Despite being released more than a decade prior, 2008’s The Dark Knight is still regarded by many as one of the greatest films of all time. Director Christopher Nolan innovated the film landscape with the Batman Begins sequel with an approach that’s grounded in realism. While the Caped Crusader was the lead, the film will always be remembered for the brilliant performance of its antagonist, The Joker. Portrayed by the late Heath Ledger, every moment featuring the Clown Prince of Crime grabs the attention of its audience instantaneously. At its best, 2019’s Joker plays like a spiritual offshoot of The Dark Knight.
Set in the 1980s, Joker illustrates the origin story of the DC Comics villain in an original, standalone story never seen before on the big screen. Directed by Todd Phillips, the film paints the rise and fall (or fall and rise?) of Arthur Fleck, a man struggling to find his way in Gotham City’s fractured society. A clown-for-hire by day, he aspires to be a stand-up comic at night. Trapped within a harsh existential loop between apathy and cruelty, Arthur makes one bad decision that brings about a chain reaction of escalating events in this gritty character study.
Despite borrowing elements from the beloved The Killing Joke graphic novel, it should be noted that Joker does not adhere itself to its source material. A commendable move by Warner Bros. and the filmmaker considering the current moviegoing climate that worships sequel, spinoffs and shared cinematic franchises. As a result, Joker is liberated from many of the narrative limitations that it would have otherwise. Todd Phillips’ Joker succeeds both as entertainment and provocation, with an Academy Award worthy performance by Joaquin Phoenix that puts a horrifically human face on an iconic comic-book villain.
At first glance, the film is an unorthodox story of how a supervillain based on a comic book is made. However, underneath its facade, the film is a subtle exploration of the importance of empathy and the tragic consequences of a society devoid of it. At its core, 2019’s Joker is a powerfully unsettling character study that also serves as a reflection on society itself.
Unapologetic, disturbing and violent, Joker is a depressing but strangely beautiful film that evokes the nihilism of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. While superhero films like Shazam! and Aquaman are delightful entries that serve as course correction for the franchise, Joker gives its infamous character a tragic origin tale that serves as a tremendous showcase for its star. With a fantastic script, an iconic character, as well as a superb performance by Joaquin Phoenix, Joker makes even the edgiest superhero entry seem safe.