Review: “Joker” is a haunting character study that bucks the superhero trend

Its gritty tone and Joaquin Phoenix's exceptional portrayal of Arthur Fleck makes it one of the best superhero films of the year

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Review: “Joker” is a haunting character study that bucks the superhero trend

"Joker," the origin story of the iconic DC villain, grossed $93.5 million on its first weekend in the United States. This was the fourth-best opening for an R rated movie ever.

By Warner Bros. // Mill Valley News illustration

"Joker," the origin story of the iconic DC villain, grossed $93.5 million on its first weekend in the United States. This was the fourth-best opening for an R rated movie ever.

By Warner Bros. // Mill Valley News illustration

By Warner Bros. // Mill Valley News illustration

"Joker," the origin story of the iconic DC villain, grossed $93.5 million on its first weekend in the United States. This was the fourth-best opening for an R rated movie ever.

Ben Wieland, Mill Valley News editor-in-chief

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Director Todd Phillips’s origin story “Joker,” tangentially connected to DC’s cinematic universe, is a welcome departure from recent superhero tropes. Instead of being filled with moments of levity and tension-breaking one-liners, “Joker” breaks the comic book movie mold entirely; instead, the film is a somber character study that is cinematographically beautiful, features an Oscar-worthy performance from Joaquin Phoenix and offers very relevant social commentary on class inequality and mental health treatment. 

The film follows Arthur Fleck for the duration of its runtime, the down-on-his-luck clown for hire played by Joaquin Phoenix who will eventually adopt his Joker persona and, in the words of Heath Ledger’s Joker (who is referenced in the framing of a few shots near the end of “Joker”), “introduce a little anarchy” to the streets of Gotham. 

Bold, devastating and utterly beautiful, Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix have not just reimagined one of the most iconic villains in cinema history, but reimagined the comic book movie itself.”

— Terri White, Empire movie critic

Fleck’s life is terrible from the start. Abuse by his mysterious father inflicts a mysterious psychological ailment on Fleck, which forces him to laugh uncontrollably. These outbursts, which range from suppressed giggles to a full-blown cackling, get to the heart of Phoenix’s character: a loser who is partially Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” and partially Tyler Durden in “Fight Club,” who doesn’t understand social cues and who can’t form meaningful human connections. 

When Fleck tries to be a part of society, he fails. He loses his job after unwittingly bringing a gun to a children’s hospital. His stand-up comedy is so bad that fictional late night talk show host Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro, lampoons the act on his show. His social worker doesn’t seem to care about her job, and she stops seeing Fleck after budget cuts to her department. These unfair actions don’t feel like they’re Fleck’s fault, just the effects of society on a mentally ill man. Coupled with Phoenix’s stellar acting, Fleck becomes an almost sympathetic character. 

Almost. 

While the movie toes the line of demanding sympathy for its titular villain, it never crosses that line and glorifies Fleck’s mental illness or deranged actions. Phoenix’s physicality, especially when he is dancing, is crucial to making sure viewers continue to feel unsettled by Fleck. When Phoenix dances, or he more accurately contorts his emaciated body such that it looks like his bones are about to pop through his skin, it’s a reminder of how weird, gross and unforgivable Fleck is. 

The dancing is, like everything else Phoenix adds to his character, impeccable. While Phoenix might be iced out of the Oscar race because of critical disdain for superhero films, his acting — or, more accurately, his total transformation into Arthur Fleck’s Joker — is certainly Best Actor-worthy. The consistency of the nervous tics Phoenix adopts, the exceptional depiction of a man’s descent into madness and, above all, the haunting dancing scenes are a perfect showcase of Phoenix’s chops as an actor. 

The weakest part of the film is definitely its callbacks to the greater DC cinematic universe. Scenes featuring Thomas Wayne and a young Bruce Wayne grind the movie to a halt, as Fleck’s story is forced to the backburner so that more backstory for future movies can be explained. 

Thankfully, these are a relatively minor part of the film. “Joker” is first and foremost the Joker’s origin story, and the movie greatly benefits from this decision. The main story of Fleck’s descent into madness is gorgeously shot and brilliantly portrayed, and Phoenix absolutely knocks his role out of the park. “Joker” might not be the best film of the year, but it’s certainly in the running.

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