First things first, a preface: this movie is only loosely based on DC Comics character the Joker.
Are there killings? Yes. Riots? You bet. Music video-like scenes that glorify violence? For a minute. But there isn’t an overindulgence.
Joker – like his traditional nemesis Batman – has no superhero powers, except maybe deluding himself from reality.
He doesn’t have green hair because he fell into a vat of chemicals – the character’s most commonly used backstory – but because he dyes his hair green in his bathroom. And that maniacal laughter? It’s no reverb or smoke machines: he carries around a laminated card explaining his convulsions to be a medical disorder. It’s all rule-breaking from thereon in.
Directed by Todd Phillips (Road Trip, Old School, The Hangover), Joker sees Joaquin Phoenix play Arthur Fleck: a clown who lives with his mentally ill mother in the oppressive early ‘80s of Gotham City. He aspires to be a standup comedian, but his audience laugh at him – not with him. One awful clip shows him bombing on stage: “I hated school as a kid, but my mom told me that I had to get a job when I grow up. But I told her, I’m going to be a comedian.”
Fleck gets his name “Joker” when the city’s late-night TV host Murray Franklin (Robert de Niro) plays a clip from his set on live television, telling him: “Hey joker, listen to your mom.” Everyone laughs and Fleck ends up on TV after viewers want to see more. Standup comedy nerds will revel in the comedic history: the standup scene was shot at the legendary Dangerfield’s comedy club in Midtown, while the curtains on the late-night show strike a similarity to Johnny Carson’s late-night Tonight Show. References bring to mind the absurdist comedy of Andy Kaufmann and Lenny Bruce.
Things get weird after Fleck gets jumped by teenage kids and a friend gives him a gun to protect himself. When he uses it on the subway – following an attack by a group of Wall Street bros – it leads to rich versus poor protests on the streets, and Fleck becomes an underground hero.
Rather than watching superheroes battle between good and evil, however, the film goes deeper to our own inner demons. It’s a character profile, detailing the life of a broken person in a broken society and the creepiest parts of the movie are when Phoenix’s Fleck is alone with himself. The only enemy is that within.
There are no high-speed chases, making this reading of one of DC’s most legendary villains feel like a sobering dose of reality. This isn’t for kids looking for a rollercoaster ride. It forces its audience to grow up or slow down – and it hurts deep on an emotional level, too.
Joker is released in the UK on 4th October