Film Review: ‘Joker’

Joaquin Phoenix is the man beneath the clown make-up in Tod Phillip’s Scorsese inspired reinvention of DC’s iconic villain…

Joker (a)

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a powerful performance in Warner Bros. Pictures’ ‘Joker’ (credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olson

Directed by:  Todd Phillips / written by:  Todd Phillips & Scott Silver / 122 minutes

What’s it about?

Grappling with mental illness amidst the crumbling society of Gotham City, a victimised and broken man walks a dark path as he adopts a deranged persona known as ‘Joker’…

In review

After riding a wave of festival focused critical plaudits and finding itself subject to some pre-release controversy (cancelled screenings and increased police presence rising from concerns that the film may incite acts of violence), Warner Bros. Pictures’ Joker, based on the iconic Batman villain, has landed in cinemas.  Featuring an intense and Oscar-worthy performance from Joaquin Phoenix, Joker is much less a traditional “comic book” interpretation of DC’s Clown Prince of Crime and far more a bleak, at times disturbing and often unnerving character study of a man cast aside by society, broken and pushed to the limit and through violent means – pushes back.  As has already been suggested since the film’s inception, Joker finds its roots within the celebrated works of director Martin Scorsese (who at one point was attached to produce) – specifically Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.

Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a loner struggling with mental illness and afflicted by a condition which leads to uncontrollable bouts of laughter (something that may sound silly on the surface but is realised painfully by a startlingly gaunt Phoenix).  Caring for his mother (played by Frances Conroy) and making a meagre living as a sign twirling street clown, Fleck looks to pursue a career in stand-up comedy…but one bad day too many sees the tragic figure consumed by his demons as he transforms himself into the deranged and homicidal persona of ‘Joker’.

Joker is certainly a good piece of filmmaking (captured beautifully by cinematographer Lawrence Sher) and in many ways compelling, unshackled from its comic book origins and unburdened by any requirement to connect to a wider universe, favouring it’s Scorsese inspirations – the character of Fleck very much informed by Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin, perhaps more so than he is by the Joker as we’ve seen in previous iterations.  Director Todd Phillips (who also co-writes) takes these influences and runs with them, proving his capabilities beyond the crowd-pleasing comedy fare of The Hangover trilogy.  It does, admittedly, make it a tad derivative and adds an element of predictability to proceedings, but at least provides a viable approach to this reinterpretation of a classic comic book foe.  Joker also benefits further from a small but key role for acting legend Robert De Niro (as talk show host Murray Franklin, who Fleck idolises), who certainly brings a heap of gravitas to the project – yet, the film unmistakably thrives on Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal.

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Joaquin Phoenix as the haggard and troubled Arthur Fleck (credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Despite some of its creative laudability, the film is not exactly “fun” in any sense, but nor does it aim to be given the themes it explores (the societal tensions and spiralling crime rate sadly all too relevant) and Fleck’s descent into madness can make for a difficult viewing experience.  Truth be told, Joker cannot match itself to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight which was able to depict a satisfyingly dark and dangerous version of the Joker whilst offering some semblance of hope via Bruce Wayne’s war against crime.  It’s also arguable that the Joker is very much defined by his ‘relationship’ with Batman which makes the approach of Joker, although invigorating, ultimately lacks something without that counterbalance.

Joker does however maintain its links to the comics, the Wayne family playing an important role within the story and the (seemingly early 1980s) Gotham City setting, though a more grounded extrapolation of a crime-ridden New York of the 1970s, a familiar placing.  Fleck’s failure as a comedian is also, of course, an identifiable homage to Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.

Joker leaves itself open to the interpretation of viewers and is likely to provoke fierce debates about not only the film itself but in its world-view and subjects it doesn’t take lightly – it may not be “entertaining” in a manner most would expect and the Joker is arguably better presented in his battles with the Batman but this is still a bold take on a particular, standalone, version of the character.

The bottom line:  ‘Dark’ in every sense of the word, Joker pulls no punches in its depiction of crime, violence and a society in decline, driven by Joaquin Phoenix’s powerful and mesmerising performance.

Joker is in cinemas now.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

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It’s a Classic: ‘Batman: Year One’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“From this moment on…none of you are safe”

Batman Year One

An example of the amazing artwork for ‘Batman: Year One’ by David Mazzucchelli (image credit: DC Comics).

