The underwhelming financial results of “Justice League” led to some reorganisation of the Warner Bros. DC Comics on film section. The first thing that changed was the whole film universe idea:
„Our intention, certainly, moving forward is using the continuity to help make sure nothing is diverging in a way that doesn’t make sense, but there’s no insistence upon an overall storyline or interconnectivity in that universe”. (Diane Nelson)
The implementation of the strategy could be observed in “Wonder Woman”, which subtly alluded to “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, but otherwise was a separate story you could follow without knowing the previous films. There’s another merit of this attitude — it allows relevant artistic freedom, and the creators do not have to follow any pattern set by previous directors. “Wonder Woman”, “Aquaman” and “Shazam!” are different when it comes to tone and aesthetics but, at the same time, they can exist in the same eco-system.
The changes in the process also led to HR reorganisation. Jon Berg resigned from the position of DC on film supervisor and was replaced by Walter Hamada. It wasn’t a coincidental choice as Hamada is a very successful producer ( “It”, “The Conjuring” universe) and is very careful when selecting projects, making sure that their budget is not too risky. Hamada brought Chantal Nong, who supervised “The Meg” and “Crazy Rich Asians”, on board. They have both been choosing projects that allude to a greater universe but working as standalone films too.
During these behind-the-scenes movements, a project was born, however, that tells a completely separate story. Todd Phillips’s “Joker”, because that’s what the project came to be, was supposed to be a first in a series of films which, similarly to comic books’ Elseworlds or DC Black Label, was supposed to be a story where creators were completely free to do anything. Todd Phillips (known for his “The Hangover” trilogy), unrestricted by Jared Leto’s depiction of the character, could prepare a script and make a film about a different Joker. A film, where he decided to delve into the villain’s origins and discover what made him mad. The effect? An unconventional comic book film which is closer to the 70s character studies than to the colourful CGI spectacles. Is “Joker” any good though?
WRITING THE STORY
Joker’s screenplay was written by Todd Phillips whom I mentioned before and Scott Silver, the co-author of “Fighter” and “The Finest Hours”. But that was only its first version as it later underwent numerous changes on set. Phillips gathered the cast and the crew in his trailer, where they refined certain scenes. The reason they did it was not only to make the best script possible but also to record as much material as possible. And this was because Joaquin Phoenix, the actor who played the Joker, lost a lot of weight for the role, making later reshoots virtually impossible. Improvisation also came into play. When Phoenix felt the character would not behave in a way that was scripted, he experimented, which Phillips gladly used.
Of course, you have to be careful with such on-the-fly changes. In “Joker”, however, they worked like a charm. Although the screenplay has its flaws, the story you watch unravel on screen is coherent and — when it comes to that factor — it would be hard to imagine its better version. And to think that the idea to make “Joker” came from… vanity. Todd Phillips, who had thought that comic book films were too loud, came out of the premiere of his “War Dogs” and saw a billboard for a new superhero film (probably “Suicide Squad”). “I won’t win the audiences with ‘War Dogs’”, he thought. “What do people really want to watch?” And in that moment, when he was looking at the billboard and thinking about the character studies from the 70s, a lamp appeared above his head: “What if I take today’s trend, a comic-book film, and mix it with my nostalgic memory of the past, the character study? Make a film in this forgotten genre but about a comic-book character?”
This vanity-filled thinking makes sense. Nowadays, when the film industry makes superhero films carbon copies of one another (with exceptions, of course), this kind of a new attitude is welcome. Especially that comic books, even the superhero ones, are not simply pulp, mass entertainment but very often they could be called “something more”. Look no further than one of the most important comic book about the Joker, “The Killing Joke”, which certainly is “something more”. No wonder the killing clown seemed a good character to study for Phillips.
