We have talked a lot on this site about the various incarnations of the Joker. The Clown Prince of Gotham is one of the most iconic and well-known comic book villains. So much so that the character has a cult of personality. 2019 saw the release of The Joker, but how did it compare to other epic versions, like the Mark Hamill version from the Arkham series.
He’s got the look
Let’s just start with the aesthetic. This joker is thankfully far more Ledger and far less Leto and that’s no bad thing. Actually, in terms of costume and mannerisms, it feels more like a throwback to Jack Nicholson’s version of the character, but the look is a bit more like Ledger’s Joker with the long, messy hair.
What phoenix has done well is to get himself physically ready for his portrayal. He is painfully skinny and this certainly adds to his mystique. The Joker has always been more cerebral then imposing and making him physically weak is very shrewd. There’s a frailty to this character and that was needed in order for the Joker to carry the movie.
No laughing matter
In terms of this version of Gotham, it is very well done. It isn’t as dark as the versions we have seen before, but it captures the era superbly. The lighting in this film is terrific as it doesn’t rely on making all the shots Burton-esque. This city is grimy and shabby and the lighting helps emphasise that.
However, the tone of the movie is very bleak. This isn’t a modern comic book movie with lots of quips and one-liners. This isn’t a black comedy either. In fact, there’s almost no comic relief at all and in some ways, I feel it needed it. The movie just isn’t particularly fun.
For anyone who has ever written a story, you will know the traditional format. You have a beginning, a middle and an end. A story arch is usually complete when the main character goes through a journey of some sort, often emotional and comes out the other side with a sense of resolution, though not always for the better. This film doesn’t really do that.
It feels one dimensional. Arthur starts off weird and awkward and ends the movie weird and awkward. There is no final battle. There is no “this is how he becomes the joker”, the story has him pretty much like the Joker from the off. This is not a film with the nuance of the Godfather where we see Michael Corleone descend slowly into criminal madness. This comes across as a series of well-shot scenes pasted together in a way that is unsatisfyingly clunky leading to an inconsistent story that doesn’t have a real ending.
While the plot might not be right, the acting is. Phoenix makes the very best of a bad movie with a performance worthy of the character. His performance was always going to be compared to Heath Ledger’s Joker and while it is a very different take, it’s a very strong performance. If anything that just adds to the disappointment. In Joaquin Phoneix they had an actor good enough to nail the role (and he did) with a better screenplay to work with this movie could have been timeless, instead, I was left feeling I’d wasted my time.
There are obviously rumours of a sequel and the performance of Phoenix was strong enough to warrant it. They got the tone right, but a sequel probably needs a slightly quicker pace and a far tighter script. DC needs to start getting movies right and with a few tweaks, a second Joker movie could be very special.