Joaquin Pheonix succeeded in delivering what may be the most emotionally-taxing and anxiety-inducing delves into the mental darkness that is one of DC’s most celebrated and evil minds to stand against Batman.
But I wish this movie hadn’t been about the Joker. I will explain.
If you are not familiar with the history of the Joker, or the character’s origin story, I am envious toward your lack of knowledge. For you, this will potentially be one of the most engaging, well-acted pieces of dark cinema out there.
But regarding my experience, I know who the Joker is, about his origins, and who he always has been. So for me, I struggled with the story.
I didn’t struggle to enjoy the film. I genuinely enjoyed the dark twists and turns of the movie, mirrored by the twisting and turning of Pheonix’s body, wrought with outrage, agony, and despair.
All of the outrage and despair in the movie felt by Phoenix is held up to a dark mirror’s reflection come to life in a frighteningly unsettled high-pitched frantic laugh of Arthur Fleck. This is the essence of the film’s mastery.
But even with what I considered to be a masterful performance by Phoenix, I struggled with yet another attack on an origin of the comic villain I grew up with.
Before I wrote this review, I wanted to revisit the origin of the Joker, as my childhood memories weren’t that available with simple recall. Thus, I researched, I dove back into the history of the Joker and was reminded once again that my instincts were right, and for that, some things in the movie didn’t work for me.
Like I said, if I didn’t know who the Joker was, this would be likely in my top 10 all-time favorite movies. That is saying a lot because I have watched too many to count over the years.
This movie isn’t about Batman (Thank God) as I have never been impressed with any of DC’s Batman movies, not really ever. I did think Jack Nicholson nailed the comic side of the Joker. It was as if I had opened up a comic book and Nicholson had jumped up out of the pages in all the Joker's colorful comic book glory.
But Joker, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Pheonix is different in every aspect. Pheonix’s portrayal of the comic book villain was much darker. Heath Ledger and Jared Leto, for all their discarded inhibitions, were not able to dive into the depths reached by Phoenix.
Phoenix took me on his journey. I felt his pains, his agonies, his desperation in a sensical way that gestured for me to understand his ultimate choices that would change the rest of his life.
He led me down the frightening world of doing something anxiously disturbing. I was empathizing with a serial killer. I understood him.
This led me to question whether or not we as people might make similar choices if we were subjected to the horrible situations experienced by Arthur Fleck.
But here’s where the storyline gets in the way. Arthur Fleck, for all of his downfalls; a struggling wannabe comedian, a below-average clown-for-hire and a near illiterate writer, I just couldn’t buy that Fleck would have struggled to spell certain words and mixup something such as “cents” versus “sense.”
Here my knowledge of the Joker’s origins get in the way. In the comics, the Joker has been a massively troubling thorn in the city of Gotham. His knowledge of chemical compounds and chemistry allowed him to create his deadly “Joker venom,” a compound that would kill his victims while leaving them with a ghastly large smile on their faces as they died.
This film’s Joker, a man who struggled to spell certain words, led me to question his ability to make deadly poisons, a joy buzzer with a deadly amount of electricity to kill unsuspecting victims or a practical joke flower with deadly poison.
But all said, I managed to put aside my reservations in order to enjoy the film.
But I do grieve regularly as I watch the dizzying plethora of superhero and supervillain movies hit the big screen. The origins of my favorite comic book characters should be much more sacred. But directors, writers and producers seem to dismiss these histories with abandon.
I loved this movie. It was incredibly dark, and the performance by Phoenix was Oscar-worthy. It really was that good.
But I can’t imagine how I would have felt if the origin of the Joker, and Bruce Wayne for that matter, was held intact.
But more than anything, I think this is the biggest win for the DC Universe, which in my view has continued to struggle up against the slew of hero and villain movies.
I also wish they would have made Joker long before DC had ever even considered making any of their sadly underwhelming Batman movies
Follow the #NativeNerd, Vincent Schilling, associate editor for Indian Country Today
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Vincent Schilling is a certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes https://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/vincent-schilling/movies
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