With Silver, Phillips decided to look into the comic books and borrow some themes but not adapt any of them specifically. The biggest inspiration was the aforementioned ”Killing Joke”. The writers took the “Joker as a stand-upper” and “Joker as an unreliable narrator” plot points from there. Then, they added other elements from the 80-year history of the villain, including some allusions to Batman (Bruce’s family and one important moment from his life are both in the film). But the comic books weren’t the only source of inspiration.Ssuch films as “The Man Who Laughs” (it is worth noting that this Victor Hugo’s adaptation also served as an inspiration for Bill Finger and Bob Kane when they created the Joker) and Martin Scorsese’s character studies such as “Taxi Driver” or “The King of Comedy” were equally important.
That’s how Arthur Fleck, a man struggling with mental and neurological disorders and rejected by society and the system, came to be. Such characters are always a risk. It is because of their depiction in pop culture that mental diseases are stigmatised today. A character as popular among the people all over the world as the Joker is also part of the problem. The writers had to approach the subject subtly, so as not to say that a mentally ill person is automatically a killer. Choosing a character study as the genre for the film was a great choice to do it in a nuanced way.
Fleck is a complex character, who is rejected in almost every way. Firstly, he comes from a lower social class and his financial situation is rather tough. That’s how the writers try to delicately suggest the problem of social inequalities caused by capitalism. They do this in numerous ways: by introducing Thomas Wayne who disregards the poor, by setting the film right before the mayoral election and by talking about growing social unrest and protests. It, of course, could be explored in a greater capacity, but you have to remember the writers treated the subject as a background because the main character himself was more important to them.
Secondly, Fleck is rejected because of his condition. His neurological disorder makes him burst out laughing at the most inappropriate moments. It leads to many unpleasant situations where it’s met with extreme reactions. The disorder itself is an interesting reimagining of one of the most important features connected with the Joker — his maniacal laughter.
Besides the neurological problems, Arthur also struggles with his psyche. He is suffering from depression, some of his behaviours suggest he is on the autism spectrum and the inclination towards fantasising hints at him being removed from reality. This last feature is also reflected in the narration. It’s difficult to say what happens only in Fleck’s mind and what happens for real. Sometimes, the writers do offer unambiguous answers, but sometimes they only suggest things, which is later emphasised by the director (for example, the clocks in the film often show the same time). Phillips himself says:
“There’s a lot of ways you could look at this movie. You could look at it and go, ‘This is just one of his multiple-choice stories. None of it happened.’ I don’t want to say what it is. But a lot of people I’ve shown it to have said, ‘Oh, I get it — he’s just made up a story. The whole movie is the joke. It’s this thing this guy in Arkham Asylum concocted. He might not even be the Joker’”.
“This movie requires a certain amount of participation from the audience. It’s up to you how you want to interpret it and experience it. It’s less you being kind of presented with the facts than you being presented with these possibilities”, adds Phoenix.
Arthur’s rejection and the fact that life doesn’t treat him kindly (he’s constantly laughed at and attacked, and the free therapy program, which was supposed to help him manage his problems, gets cancelled) finally lead to a crack. The moment when he says “Enough!” could be read as a sort of warning. Not that every person with problems will finally do something violent but rather that the growing inequalities, prejudices and hate can lead to a tragedy. In the film, this tragedy is represented as a burst of aggression, but in reality, it can, of course, have a broader dimension.
Right before the “Joker” was released, some people accused the creators of celebrating the incel culture, an Internet subculture of misogynist “involuntary virgins” who are outraged because they’re not desired by any woman. It should be clearly said, however, that “Joker” is not about an incel. It’s also not about a terrorist who jumps into a crowd with a gun and shoots people because of any ideology. And it also isn’t a celebration or fetishisation of mindless violence. Yes, we are supposed to understand the character and empathise with him on a level. At the same time, however, the creators dissociate themselves from him and show him in a negative light. The story is written in such a way that the viewer knows why Fleck crosses the line and that they know THAT he crosses it; that he himself did something evil. And that’s the most important message of the film, right next to the social one: evil is born out of evil. And although the writers aren’t as successful in telling: “fight evil with good”, maybe this is because they see the world in a pessimistic way where good won’t save us all but only those who are good. The story itself is also pessimistic and the viewer gets this feeling it won’t end well from the very beginning. And when it ends, you don’t want to return to it. Not because it’s bad but because it hits you hard.
