What do we think about when we say ‘comic book movie’? It’s safe to say that most would immediately picture shredded heroes in tight attires and bombastic set pieces. At the centre of the genre are the likes Avengers: Endgame and Aquaman. Good films, yes, but relatively safe films. They’re spectacles with broad emotional beats that appeal to the widest possible audience.
But every now and then we get the rare gem of a comic book film that transcends the very genre itself — films that prove that perhaps comic book movies aren’t necessarily a genre but a form. Films that are crafted by an auteur of a singular vision. Fragments of art that are as much a piece of pure cinema as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane or Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight comes to mind, a David Fincher-esque crime drama reminiscent of Se7en that just so happens to feature larger than life characters. James Mangold’s Western action-drama Logan is another one.
Joker promises to be one such film.
A Psychological Affair
Here we have a picture that — going off its marketing campaign, at least — isn’t interested in bombastic VFX or mind-blowing action blocks. Instead, it looks to be grounded and grimy, gritty and dirty, and an all-out ballsy affair that explores its characters in a nuanced manner. One that aims to provoke thought as much as emotions. Early reviews have suggested an unflinching and at times deeply uncomfortable narrative.
From Jack Nicholson’s version to Heath Ledger’s to Jared Leto’s, the big-screen adaptations have painted the iconic Batman comics villain as someone who’s unhinged. None, though, have explicitly showcased the character as someone who’s suffering from mental illness… until now.
Take this moment from the trailer:
Counsellor/therapist: I have some bad news for you. This is the last time we’ll be meeting.
Arthur Fleck (before he becomes Joker): You don’t listen do you? You just ask the same questions every week. How’s your job? Are you having any negative thoughts? All I have… are negative thoughts.
These are not the type of lines you’ll find in any ol’ comic book film. Joker is set to be a very, very dark film that deals with mature content. One that promises to dissect the mind of its lead character and place it under a microscope. Judging by what we’ve seen so far, Joker feels very much like an 80s Martin Scorsese picture (Todd Phillips has said that the film is inspired by Scorsese’s King of Comedy and Taxi Driver).
Interestingly enough, it’s directed by Todd Phillips, known for his work on… The Hangover franchise, Due Date and Road Trip. On the surface, the idea of a comedic director helming a serious crime film is a baffling one. An oddest of odd pairings.Then again, Jordan Peele was just the funny guy from Key & Peele and then he made Get Out and Us. John Krasinski was “that dude from The Office,” and then he gave us A Quiet Place. With that in mind, I can’t wait to see what Phillips has crafted here, especially since the screenplay is co-written by Scott Silver of The Fighter.
Supervillain Origin Story
From Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins to the plethora of films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we’ve seen plenty of superhero origin stories in the past. Stories that centre around regular joes (or sometimes billionaire playboys) who find themselves tangled in a web of extraordinary circumstances that propel them into becoming superpowered beings we can all aspire to be. Last year, we even bore witness to an anti-hero origin story in Venom (though, the quicker we forget about that one, the better).
But a comic book supervillain origin story? Not quite. The closest thing we’ve got to that is perhaps in Avengers: Infinity War, where we caught a tiny glimpse of Thanos’ backstory, understood his motivations and felt his relationship with his daughter, Gamora.
Joker promises to be a different beast entirely. This would probably be the first time mainstream cinema (by today’s definition) takes a deep dive into the mind of a man who slowly descends into madness and morphs into a despicable supervillain.
The best villains are never the moustache-twirling ones who are interested in world domination simply because, rather the ones who we as an audience can understand and empathise with. We only have to watch a couple of episodes of Mindhunter to know that even (most) real-world serial killers aren’t born evil — they went through serious psychological trauma as children/adults which pushed them to become the deranged psychopaths that they are. It’s nature vs nurture.
Notice how the opening moments of the Joker trailer shows Arthur Fleck as a regular man making funny faces in a bus to entertain a little kid who’s sitting in front of him. He’s a clown, an entertainer, an aspiring comedian. But a series of events pushes him over the edge and changes him into a ruthless killer known as The Joker. What those events are, we’ll have to wait and see when the movie hits the big screen.