Year:  1987

Written by:  Frank Miller / art by:  David Mazzucchelli / colours by:  Richmond Lewis

What’s it about?

As Gotham City faces endless crime and corruption, billionaire Bruce Wayne decides to adopt the vigilante persona of ‘the Batman’ and soon learns he may have an ally in Gotham Police Lieutenant James Gordon…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Subsequent to the culture shattering success of The Dark Knight Returns, “Year One” is Frank Miller’s other – no less significant – seminal Batman work.  Originally published as a four-part story arc in Batman (volume 1) issues #404-407 and collected numerously over the past thirty years, Batman: Year One, as the title suggests, chronicles the Dark Knight’s first year of crime-fighting in Gotham City.  Written by Miller, with art by David Mazzucchelli (who also collaborated with Miller on the iconic Daredevil story “Born Again”) and colours by Richmond Lewis, Year One is a perfect companion piece to The Dark Knight Returns.  Although Year One is a more grounded and less politically charged affair than that former work (which takes place out of the regular continuity in an alternate 1980s), there is a clear sense that they share the same DNA.

A Batman tale infused with influences of detective noir and classic crime fiction, Year One (which itself would go on to influence director Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins) sees the return of Bruce Wayne to his home after several years away, discovering that things have only gotten worse as criminal gangs – spearheaded by mob boss Carmine Falcone aka “The Roman” – and dishonest officials feed the societal decay afflicting the people of Gotham City.  Whilst Year One depicts the beginnings of Bruce Wayne’s rise as the Batman, it’s equally a story about future police commissioner James Gordon, newly transferred to the Gotham City Police Department who, faced with a corrupt police system and bent colleagues on the take, fights to preserve the values of the good and freely practice the true and trusted responsibilities of law enforcement.  Miller deftly builds and intertwines this dual narrative as destiny draws both Wayne and Gordon together – kindred souls on different sides of legality ultimately battling for the same cause.

Batman Year One (2)

More of David Mazzucchelli’s incredible art (image credit: DC Comics).

What is especially appealing about Year One is that Miller is not afraid to explore the frailties of the central heroes, which only makes the characters richer and more relatable.  Bruce continues to be haunted by the murder of his parents, his anger fuelling his war on crime and the actions he undertakes as he becomes a feared creature of the night.  He’s far less brutal than the elder and more grizzled man he is in The Dark Knight Returns (and in fact commits several heroic acts in the story, including saving the life of Gordon’s son) but the seeds are planted here.  Gordon himself is inherently a decent man working hard to protect all that he loves and values but despite being a devoted husband and father succumbs to an affair with his GCPD partner, Sarah.  Selina Kyle is less clear cut, a prostitute and thief who decides enough is enough and that those less fortunate need not fear the criminal gang hierarchy as she begins to adopt a certain feline-fatale vigilante persona of her own.

Year One is beautifully realised by David Mazzucchelli (whose Bruce Wayne bares a nifty resemblance to Hollywood legend Gregory Peck) with a clean, classic pulp style that’s moodily enhanced by the nuances of Richmond Lewis’s colour palette, giving the visuals an appropriate film-noir appearance.  It’d also be remiss not to mention the lettering by Tod Klein, which is especially effective in the monologues, adding to the poetic quality of Miller’s writing all making for one of the all-time greatest Batman stories.

Standout moment

Injured and forced into the basement of a dilapidated building, Batman faces capture as a SWAT team closes in on him…but they didn’t reckon on his ingenuity as he calls for ‘backup’.

Geek fact!

Ben Mackenzie, who portrayed James Gordon in Batman prequel series Gotham provided the voice of Bruce Wayne/Batman in the 2011 animated adaptation of Year One.

If you like this then check out…

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns : considered by many as Frank Miller’s magnum opus that’s not just a phenomenal, operatic Batman story but also a landmark in comics and pop culture.

Batman: The Killing Joke : Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s iconic Joker story is a stark, shocking and dramatic affair and presents a possible origin for the homicidal and psychotic Clown Prince of Crime.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

Film Review: ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’

Starring (voices):  Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise

Directed by:  Sam Liu / Written by:  Brian Azzarrello / 76 minutes

What’s it about?