To be honest, when they first announced who is going to direct the “Joker” film, I had mixed feelings about it. The project itself seemed really fascinating to me (especially because it was not supposed to be interconnected with the other DC films) and Martin Scorsese as a producer (who later resigned…) had my interest but I didn’t expect very much from Phillips. He is a man who can do solid and entertaining but also kind of silly and not-that-thoughtful comedies (“The Hangover”). There was no guarantee that he could pull off something more serious. Well, I’m glad my fears were not well-founded.
Phillips stuck to all the principles he also adhered to when he was writing the script. This was supposed to be a film grounded in reality, opposite of a typical superhero cinema. Instead of explosions, spectacular battles and a lot of visual effects, the director wanted an intimate, insightful portrait of a character existing in a mundane, depressing world.
For instance, the realism can be seen in his approach to Gotham City. In various film incarnations, the city had many different forms: Burton’s dark metropolis filled with gothic buiuldings, Schumacher’s campy futuristic city, Nolan’s amalgam of American cities and Snyder’s dark counterpart to Superman’s Metropolis. Phillips decided to come back to Gotham’s roots. Having remembered that the Batman’s creators were inspired by New York he made his Gotham City a copy of this big American city. The depressing streets and housing estates are reminiscent of New York’s poor districts like the Bronx and make the story even more grounded in reality.
That’s a step further than Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Trilogy”. While he also created a fairly realistic world, his reality was flexible and an idea of a vigilante dressed like a bat seemed integral to it. You will not experience this in “Joker” though, or at least not in that capacity. Yes, the reality in Phillips’s film is flexible but it only serves the main character. There is no place for superhero fantasy because Fleck fantasises in a whole different way, by looking at the world through rose-coloured spectacles. It has, however, no negative effect on the realistic or at times even naturalistic aesthetics that the director chose.
A careful viewer will notice Fleck’s fantasies right away because Phillips placed subtle hints in the film. The less careful one will have to wait for a slightly too in-your-face montage. This unambiguity could be seen as the film’s flaw. On the other hand, the director did leave some things for the viewer to speculate about. It could be said that by giving an answer to an important question, he also asks other questions. And those are not as easily answered. Thus the film makes you think and look for the hints hidden on the screen.
Phillips was inspired by Scorsese not only when it comes to the plot but also aesthetics. Some critics go as far as to accuse him of being a mere copyist. And while there are a lot of ”Taxi Driver” like frames in “Joker”, it would be unfair to tell that the film is only a carbon copy. While similar thematically and visually, “Joker” certainly has got its own identity. It mainly results from the close cooperation between the director, the cast and the crew. Films are, of course, always a result of teamwork but here, it ran deeper than usual, which I mentioned when writing about the script. Phillips was very open to suggestions. He let his actors — Phoenix especially — improvise. A lot of solutions were sought after on the set and it resulted in really good scenes like the one in public restroom, right after the tragic events in Gotham subway.
Philips’s openness could also be seen when he prepared Phoenix for the role. He didn’t limit his imagination and didn’t tell him to research any specific mental illness. Thanks to this kind of liberty there were many opportunities for improvisation which the director gladly took.
DISAPPEARING INTO THE CHARACTER
I started talking about Phoenix’s improvisations so it’s time to dig deeper. Since I can remember, Phoenix has always been this amazing actor who can transform from an evil emperor to a cool rapper and then to a remorseful killer or even Jesus, and never cease to be credible. His incredible ability to completely disappear into the role was certainly one of the main reason Phillips cast him in the film. And he thought of him as soon as he was writing the script. Apparently, above the computer on which the script was written, Phillips hanged Phoenix’s photo and while he was working on the scenes he thought: „It would be cool to have Phoenix play this and that”. Well, he did but he had to be encouraged for four months.
