Comic book heroes may possess an immutable timelessness, their virtues more or less the same through the decades.
But every generation has its own Joker — camp or callous, twisted or fey.
This is the “Joker” America deserves, here and now. He is a villain of the dispossessed, a bad guy — like X-Men’s Holocaust survivor Magneto — with a legitimate beef with the world.
Joaquin Phoenix and co-writer/director Todd “The Hangover” Phillips give us a equal parts raging id and on-the-spectrum, a broken, beaten-down man in an angry age and a mental health patient abandoned by a system bankrupted by tax-cuts-for-the-rich politicos, the sort of ticking bomb NRA apologists like to say “slipped through the cracks.”
Repellently violent, intimately epic and powered by a performance so absorbed, hurt, confused and just “out there” that it makes everything that’s come before it in the genre just a vamp in tights, “Joker” turns every previous film in this justly maligned genre into “just a cartoon.”
Damn. There’s an Oscar in this.
Phoenix, gaunt to the point where his features are a grotesque skull on a skeletal body, is Arthur Fleck, a Gotham clown-for-hire, spinning “Everything Must Go” signs, until street punks steal the sign and pummel him for wanting it back, putting on a song and dance for a children’s hospital until the moment his innate weirdness — he laughs, uncontrollably, at stress and tragedy, and has a laminated card that explains this to strangers on the street and on the subway — gets him fired from that.
His invalid mother (Frances Conroy) always lectured him that “I was put here to spread joy and laughter.” But his stand-up act is the anchoring delusion of a life built on them.
What kind of comic can’t finish a joke or a thought without breaking into chillingly maniacal giggles? Aside from Jimmy Fallon?
He can fantasize about the gorgeous young mother (Zazie Beetz) who lives down the hall, about getting his big break from celebrated talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro, taking “King of Comedy” in full circle).
But Arthur is just a guy on seven medications, incapable of responding to any threat with anything more than gasping laughter in a 1980ish metropolis covered in grime, greed and graffiti.
Until that fateful day, that is, his Bernard Goetz moment. That the victims are Wall Street (or whatever its Gotham equivalent is) thugs is a tipping point moment in a city and society looted by the imperious rich, bursting at the seams with the struggling working poor, the disadvantaged, the mentally ill abandoned by “the system.”
Arthur’s act is “V for Vendetta” scary — to the one percent. The ruling class of millionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and his oligarchic ilk are rather like the folks fearing the “violence” this film could inspire. This is “The Dark Knight” origin as seen from the point of view of someone not a privileged vigilante.
If there’s violence inspired by “Joker,” it won’t be on theaters. It’ll be in brokerages, privacy-stealing tech firms and corners of corrupt crony capitalism.
Maybe put extra guards on anything named “Trump.”
“The worst part about having mental illness,” Arthur decides, “is people expecting you to behave as if you don’t.”
When the man the world has ignored lashes out, off his meds, armed and in his best clown makeup, the world has to notice.
Top flight character actors Bill Camp and Shea Whigham are cops hunting for the clown who killed three guys who had it coming on the subway.
Marc Maron plays the late night show producer who sees more menace in this failed-comic/object of fun than his host (DeNiro). Glenn Fleshler is a fellow clown of dubious “friendly” motives.
But this is Joaquin’s show, our most dangerous actor going to the most dangerous places in a DC Comics film that so transfuses the genre as to make the entire Marvel canon seem like piffle, or at the very least, fluff.
And if everybody who knows any bit of “Batman” lore knows where this is going, if the violence crosses the “repellent” line into gratuitous, if the Chaplin references (“Modern Times,” and his song “Smile”) and Sinatra notes do little to dress up an ugly age referencing an earlier ugly age, that’s all of a piece.
“Joker” is the anti-hero the movies want, crave and must have right now, the Joker this generation deserves.
MPAA Rating: R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Bill Camp and Shea Whigham
Credits: Directed by Todd Phillips, script by Todd Phillips, Scott Silver. A Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 2:01