Hunting for an escaped Joker, Batman finds himself in a race against time to rescue Commissioner Gordon form the clutches of the deranged Clown Prince of Crime…

In review

Having already adapted Frank Miller’s seminal Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, it was always inevitable that Warner Brothers Animation would turn to tackling that other celebrated DC Comics work of the 1980s, writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.  A dark and psychologically complex tale that’s equally unnerving, The Killing Joke adapted as an adult-rated animated feature would surely be a ready-made success?  Though enjoyable in many areas, Batman: The Killing Joke also proves flawed and never manages to hit the heights of the two-part adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns (which in all fairness is an entirely different story and set on a much larger scale).  The main issue lies with the source material, though Moore and Bolland’s graphic novel is an undisputed and flawless classic, it’s relatively short length would have resulted in too brief a running time had it been adapted ‘as is’.  As a result screenwriter (and fan favourite DC Comics scribe) Brian Azzarello has produced a wholly original 30-minute opening act focusing on Barbara Gordon/Batgirl that ultimately offers less to the overall story than it would hope to add.

There is a positive point to the opening act of The Killing Joke in that it provides Barbara Gordon with a larger role and resultantly a richer character arc in the story as Azzarello draws a complex and controversial relationship between Batman and Batgirl, set against her obsessive quest to bring down gangster Paris Franz (Maury Sterling).  It certainly helps the viewer to establish a deeper connection with Barbara adding some emotional weight to events later on yet it’s the almost jarring transition from this new material to the familiar where things falter, as nothing from the Franz sub-plot and very little from the Batman/Batgirl dynamic carries over into the rest of the film.  It’s appreciated that this would cause further deviation from Moore and Bolland’s original story and thus might have resulted in a messier final product but it’s a shame that even a small attempt to tie the two elements together couldn’t have been made.

The opening Batgirl story aside, the actual adaptation of The Killing Joke works relatively well.  It’s pleasingly faithful, the adult rating ensuring that director Sam Liu is able to depict every gut twisting moment uncensored, with some beautiful animation work utilising a style that sits somewhere between the realistic look of the Batman: Year One (also helmed by Liu) adaptation and the slightly more caricature visuals of The Dark Knight Returns.  Wisely, some of Brian Bolland’s most memorable and evocative panels are replicated perfectly at several key moments in the film which will give many a reason to pull out their copies of the graphic novel.

Of course, one of the greatest joys of The Killing Joke is that it features the return of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill in their respective and much loved Batman: The Animated Series roles as Bruce Wayne/Batman and the Joker.  They’re as great as they’ve ever been, Hamill in particular as he deftly straddles a fine line between serious and outright manic, his evermore gravelly tones delivering a reliably unsettling yet still silly Joker (aided by an odd but nifty musical number).  Tara Strong also reprises her Batgirl role from The New Batman Adventures and makes a decent job of conveying the more layered approach to the character featured here, whereas Robocop’s Ray Wise is a little flat as Commissioner Gordon which is slightly disappointing given what happens to him in the story.

Sweetening the deal are a number of nice little easter eggs for fans to lap up including visual references to Jokers from Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (both of which were heavily influenced by The Killing Joke) and a twist on that iconic cover image from Detective Comics #27.

Despite some positive points, there’s an overriding sense that the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke comes off feeling a little slight and at times lacking the impact of the graphic novel (especially in the often dissected and endlessly debated finale) and the additional material would have arguably been better served expanded into its own feature.  Still, with Conroy and Hamill on hand and some striking visuals and a respectful adherence to the work by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland there’s still enough reason for fans to check out this latest DC Comics venture from Warner Brothers Animation.

The bottom line:  Though flawed, the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke still makes for an enjoyable watch that will ultimately lead fans yearning to revisit Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s original graphic novel.

Batman: The Killing Joke is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download now.

Batman (Kevin Conroy) and the Joker (Mark Hamill) face off in the Warner Brothers Animation adaptation of seminal DC Comics graphic novel 'Batman: The Killing Joke'.

Batman (Kevin Conroy) and the Joker (Mark Hamill) face off in the Warner Brothers Animation adaptation of seminal DC Comics graphic novel ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’.