What ultimately drew him to the project was the creative freedom. He says: “I didn’t refer to any past iterations of the character. It just felt like it was our creation. I think what was so attractive is he’s so hard to define and you don’t really want to define him. There were times I would find I was identifying certain parts of his personality and then I would back away from that because I wanted there to remain a kind of mystery. Every day felt like we were discovering new aspects of the character”. This lack of clear definition is key to Phoenix’s success. He plays a complex, unpredictable character, one that — even after you study him thoroughly — is still a mystery. As he also mentioned, although a radical and sudden physical change could be seen as bait for award-giving associations, it actually helped him feel the character’s madness. And to what came naturally, he tried to give another dimension by researching biographies of political assassins, also those who failed. It’s intriguing because, although the sociopolitical theme does play a role in the film, Fleck is rather a far cry from a typical political assassin. Phoenix could have, however, found there some elements which he deemed integral to his Joker depiction. He himself says that he wanted to create an unrecognisable composite rather than base his performance on any existing person.
Arthur Fleck’s journal, one of the most important props in the film, was also crucial for the role. Its pages are filled with jokes ideas (Fleck is an aspiring stand-uper), but also with some dark thoughts and a complex, depressed person can be found between its lines. Phoenix acts this out incredibly, sometimes in a more literal way (in the therapy scenes, for instance, where he says all he has are negative thoughts) and sometimes indirectly, through movement. Movement is another very important element of the role. Joker dances a lot, in a unique, almost euphoric way. This serves as a contrast to the character’s tormented nature and enriches his portrait with something unique and special. Joker’s dance is an escape from the reality, a sort of solace but it also is disturbing and serves as another suggestion that Fleck has been driven on the verge and lost any sign of mental stability. To better develop this kind of call for help based on scenic movement, Phoenix worked with a choreographer and carefully studied recordings of famous dancers.
Joker is of course synonymous with laughter. As I’ve already mentioned, it was reimagined in Phillips’s film as a neurological disorder. Phoenix researched this as well and watched videos of people with a similar condition. Based on these, he developed his own, unsettling laughter. It’s incredible how he laughs and shows Fleck’s suffering at the same time. Almost every time the character giggles, on his face, you can see the pain and the desire to run away. You need incredible acting abilities to show it as well as Phoenix does. But despite him being the acting axis of the film, you have to say something about the supporting players.
One of them is Frances Conroy. She plays the main character’s mother, with whom he shares her flat. Her interactions with Phoenix are especially worth noticing. You can find many Fleck’s features in his mother. It certainly required close cooperation between the actors who had to draw from each other’s performance. The result is astonishing.
Sophie Dumond, to whom the main character is attracted, is also very important to the story. Zazie Beetz plays this cynical single mother who has a strong presence in some moments but is shown in a superficial, sometimes stereotypical way in other ones. This is, however, justified by the plot. This sort of double role Beetz has to play is a good match for the actress. We believe in her cynism but she is also credible when she starts to open. It is thanks to Beetz that the viewer will fall for the director’s illusion.
To homage the works of Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro appears in the film. His role is an allusion to “The King of Comedy”. However, this time, he is not a failed comedian but a popular showman, whom Fleck fanatically idolises. And maybe that’s why De Niro’s role has been met with critical acclaim — because it is sort of an opposite of what he played in “The King of Comedy”. And yes, this is not a bad role, but it’s not especially memorable either. The actor just appears on the screen from time to time, presenting his showman abilities. It is towards the end of the film when his character has to confront his playfulness with the not-so-playful reality that De Niro gets to shine. Besides that, it’s just a solid role, not an outstanding one.
For Batman’s fans, Bret Cullen’s performance will be something of interest. He had already taken part in a bat-film directed by Christopher Nolan — in “The Dark Knight Rises” he played a congressman Byron Gilley. In “Joker” he took over a role of Thomas Wayne after Alec Baldwin resigned. This Wayne is different from his earlier incarnations. Not a noble doctor but rather a cynical, Machiavellian businessman, he’s almost that universe’s Donald Trump. Cullen has got perfect physiognomy for such roles, which serves as a complement to his acting. The scene when he gets to interact with Joaquin Phoenix is especially interesting. That’s when we see the essence of cynism and privilige of Wayne’s.
