We live in the golden age of cinematic superhero universes. The Avengers assemble on screen to combat Thanos (Josh Brolin), while Spider-Man ventures across the pond and banks north of $1 billion at the box office. We have gotten used to what to expect from a comic book film… and then along comes JOKER.
Todd Phillips brought his controversial but award-winning JOKER to the Toronto International Film Festival, showing off an uncharacteristically dark DC Comics film that doesn’t fit into any pattern of superhero flicks. For one thing, there are no superheroes in it. This is a Joker movie, but his archnemesis, Batman, is nowhere to be seen, allowing Phillips (THE HANGOVER, WAR DOGS) the freedom to explore the twisted back story of Gotham’s clown prince.
Gotham, especially, looks very different in JOKER — much different than any version of the classic DC city that we have seen on screen before. Phillips lifts inspiration from some recognizable 1970s films, including THE FRENCH CONNECTION and MEAN STREETS, when building the broken-down version of Batman’s hometown.
But he also borrows heavily from two movies in Martin Scorsese’s catalog: TAXI DRIVER and THE KING OF COMEDY. The former, especially, creates a bleak and dirtied city landscape that Phillips eagerly drops his Joker into.
So, we have a superhero movie that focuses on a villain and is set in a crumbling city with no hope in sight. But does it work? You better believe it, so long as you know what to expect out of a dark and mature movie known as JOKER. The running joke in the DC universe is that the Joker has no real origin. Batman tries to get to the center of his lunatic foe, but the villain’s lack of back story makes him a mysterious puzzle who remains unsolved.
Todd Phillips has ideas of where his Joker comes from and more than a few tricks up his storytelling sleeve, but we will leave them for you to learn when you grab tickets and see this one in a theatre.
Of course, the selling point of this offbeat drama is the casting of Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role. And like LOGAN (another comic book drama that went dark and allowed its cast to actually explore complicated issues), JOKER becomes a fascinating character study of a man who buckles under the weight of an oppressively dark society. There’s a famous line in the Batman comics when it comes to the Joker: It only takes one bad day to push a man over the edge of sanity. In JOKER, we witness that bad day.
Again, this is not your usual comic book movie. For one thing, it’s rated R for very good reasons. But JOKER is the latest in a growing line of unexpected movies based on superhero characters who show where this genre can go when a filmmaker is trusted to take bold swings with traditional material. This is an unforgettable experience and a version of the Joker we have never see on screen before.
See for yourself when JOKER opens in theatres on October 4.