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…

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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).

Comics Review: ‘Batman: Damned’ Book One

DC launches its Black Label with a startling new take on the Batman…

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Darker than night: Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo reunite for ‘Batman: Damned’, from DC’s Black Label (image credit: DC, used for illsutrative purposes only).

Written by:  Brian Azzarello / art by:  Lee Bermejo

What’s it about?

Discovering that the Joker is dead, an amnesiac Batman recruits John Constantine as he searches for the truth…

In review

The first release from DC’s adult-orientated ‘Black Label’ imprint, Book One of Batman: Damned is the first instalment of a three book Prestige Format series (released on a bi-monthly schedule) that reunites the writer and artist team of Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo, who previously worked together on the fan favourite villain-focused stories Joker and Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, of which this title is said to be a ‘spiritual successor’.

A standalone story set outside regular DC Universe continuity, Damned is a bleak, stark and visceral tale that’s not for the timid.  Against the backdrop of the grimy, decaying streets of a hellish Gotham City, Azzarello and Bermejo present a Batman who is the darkest of Dark Knights, a vigilante persona driven by a man whose emotional scars cut deep.  Its narrative carried by the narration of John Constantine, Azzarello’s script has a poetic, literary quality to it that elevates Damned above the average superhero comic.  Not that there’s anything wrong with Tom King’s Batman, this is just a different kind of approach that fully earns its ‘mature readers’ label via it’s grittier than gritty tone and startling, stylish visuals.

Damned opens with an injured Batman, dazed and confused as he learns that the Joker is dead and is unable to recall the events that have lead him onto an ambulance stretcher.  Making a brutal escape from the clutches of medics and the police, the Dark Knight Detective flees like a wounded animal and ultimately crosses paths with John Constantine who may be the only one who can help him piece things together.

Damned paints a Gotham City that truly is a Gothic nightmare and gives readers a Bruce Wayne who’s trauma runs deeper and more hopelessly than in the regular iteration and flashbacks to Wayne’s less than perfect childhood adds texture to an established origin and Brian Azzarello’s writing really provides a tangible sense of his pain.  The inclusion of Constantine, together with fresh takes on Zatanna, Deadman and the Enchantress, thickens the black, wintry atmosphere of the story with a strong dose of the supernatural which only increases its appeal.

The true power of Damned though lies in the haunting art of Lee Bermejo, rich with detail and vast in its storytelling this is one visually incredible comic book (it somehow feels like disservice to even call this a comic book) and it’d be a fair argument to say that Bermejo’s talents exceed Azzarello’s here and could carry the story with a minimum of dialogue – as good as it can be, Constantine’s narration does become a little too heavy and overbearing by the end of this fifty page opening chapter.  But that’s one miniscule criticism and in the grand scheme of things, Batman: Damned looks set to be a special story in the Batman mythos.

The bottom line:  In its first book, Batman: Damned shows great promise with a visually arresting and narratively gripping story that offers an alternative take on an iconic character.

Batman: Damned Book One is published by DC Black Label and is available in print and digital formats now.