A FORM TO FIT THE CONTENT
“Joker’s” cinematography should also be praised. Lawrence Sher, who cooperated with Phillips on “The Hangover” (quite OK cinematography-wise) and shot the visually breathtaking “Godzilla II” last year, was the man behind the camera. He was certainly inspired by Michael Chapman or Fred Schuler but, as with Phillips, it would be unfair to call Sher an imitator. Visually, the “Joker” is astounding: oneiric images in a desaturated colour palette inspired by sodium-vapour lamps constitute an incredible world. Most importantly, however, they reflect Fleck’s personality. One of the examples are the scenes with the stairs. At the beginning of the film, because of slow zoom-ins, the stairs symbolise Fleck’s suffering and the viewers feels like they almost have to climb the stairs with Fleck. Towards the end, however, during the now-famous dance scene, the smooth movements of the camera transform the never-ending steps into a musical decoration with an eerie feel to it.
The film’s editing, although not unflawed, is also solid. Jeff Groth, another one of Phillips’s frequent collaborators, goes for a slow, steady pace. It serves the story well and lets the viewer go as deep into the story as necessary. Interestingly enough, the editor did not always have an easy job because some scenes were shot in a few ways. He had to choose a version which would fit the tone of the story and not derail it. Murray Franklin’s TV show was a unique sequence in that respect. Groth had to edit material shot by TV and film cameras together and properly use the perspective in order to emphasise the scale of these elements. And although Groth sometimes uses cliche solutions, his editing serves the film well and is one of the main reasons the story affects the viewer.
The costumes in the film were designed by Mark Bridges, who worked on “Phantom Thread”, which was a big positive surprise for me. Although there aren’t any fancy dresses or white ties in this film, the costumes help to highlight the main character’s evolution. In the beginning, Fleck wears old, shabby clothes, which perfectly fit the set decorations. The more he is inclined to his dark side, however, the darker clothes he chooses. And when he puts his definitive suit, he wears a green shirt, a gold vest and a maroon jacket, which perfectly contrast with one another. The latter also symbolises blood connected to the character and is an interesting departure from the usual purples associated with the Joker.
Hairstyling and make-up by Nicki Ledermann and Kay Georgiou are also an innovation. Arthur Fleck’s appearance is the closest to a typical clown when compared to Joker’s previous depictions but, at the same time, there is something disturbing about him. As the make-up artist says, according to copyright law, no two clowns can look alike. It was a challenge but the effect is really amazing. Another interesting anecdote was shared by Kay Georgiou. When she was preparing Joker’s hair, she decided to have the hair dye as close as possible to the colour of… broccoli. Literally. It certainly is an interesting shade, which complements Fleck’s look really well.
As I’ve already mentioned, “Joker’s” Gotham City is basically the 70s New York. While scouting for locations, Mark Friedberg (“Selma”) looked for those that would accurately reflect the ambience of those times. It was difficult to find such in the New York itself, so some of the scenes were shot in Jersey City and Newark, which were accordingly rearranged. Even the tiniest details were taken care of: you can see the 70s buses, a lot of graffiti and even the accurate topography of the city. The interiors are also amazing, especially the cramped, dirty Fleck’s flat. All of it roots the story in reality and makes it hit the viewer even harder.
The “Joker’s” score was composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir. Melancholic themes played on halldorophone (an electric cello), gradually complemented by other instruments is an element that reinforces the emotional scale of the film. Guðnadóttir’s tracks are almost hypnotic, which is proven by the final look of some scenes — it was because of the theme written by the composer that Joaquin Phoenix improvised the mesmerising scene in the public restroom.
WHAT I THINK
“Joker” isn’t a masterpiece but it’s also a film you can’t just ignore. It’s a powerful, emotional story, which overwhelms you and makes you think. I want more comic book films like that.