“Why so serious?”

Joker is a 2019 American psychological thriller film directed and produced by Todd Phillips, who co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver. The film is based on DC Comics characters.

In the 80s, writers Alan Moore and Frank Miller changed the face of comic books (and pop culture) by deconstructing and reinventing superheroes with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, respectively. Both series existed outside the mainstream shared universes of their corporate overlord, DC Comics – and flourished because of that. Both series have maintained their statuses as literary achievements over three decades later.

Writer/director Todd Phillips’ Joker, featuring the genius of Joaquin Phoenix, reminded me of the above-mentioned comic book series in that while the movie is based on DC Comics characters, the movie exists in an ‘alternate reality’ to that presented every month in DC comic books. Which is quite refreshing when placed in sharp relief to the all-encompassing Marvel Cinematic Universe and its relentless drive for continuity.

Sure, there are (unnecessary) references to the Batman universe (of which Joker is a part of) but the success of the narrative does not quite hinge on these references at all. Again, a very refreshing take. To be honest, Joker reminded me of the world director Zack Snyder was trying to create with his DCEU movies, before he was shutdown by biased critics and cowardly studio executives.

This version of Joker is presented to us as a period piece. Set in Gotham, in what looks like the mid to late 70s, Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a struggling comedian with an unfortunate condition – I will not spoil this for you but it is a unique interpretation of the character certainly. Life gets from bad to worse for Fleck which compounds his descent into insanity, before transforming into the villain, so familiar to even mainstream non-comic audiences.

Joker is masterfully made – it comes across like a classic 70s Scorsese film, with Robert De Niro in tow as a Johnny Carson type late show host – with a brilliant performance from Phoenix, whose delivery is a tour de force of acting. Phoenix is able to imbue sympathy for Fleck even as an aura of mental disturbance is generated around Fleck’s behaviour.

If there is a flaw in Joker, it might be the very fact that it is based on such a familiar character. It seemed superfluous to shoehorn Thomas and Bruce Wayne (and the entire Wayne murders AGAIN!) but probably deemed essential in order to relate this to the Batman universe. That diminished the impact of the movie in my mind, distracting from the full power of the thematic narratives.

But that is a minor quibble. In the scheme of the DCEU post-Justice League, Joker is a bit of a fluke and I do not expect Warner Bros to be able to make any capital from this standalone success and they certainly should not. Joker deserves to stand out on its own.

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