Besides, films like The Godfather and Goodfellas are so captivating because we’re shown the human side of these atrocious beings. We feel for the gangsters and murderers despite knowing that their moral compass is vastly different from ours.
Joaquin Phoenix and a Stellar Supporting Cast
Joaquin Phoenix is perhaps the most exciting thing about this project. When it was first announced that Phoenix was going to play The Joker, I was both aroused and shocked. Aroused because Phoenix is one of the most transformative actors working in world cinema today. He’s one of those performers who every time he walks in front of the camera leaves behind completely the actor and only brings with him the character, often to an unrecognisable degree. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call him the Daniel Day-Lewis of his generation. His chameleonic performances in Her, You Were Never Really Here and The Master will be talked about by film buffs and aspiring actors for decades to come.
Interestingly — and this is where the ‘I’m shocked’ part comes in — Joaquin Phoenix isn’t a very recognisable name outside of the cinephile circle, unlike say, Leonardo DiCaprio. Perhaps it’s because he rarely ever acts in mainstream films that receive wide international releases — his last was probably Gladiator almost 20 years ago. He’s never seen himself as a “movie star,” only an ACTEUR (yes, you’re supposed to read that with a French accent).
Phoenix is known to be exceptionally picky with his roles, so the fact that he actually agreed to act as the titular character of a popular brand immediately lends credibility to the film. So much so that director Todd Phillips actually said:
“The goal was never to introduce Joaquin Phoenix into the comic book movie universe. The goal was to introduce comic book movies into the Joaquin Phoenix universe.”
But it isn’t just Phoenix, it’s the stellar supporting cast as well. The most thrilling of the lot is, of course, Robert De Niro, who if this film was made in the 80s, would’ve been the leading man. These days, the 76-year-old actor spends a lot of his time acting in lighter/comedic films like The Intern and Dirty Grandpa. But in the 70s, 80s and 90s, he was the legendary Martin Scorsese’s go-to guy. From Mean Streets to Taxi Driver, to Raging Bull to Goodfellas to Casino, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro came together to gift us one all-time classic after another, mostly, of the crime genre. Interestingly enough, De Niro was the leading man in The King of Comedy, the film in which Joker is inspired from.
Joker is De Niro’s first venture into the realm of comic book movies and thinking of him having a back and forth with Joaquin Phoenix makes me salivate like a starving puppy. Joining De Niro to round up the supporting cast are the likes of Zazie Beetz (Deadpool), Marc Maron, Frances Conroy and Brett Cullen (The Blacklist) as Thomas Wayne.
Awards, Applauds & Accolades
All that is mentioned above is probably what led to the film receiving huge plaudits at major International Film Festivals. 2019 bore witness to the unprecedented — for the first time ever, a comic book film was screened at the ‘Gala Presentations’ of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The honour went to Joker and to put things into perspective, not even the likes of The Dark Knight and Logan were part of TIFF’s Gala Presentations.
Cameron Bailey, the co-head and artistic director of TIFF said:
“It’s gritty in its look. It has references to Martin Scorsese’s filmmaking and it feels like a cinematic achievement on a high level. Although it’s working with very populist material, it has great ambition.”
Apart from that, Joker reportedly also received an eight-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, before eventually going on to win the festival’s top award: the Golden Lion. Past winners of this award include Roma (which later went on to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination and also won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar), Best Picture Oscar winner The Shape of Water, and The Wrestler.
Official synopsis of Joker:
Director Todd Phillips Joker centres around the iconic arch nemesis and is an original, standalone fictional story not seen before on the big screen. Phillips’ exploration of Arthur Fleck, who is indelibly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, is of a man struggling to find his way in Gotham’s fractured society. A clown-for-hire by day, he aspires to be a stand-up comic at night…but finds the joke always seems to be on him. Caught in a cyclical existence between apathy and cruelty, Arthur makes one bad decision that brings about a chain reaction of escalating events in this gritty character study.
Joker is set to hit Malaysian cinemas on 3 October 2019.