Of all the things technical and cinematic that get compromised in bringing comic book concepts and stories to the big screen, one that maintains its vigour and novelty is its characters. What has defined characters in the history of fiction and writing are their choices. A maniac criminal with a sickening sense of morality, one who didn’t have anything to lose looked like a mystery unsolvable yet potentially stoppable in 2008. The all-wise Alfred couldn’t reason it to us as well, for all he simply said: “Some men just want to watch the world burn”. Heath Ledger’s Joker was an extreme of the social experiment that is Gotham. The Dark Knight was a case study.
In Todd Philips’ Joker, the study is the maniac himself. Arthur Fleck — a dress-up clown who works his shifts outside shops and in children’s hospitals, repeatedly bullied for all reasons — a morally crippled society, out of which some can be reasoned as a result of his condition of uncontrollable laughter at the tightest of moments. Despite him being at the wrong end of avoidable violent encounters and moments of respite and utter bluntness, he still aims to make it as a stand-up comedian, for in his beliefs lies the specific notion of bringing a smile to faces — you know the usual.
But this is the effort you make as an audience. Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker has his own ideas of objective correctness. One third into the movie, rationality isn’t even a choice. We are set to suspend our beliefs, for this is his world — darker and consistent with its manipulations. Such is the character-driven narrative, that direction, magnitude and even speed of our foray is teased through Arthur’s invoked emotions from the reel world environment it is based in. No situation supersedes our character. For Joker isn’t necessarily a movie about action than of reactions. It is a movie of those solo dances, laughter, whispers, and screams, which are so righteously incorporated that the very incorporation seems ironically pre-destined.
Joaquin Phoenix has stamped his authority on creativity. In a two-hour acting master class where he gets time to smile and cries like a veteran tennis player in a game with a schoolboy — drops, lobs and the final forehand — all in control of our anti-hero. The trick is, not to make a pencil disappear, but to clarify that we don’t need justifications for his actions, rather we need foundations for his perspectives — something Joker, the movie, pulls off gradually.
The timelessness of this movie is a difficult question to answer, or even be repeatedly asked in the first place. The writing gets shallow, for although it does wonderfully in its motive of laying the stairs between Arthur and Joker, other characters and some aspects are just lazily done. Small inconsistencies bear no harm to an adaptation of this quality and the climax it dared to achieve and realise, but both time and further universe exploration movies might support the opposite.
Despite originating from a world of bats and aliens, Joker revolts as a social commentary. Phoenix takes the credit for producing the intimacy that he did, both in action and in reaction. Beautiful visuals in bits and pieces of art and artists — from the background score to the very paint on Arthur’s face — made sure you kept reminding yourself of the uniqueness of this universe. A character possessive of his own self is an iterating learning device. He watches and remembers, questions but has already fed himself with a logic. Fittingly, the only time he wants an answer, he asks: “Is it just me or is it getting crazy out there?”