Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Joker

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Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives with his mentally ill mother in Gotham City. He aspires to be a stand-up comedian but can’t seem to get his big break due to his strange sense of humor. Working as a party clown, he gets fired after he is caught bringing a gun to a children’s hospital gig. With a psychological illness that makes him erupt into uncontrollable and maniacal laughter, a simple subway ride turns lethal when a trio of white-collared bullies make fun of him. The incident provokes his downward spiral, descending into a life of crime that is quickly emulated by one too many vigilantes in the city. As Gotham faces an unprecedented rise in its crime rate, Arthur embraces his new persona, introducing himself as the Joker on talk show host Murray Franklin’s (Robert de Niro) TV show. Realizing how his life has been one big joke, he now makes the city realize that the joke is actually on them.

Well, it looks like DC is back to form by embracing what they do best: dark and gritty anti-hero comic book adaptations. Come to think of it, prior to Marvel hogging the Hollywood spotlight, it was Nolan’s Batman trilogy that elevated the genre to greater heights. It was all downhill after that. Wonder Woman was more of a cultural event, while Aquaman downright copied the Marvel formula but got away with it thanks to its amazing visuals. Joker begs to differ and ends up as a legit psychological thriller in the process.

There is nothing more to say about Phoenix’s Joker that hasn’t already been said. It’s the kind of performance that should be winning awards left and right given the layers that this guy offers in the complicated characterization involved. If Ledger can win a well-deserved posthumous Oscar for such a role, then there’s no justice in this world if Phoenix wouldn’t even be nominated. Both have given a different rendition of the character at different points of his life, a coherent before and after portrait that couldn’t get any more nuanced.

Dark and gritty aside, Joker serves as a good origin story not just for the titular role but also for one of DC’s most recognizable characters. Bruce Wayne appears as a young sheltered boy who witnesses the murder of both his parents in a dark alley. It’s not really a spoiler given the many iterations of this scene of Uncle Ben/Spider-Man proportions in various Batman incarnations since he was introduced. It makes you wonder, though, if this is yet another attempt on a rebooted shared cinematic universe. Is Pattinson’s Batman going to be a direct sequel? It’s tricky but, this time around, it might actually work.

Or perhaps DC is better off producing standalone films. Leave the interweaving storylines to Marvel. Joker is screaming for a sequel because everyone who has seen it is probably scratching his head after leaving the cinema wondering which parts of the story were real and which were inside Arthur’s head. That is one of the perks of having an unreliable narrator, you end up with a narrative that is open for free-for-all interpretation. It’s not just a leave-your-brain-at-the-door popcorn flick. It actually makes you think.

Perhaps this is the reason why comic book adaptations that opt for a psychological thriller style of storytelling succeed, because they allow the main character to be peeled of his/her many layers instead of falling into the trap of being the obligatory one-dimensional bad guy. It doesn’t hurt that the movie offers a parallel social commentary that couldn’t be any more timely and significant in today’s society. Maybe that’s also why the film hits a lot of nerves, because it is a fictional glimpse on real-life social dilemmas, and people can totally relate.

Here is hoping that whatever sequel comes will not suffer from the jinx of a sophomore slump. Hopefully, this can be the start of another trilogy that can be on par with Nolan’s the Dark Knight series. If not, then this film will still hold the distinction of being the one responsible for reigniting the flicker of hope for DC’s cinematic universe.

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