REVIEW: Joker is a true achievement in a cinematic character study that reinvents the comic book film.


Joaquin Phoenix owns the role of the titular Batman arch-nemesis in a work that pays strong homage to the New Hollywood auteur storytelling of 1970’s Hollywood and reinvents the way that comic book films can be adapted for the big screen.

For the better part of the last decade, the way that comic books are represented on screen has largely been defined by the interconnected style of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a collection of interconnected tales serving to a larger narrative with its character work largely stalled at the level of a serialized television show. The spectacle of seeing comic book titans team up on the big screen has largely been seen as the high watermark of the genre. Comic books in and of themselves have always had critically acclaimed story arcs and storylines that have been loosely adapted for the big screen, used for their iconic title or a subplot or two. DC has often taken to adapting some of their more critically acclaimed storylines as animated films. Some, like The Dark Knight Returns or The Killing Joke, function as Elseworlds tales, stories that explore a character or two in detail while keeping the nuanced adult character development out of the main continuity of their all-ages comic titles. Todd Phillips’ Joker, largely functions as a big-screen cinematic version of an Elseworlds tale. Joker explores what may be the possible origin of Batman’s arch-rival The Joker as told through the lens of Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck in an early 1980’s Gotham City; not unlike the seedy 1970’s New York of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.

Joaquin’s Fleck is a loner, a victim of a severe physical condition that drives him to laugh compulsively and painfully to the point of asphyxiation. Fleck works at an agency that rents out clowns for parties and special appearances in order to keep a roof over his and his mother Penny’s (Frances Conroy) head. Fleck dreams of finding his fame as a stand-up comedian but suffers his existence under a cloud of anti-depressants and mood stabilizers that do little to relieve his sense that his life doesn’t matter and that hopefully, his death will make more sense than his life. His only reprieve being the escapism he feels while watching the Murray Franklin Show. He imagines Murray (Robert DeNiro) recognizing his plight and lowly status and seeing that he still has a good nature despite his inadequacies and social failings. He imagines his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) taking an interest in him despite his failings and setbacks. But he finds himself a victim of circumstance, beaten down by society at a time when tension between the haves and the have-nots in Gotham is at an all-time high, with garbage workers striking and filth rotting in the streets and the well-off considering those can’t get their life together “clowns.” It is in this powderkeg situation that Arthur finds himself “one bad day” away from losing it all until one night on the subway that tension dramatically comes to a boil.

The less you know about Phillips’ film going in, the richer your experience with it will likely be. The one thing that is undeniable is that Joaquin Phoenix imbues this role with his all. Phoenix loses himself in Fleck and after a while, you only see this broken shell of a man with his failings and yearnings, driven gaunt by the rictus seizures of laughter he neither feels or enjoys. Much like his role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Phoenix brings this character to life as the camera examines a pivotal chapter in this man’s life and we become a witness to his transformation for good or ill. Much like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the central protagonist is not a hero; the audience finds him sympathetic because he’s our journey in this world and it is hard not to feel for him, but it goes to show how the best villain views himself as the hero of his own story and never has that been truer than in this film. The kind of treatment DC and WB let Pillips have with this iconic character is usually the type of character exploration we see in something like the exploration of Harvey Pekar in American Splendor and that is the closest R-Rated comic interpretation of a broken spectacle of a man. But this is a New Hollywood homage that casts Joker as the equivalent of a Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Ruper Pupkin in The King of Comedy. The most important thing is that it works. The production design, coupled with the script and performances within rally together to bring one of 2019’s best films, bar none.

Joker deserves to be seen on the big screen, a masterwork in character exploration and study that redefines the comic book film from mere episodic narratives leading to a blockbuster team-up to one of exploring the ramifications and origins of the archetypes that define our heroes and perception of villains. It is the movie we believed M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable to be in 2005 and I hope this is the beginning of more creative interpretations of rarified comic book archetypes of this level in the future.

  • Daniel Monster Davis

    I’m really looking forward to seeing it. Your review gets me excited. Just rewatched Taxi Driver the other day in anticipation of it. Good work.