In 2017, 5 of the top 10 highest-grossing films were superhero movies. In 2018, superheroes snagged 7 of the top 12. This year, Marvel’s box office triumph in Avengers: Endgame earned it the title of the unadjusted highest-grossing film of all time. Despite the seemingly-endless money that these CGI-driven spectacles bring in, many audiences and spectators are starting to feel fatigued with the sameness of motifs and story structures that these movies often tend towards. After the huge discussions brought in by 2018’s Black Panther and this year’s Avengers: Endgame, the DC-Warner Bros film Joker has started an entirely new slew of discussion unlike what’s normally seen. The film’s had its fair share of controversies surrounding its gritty portrayals of violence and safety concerns at its screenings, though these anxieties are more than balanced out by strong audience praise and an unlikely win of the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion. Given its grisly divergence from the norms of the comic book genre and its release piggybacking on an industry-wide reevaluation of the genre from legendary figures like Martin Scorsese and Jennifer Aniston, a movie like Joker might inadvertently reveal the future of comic book movies going into the new decade.
A pretty stark divergence from the CGI-heavy nature of previous DC movies, Joker is a more of a crime drama that leaves its connections to the wider Batman franchise mostly to implications and easter eggs. If Joaquin Phoenix’s titular performance as Joker comes with the baggage of knowing that the method-based actor is ‘used to playing weirdos’, then it should also be noted that his success is done on the heels of a character with many iconic iterations by many iconic actors. The character of Arthur Fleck, a poverty-stricken street clown with a string of barely-medicated personality disorders, allows for many moments blending laughter, crying, dancing, and bizarre combinations of the three. In portraying such an iconic villain, the main comparison audiences have made with Phoenix is Heath Ledger’s Joker in the 2008 Batman staple The Dark Knight, which was entirely drawn from the character’s established nature and the writing-direction of Christopher Nolan. If Ledger’s Joker is meant to be a concentrated foil to its movie’s hero, Phoenix’s performance captures an aimless, incredibly unnerving meekness and fear of an unstable man with increasingly little to lose. When Phoenix’s character Arthur Fleck does inevitably embrace his insanity and become the Joker in the third act, his most disturbing moments are the contextualization of his life up until that point.
In addition to Joaquin Phoenix’s acting (as well as some solid supporting roles by Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz and Frances Conroy), Joker makes a generally intentional usage of design and formal elements. The art direction and shot placement of the film cast Arthur’s Gotham (which looks eerily similar to New York City) as a seemingly-endless sprawl of worn buildings and piling urban decay. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography, bouncing off of his many previous collaborations with director Todd Philips, deliberately uses camera focus to put various figures and actions in and out of the frame’s attention — a subtly bold move compared to the ultra-clear deep focus of something like a Marvel movie. The art direction and general aesthetic of the film, set in an ambiguous year that can be deduced to around 1981, creates a neo-noir feel that isn’t unfamiliar to the works of Coppola and Scorsese; the film often feels like it’s attempting to mine the exact vein of Taxi Driver (1976) and King of Comedy (1982). Lastly, the art direction of the logos and titles combines Warner Bros’ 1972 retro logo and the stylized font of classical Hollywood cinema to create an analog aesthetic that drives home the film’s theme of retro broadcasts in something not far off from Lumet’s 1976 broadcast satire Network.
For all of the thought and effort that went into the film’s design and its new version of the character’s story, it still ended up with a few questionable decisions. The sound design, for its convincing realism, fell back on ominous chord riffs a bit too often whenever the film attempted to create a tense moment. The last twenty minutes of the film is sprinkled with what feels like two or three different scenes competing for which ‘deserves’ to be the last scene in the movie. It’s impossible to say if these last scenes’ collective overkill — despite their individual appeal — is by the director’s design or by a boardroom decision to allude to a possible sequel or tie-in to a future DC movie. The various ends of the film feel like just a really good performance that might become a franchise or part of a larger universe instead of being an impactful, singular performance. While I can respect the film on one level for not employing such a common tactic for the genre, the ‘multiple’ endings of Joker could have been alleviated, ironically, by the mid-credits and end-credits scenes found in Marvel movies.
In all, Joker is a movie that attempts something new with the comic book genre that for many people is just beginning to feel like a dead horse. It doesn’t quite live up to the classics of neo-noir grit in its attempts to infuse into its campy source material, though that doesn’t take away from its great performances and many unique stylistic and editing decisions. The violence and bleak tone of the film can understandably turn off some audiences, but if you want to think about how blockbusters and comic book movies might evolve going into the 2020s, Joker is something you definitely won’t want to miss.
Cover Photo: IMDB