The Joker, Batman's arch-foe, is easily the most storied supervillain that exists, and even Superman's enemy Lex Luthor isn't in his league. The character has been depicted on screen by Jack Nicholson, and the late Heath Ledger won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role, the only such Academy Award recognition for a superhero film.
Those films, of crusaders whether caped or uncaped, have multiplied into a mega-industry but those varied universes are now being expanded with a movie that dedicates itself to the Other.
The early acclaim for this project has been startling: Winning the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival. As it premiered in North America at the Toronto International Film Festival, it came with a baggage of expectations.
Director Todd Phillips, known for helming The Hangover, doesn't disappoint with this version of the Joker, played with a sense of mania by Joaquin Phoenix. This isn't a Las Vegas stag romp, but a gradual unfolding of a broken life in Gotham, a city of chaos shrouded in grim gloom and establishes a backstory for the baddest of clowns.
Joaquin Phoenix plays the title role in the film Joker, which had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival after winning the top award at the Venice film festival. (TIFF)
The Joker, we are informed, was born Arthur Fleck, raised by a single ailing mother, and himself afflicted with mental illness and a neurological quirk that makes him laugh crazily. Essentially, what Phillips does is establish Fleck as the victim: Fired from his beloved job of a clown, he fails as a standup comedian and suffers from hallucinations that take him deeper into darkness.
Phoenix is phenomenal as the character: Emaciated, always appearing to be on the verge of a psychotic episode. As his angst turns him into slaying three privileged men on the subway, he is celebrated by some as a vigilante as those killings underline the void between the elite and the deprived. Rioters wearing clown masks become his fan club, making mayhem on the streets. In its second hour, that element becomes increasingly pronounced, The Joker as an antihero, a beacon for the angry hordes in their rampage against the establishment. Phillips version is ultimately about the arrival of the King of Anarchy, the clown to be crowned. There are glimpses of his future, as in his encounter with the boy Bruce Wayne, who will grow into his nemesis. And it connects the Joker to the Batman backstory of the murder of his parents.
But, there are no superhero moments through the film. The weapons Fleck wields are a simple pistol and scissors, the entire film is grounded and human. Phoenix aces the role, a man driven, perhaps, into an insane misanthropy. The 44-year-old should be among the early favourites for the Best Actor at the Oscars next year.
This standalone feature subverts the superhero genre, that bloated behemoth of the cinematic world, and even though set in the past, echoes the disoriented rage of these times.