I'll admit, I was quite sceptical about the idea of a solo Joker film. Part of what makes the base character so effective is his relationship with Batman and the dichotomy between the two. Of course, the character himself is interesting in his own right, but it really is how he and Batman need each other in a twisted way that elevates the character beyond your regular comic-book baddie. However, as trailers and promotional materials for the film released, I found myself getting gradually more excited and intrigued with where they were going to take this version of the character. Still, I went in with an open mind and relatively low-to-medium expectations. I came out stunned into silence.
Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely man outcast by society, desperately chasing his pipe dream of becoming a stand-up comedian. He spends his days dressed up in clown attire entertaining children at hospitals or holding up signs on street corners. After he is pushed too far, he begins his maddening descent into the clown prince of crime. I'll just get this out of the way and say Phoenix is pitch-perfect casting. Chances are you've already heard how mesmerising his performance is by now, but it's for very good reason. Phoenix is wholly unpredictable in the role. He is both meek and terrifying, charming and horrific, elegant and hateful, usually a mix of all those things at the same time. You dread his inevitable transformation but at the same time look forward to it. Phoenix covers it all. The rest of the cast are great too (particularly Robert DeNiro) but this is 100% Phoenix's film and he absolutely shines in the role. Is his performance Oscar-worthy? I'd say so. Is his performance as good as Heath Ledger's in The Dark Knight? I'd also say so but for drastically different reasons; Ledger's Joker worked so well because he was a mystery. Phoenix's Joker works so well because you see his entire backstory and every little detail that makes him tick and eventually pushed him over the edge.
This is not a pleasant film to watch, and I mean that in the best possible way. I lost count of how many times my jaw dropped to the floor. It's been a very long time since a film has done that to me. I was appalled by what was happening on-screen, disgusted even. But the film handles its many disturbing moments with such elegance and delivers them at just the right moments that I was loving every minute of it. The media at the moment seem to think this film romanticises Fleck's descent into madness, possibly encouraging viewers to reenact the Joker's horrific crimes. I'd like to say that at no point does the film romanticise Fleck's actions nor encourages viewers to think said actions are okay. Yes, you do feel bad for Fleck and you see every little detail that pushes him to his breaking point, but it's an ugly descent. It is not made out to seem cool or admirable. Feeling for a character and agreeing with their actions do not always go hand-in-hand, and that is especially prevalent in this film. As for those saying this film is too violent or basks too much in its disturbing moments, I'm afraid that's what the character of the Joker is all about, and presenting any less than that is doing a disservice to the character.
I really only have one weakness with the film, and it's not even really a major one. There are many moments where the film feels a little too self-indulgent. There are many quieter, slow-motion segments, almost as if the film is pausing to say to the viewer, "Look at how cool we're being. Look at how smart we are." And, yes, those moments do work and are smart but some of them basked in their own glory a little too long and became more distracting than intended.
Don't be fooled by the title; this is not a comic-book movie. Sure, it may be based on a comic-book character, but this film is about as far as you can get from the comic-book movies of today; there are no big action set pieces or light-hearted humorous moments. This is essentially a character-study fanboy's dream, and it definitely works in the film's favour.
Overall, Joker is a chilling yet remarkable experience. I don't think I've ever seen a film quite like it. Part of me wants to see this cinematic universe continued so we can get more films like this, however part of me doesn't. Part of me wants this film to stay as it's own little self-contained thing: a thrillingly disturbing insight into a man's descent into crime and madness. With a magnetic lead performance, several shocking moments, and frighteningly relevant social commentary, Joker will stay with you long after you've left the cinema, whether you like it or not.