Who is the Joker before Batman? This remains unexplored territory even in the source material because the comics have always been more concerned with how intertwined (and in some ways, two sides of the same coin) the Joker is with Batman.
That’s what Todd Phillips’ Joker is attempting; a fleshed-out origin story for one of the most iconic comic book villains of all time.
The Killing Joke
The most famous Joker origin is arguably Alan Moore’s classic Batman: The Killing Joke graphic novel, giving the villain a simple backstory of an unnamed failed comedian who turned to a life of crime to support his family, before ‘one bad day’ (when he discovered that his pregnant wife died and his first heist went horribly wrong, where he fell into a vat of chemicals) turned him into the Joker.
The one and only aspect that the Joker movie derives from Batman: The Killing Joke is that he dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian and the concept of the ‘one bad day’, which is now considered integral to the Joker mythos.
It expands the Joker’s origin by not only giving him a name (Arthur Fleck) but also a clear history of mental illness (which was not explicitly mentioned or evident in the comic) and other personal details.
In the Joker movie, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy), suffering from mental illnesses (like pathological laughter, etc.) and trying to get by in life while working as a clown-for-hire. This version of Gotham City is akin to the late 70s New York City, a place plagued by widespread social injustices and a lack of empathy in the general populace.
Throughout the duration of the Joker movie, we see Arthur Fleck battered and bruised, abused both physically and mentally by the society at large. He is gradually being broken by the very city he lives in, struggling to survive the casual cruelties of people who have forgotten to practice even the slightest common decency for each other.
That’s not even mentioning the growing discontent of the poor huddled masses against the rich and fat higher echelons of society.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is his own complex take on the character, a brilliant performance that is as physical as it is psychological. He lost 24kg of weight to prepare for the role, and it shows in the malnourished and frail body of Arthur Fleck. His aforementioned pathological laughter leads to uncomfortable and unsettling situations, which while seemingly convenient for someone like the Joker to be afflicted with, is ultimately perfect for him.
His Joker is not inherently evil, but impulsively so, when committing visceral acts of violence with no hint of remorse. This is a disturbed and deranged Joker, with nihilistic and anarchic elements, similar to Heath Ledger’s Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight.
However, the biggest difference is that while Ledger’s Joker was an embodiment of chaos (which he needed to be as opposing fodder to Batman), Phoenix’s Joker is a more grounded and realistic version. This makes him the darkest and disturbingly-realistic depiction of the Joker to date.
Phoenix’s Joker has unique quirks like randomly dancing and scribbling creepy thoughts (and censored presumably sexy doodles) in a diary of sorts. What I can say is that he probably has the best laugh of any live-action Joker (with the exception of Mark Hamill’s), shrill and chillingly executed.
Many scenes in the Joker movie are open to interpretation, as they rely on the unreliable perspective of the increasingly unhinged and unstable Arthur Fleck. The line between reality and fiction becomes blurred and disconnected as we follow Fleck’s descent into madness, resulting in a movie that’s a lot less linear.
Is It Still A Comic Book Movie?
I like that the Joker movie finally addresses the problem of a villain like Joker. How did a man so insane and unpredictable get so many followers and henchmen?
It didn’t seem plausible, that is, until Phoenix’s Joker. I can see and sincerely believe why those suffering under the yoke of Gotham City would be inspired to hail this version of the Joker as a leader.
I appreciate the fact that Arthur Fleck’s Joker could plausibly appear in the real world as a threat, and that’s what makes Joaquin Phoenix’s depiction so scary, though it’s not exactly as “dangerous” of an idea as some people (and journalists in other publication) are fearing it to be, thus blowing out of proportions.
As a comic book fan, I love it when comic book movie adaptations include references and easter eggs to the source material. Without spoiling anything, I can confirm that the Joker movie is practically devoid of any. Which is actually what I already expected considering it’s already been clarified by Phillips that his movie is meant to be standalone and unconnected to the DC Extended Universe (DCEU).
That said, that fact didn’t deter me in any way from loving the Joker movie, which I’m sure many of my fellow comic book fans will attest to when they finally watch it. This may not be your Joker (or whatever your definitive version of Joker is), but this is still very much the Joker nonetheless, and that’s a good thing.
DC Black Label Triumphant
As the first of hopefully many DC Black (essentially standalone mature DC Comics movie adaptations), Joker is a resounding success.
It’s a powerful example of how varied, expansive and limitless comic books and their adaptations can be, without following any established template or formula.
Comic book movies can still be great movies or strong showcases of filmmaking/acting, and Joker is certainly proof of that. Joaquin Phoenix carries the movie by delivering a performance of a lifetime, and one that will leave viewers debating for many years and multiple viewings to come.
Joker is the last comic book movie to be released in 2019, and what a movie to leave the year on; with a BANG!
FINAL SCORE: 90/100
We received a preview screening courtesy of Warner Bros Malaysia. Joker premieres in Malaysian cinemas on 3 October 2019.