and utterly intense. I cannot emphasise enough how much I love this film and what it has done/will do for future DC films.
Thank you, Todd Phillips, Joaquin Phoenix, and thank you to everyone else who worked on Joker. It is an incredible experience and I truly cannot wait to see it again!
Now, with the actual review done, I’d like to get something off my chest:
A note about the controversy surrounding this film: I really don’t understand why people are stating that this film glorifies violence and might inspire mass shootings. I don’t like getting political or talking about too much real world stuff, but I’m going to make an exception in the context of this film. Firstly, I want to point out that no movies/TV shows/video games/anything EVER really inspire mass shootings. The people who do that would have done it regardless, especially in America, where literally anyone can buy any kind of gun with no reason whatsoever. The gun culture in America is what inspires mass shootings and gun violence, not fiction. Secondly, I feel the need to say that if anything, this is one of the very few violent movies that specifically DOESN’T glorify gun violence. It in fact goes to great lengths to portray violence as ugly, horrifying and with real consequences. Every death in this film is incredibly impactful, and deeply disturbing.
Joker is an exploration of mental illness, a society that allows mental illness to continue decaying people’s lives, and a culture that allows violence to occur at any given moment. It is not a justification or glorification of said mental illness or violence. If someone watches this movie and finds themselves thinking violence is a great option, I put forward that that is a problem with the person watching, rather than with the film. Films, television, video games, and novels can (and should) explore these types of issues, and I can’t believe how many people are under the impression that the mere existence of a contentious social or political problem in a film constitutes support of that problem. I’m sorry, but frankly that’s ridiculous.
Joker is very clearly showing violence and lack of support for mentally ill people as a very negative thing, and if you think the film is glorifying or supporting those things you have completely and fundamentally misunderstood it. That’s not the film’s fault, it’s yours. Further to that, I’m absolutely sick of seeing people point at anything other than loose and ineffective gun law as a cause of gun violence. If you want gun violence to stop, look at politicians, lawmakers, and the general gun culture in America. Fiction has nothing to do with it. I mean, Arthur Fleck is literally just handed a gun. No questions, no anything. And that can happen in America, right now. Of course there are other forms of lethal violence, but the fact that guns are everywhere and so easy to obtain is far more troubling and a far more immediate cause of gun violence than one film that contains some gun violence ever could be. So please stop saying this film should be boycotted, because America had hundreds if not thousands of mass shootings before Joker came out and it will continue to have them until gun laws are changed, regardless of what movies are released in the meantime. Trying to stifle creative expression while at the same time leaving gun laws as they are is hypocritical and damaging, and will achieve literally nothing.