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In the wake of the blockbuster success achieved by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Hollywood fell in love with a three word phrase: “Dark and Gritty.” Working to determine what it was about the film that made it such a hit, many in the industry concluded that it was the more serious tone and tormented protagonist that audiences loved, and it wound up propagating a new tentpole philosophy. It directly influenced not just the future of DC Comics adaptations, but also titles like Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man and Dean Israelite’s Power Rangers, taking what were once bright and colorful characters, and splashing them with real world cynicism.
“Dark and Gritty,” however, was a misreading of what made The Dark Knight special. It’s not that Nolan’s feature was more serious than the typical comic book blockbuster of the time, but rather that it didn’t allow itself to be simply qualified as a “superhero movie.” It helped re-contextualize what a big screen story about a masked vigilante could be. It took all of the classic elements that have been in the source material for decades, and applied a cinematic language in a way that audiences had never seen before – with Michael Mann’s heist hit Heat being a particularly important reference point. The marriage created an entirely new and exhilarating experience.
Fortunately, this wasn’t an analysis that was totally lost on the entirety of the filmmaking world, as it too, albeit less broadly, was influential in the following years. While “Dark and Gritty” became buzzword jargon that fueled a number of underwhelming releases, in the decade-plus since The Dark Knight we have also seen phenomenal works like Joe and Anthony Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier (which borrowed from 1970s conspiracy thrillers like Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor), and James Mangold’s Logan (which targeted the neo-western energy of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven). These are releases that stand out as not just extensions of their respective brands, but legitimately impressive cinematic achievements.
It’s from this same school that we now have Todd Phillips’ Joker – and once again both comic book fans and cinephiles are delivered something exceptional. This time around it’s the world of Batman’s most famous antagonist being matched with the atmospheric intensity of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy, and while the approach and subject matter come part and parcel with a natural and profound unpleasantness, they also provides a foundation for a compelling and rattling character study that presents the titular villain in a light unlike anything seen from a past incarnation.
Though it trades in ambiguity, with its lead providing an entirely unreliable perspective, and the story regularly asking you to question the presented reality, Joker offers its own take on what an origin story for the Clown Prince Of Crime might be. It’s entirely unconcerned with any pre-existing canon, and posits its own narrative with the introduction of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). His world is a grungy, filthy Gotham City reminiscent of late 1970s/early 1980s New York, he works at a clown-for-hire agency, and lives in a horrific apartment building with his touched, frail mother, Penny (Frances Conroy).
Though Arthur has aspirations of becoming a stand-up comedian, he is hampered by a number of mental issues, including an emotional disturbance that causes uncontrollable fits of laughter. He’s a misfit who tries hard, and is regularly beaten down by the world around him, both metaphorically and literally. But he is also a narcissistic personality who fantasizes constantly about the spotlight and gaining the attention of the world – particularly on the stage of his favorite late night show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).
When he finds himself at the end of his rope, everything changes through the events of one night, as a violent assault morphs into a triple homicide. It’s a crime that has the unintended consequence of sparking a class warfare powder keg in Gotham, and while nobody has a clue that Arthur is responsible, he quietly revels in the attention. As the city spirals out of control, aspiring mayor and billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) calling for civility as protesters dressed as clowns swarm government buildings, so does Arthur as he tries to define his new identity.
It is because the protagonist trajectory in Joker runs entirely contrary to tradition that the movie is so unnerving and disturbing – but, frankly, that just means it’s doing what it’s supposed to do telling a story about this notorious character. We may feel some sympathy for Arthur at the start of this story as he is mugged and beaten on the street, only then to be demeaned by his boss for it, but that compassion disappears as his distorted priorities become more apparent, and his moral code slips further and further out of whack.
Movies in general, let alone those adapted from stories about superheroes and supervillains, aren’t typically built with the intention of generating hateful disgust toward their eponymous leads, but the emotional way it’s orchestrated through this narrative is downright impressive, and casts thought-provoking new light on a character we all think we know intimately.
The X factor, of course, is Batman – who Joker ultimately reveals as a kind of storytelling safety net. When the Caped Crusader is around there is a part of all of us that can enjoy the chaotic nihilism of the demented clown because we know that there is a hero that will eventually capture him and lock him up in Arkham Asylum. But Todd Phillips’ movie isn’t set during that part of the classic timeline. Thomas Wayne is still alive and well, and Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson) hasn’t even hit double digits yet. There is nobody around that can stop the Joker, and that environment reveals him for what he truly is: a terrifying, horrific nightmare of a human being.
It’s a radical interpretation that requires a transformative, thoroughly committed performance, and it’s remarkable to see Joaquin Phoenix take this role and play it as though he were the first actor to ever take it on (and in a way, he is). Arthur is both manic and often inappropriately externalizes his emotions, but Phoenix takes what might have been a turn filled with over-swings, and makes it all feel disturbingly natural. It’s a tightrope walk, as it’s a portrayal that’s always teetering on the edge of going to big, but the actor never ceases to give each moment just the right amount of gas. Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin wouldn’t be the same without Robert De Niro, and this Joker wouldn’t be the same without Joaquin Phoenix.
It’s a compelling character reinvention, but Todd Phillips also deserves recognition for his reinvention of the story’s classic setting, with his vision of Gotham standing in sharp relief of the same city portrayed by Christopher Nolan or Tim Burton. Leaning into the Scorsese influences, the movie makes danger feels ever-present on these streets, everyone is on edge and aggressive, and you can practically smell the must that seeps from the asphalt. It’s an unwelcoming and oppressive environment that not just enraptures the audience in its atmosphere, but also lets you understand the madness and depression of the characters that can't escape it.
Joker is bound to be the subject of controversy upon its release, but it’s a controversy that it invites by leaving a great deal open for interpretation. Everybody is going to have their own moment where they view Arthur going one step past "the line." Everybody is going to have their own take on what’s real, and what’s fantasy. Everybody is going to have their own particular political read. And then all of those opinions are going to flip when the movie is screened a second time. You’ll definitely feel like you’ll need a shower after seeing it, but once you’ve dried off and changed clothes, you’ll want to do nothing else but parse and dissect it.