By Donovan Levine
Joaquin Phoenix had, arguably, the performance of his life in Todd Phillips’s film “Joker,” a film about the D.C. comics’ classic archnemesis to Batman, released on Oct. 9.
While various renditions of the Joker have existed in almost every decade from Mark Hamill’s animated version in “Batman: The Animated Series” to Heath Ledger’s performance in “The Dark Knight” to Jared Leto in “Suicide Squad,” Todd Phillips and Scott Silver brought something fresh and contemporary to “Joker.”
The movie brought controversy from the moment of its debut with armies of fans, critics and comic-lovers claiming it to be either a brilliant thriller or an unhealthy romanticization of mental illness and psychopathic behavior.
Is the criticism fair? It’s up for debate, but those who know the Joker’s character and backstory prior to seeing the film should’ve already had an idea of what kind of film this would be regarding any comments about violence or civil unrest.
A lot of the film’s criticism is also due to the fact that many people prior to the film’s release had incredibly high expectations for a masterpiece, and if it didn’t meet that standard, critics would be quick to consider the film a bust.
Though not masterful, the shots were beautiful from a cinematic standpoint. Joaquin’s dancing was slow, drawn-out and shot from an angle where you are mesmerized by his constant shifting from insanity to stability. And judging from the hundreds of people gathering at Jerome Ave. in the Bronx, mimicking the dancing shown in the “stairs” scene, the scene has already become iconic.
A major theme in the movie is mental health. The closer Arthur comes to becoming the Joker, the more unstable his mental state becomes, yet it’s also the first time we see Arthur truly in control of his own actions and his own fate, cementing himself as a villain.
From the beginning, Arthur carries with him a card that describes a condition that he has, causing him to uncontrollably laugh at times, a disorder similar to Tourette’s. Not only is this condition perfect for a character like the Joker, but it weighs the audience with gloom every time you realize Arthur wants to cry but laughs instead.
It is never outright stated what plagued his mind to the point where he would commit the actions he had once his medicine was rescinded. There are allusions to the possibility that Arthur’s supposed father, Thomas Wayne, beat Arthur’s mother, Penny Fleck, while she was pregnant with Arthur. It is also possible that Arthur had been crazy since he was a child and only his medicine kept him in check.
Perhaps the most fascinating component of Phillips’s “Joker” is that it’s written like a hero film. It gives us a journey from start to finish, and you never actually see the ‘real’ Joker until the end of the film, like the original “Superman” in 1978 or “Iron Man” in 2008. But the story elements are told in reverse, as Arthur’s life only proceeds to worsen as the film continues, and he begins to lose everything he had. It is only just before the end that his mother’s backstory—and consequently his own–are revealed.
The ending of the film unfolds into literal and metaphorical clouds of chaos and civil unrest from the streets of Gotham hailing the Joker as a hero.
“Joker” so far has singled itself out as a masterful film, but the controversy surrounding it may ruin the reputation it’s garnered.