“Why aren’t you laughing?” asks the clown prince of crime at the climax of Alan Moore’s seminal 1988 Batman comic, The Killing Joke. For a split second, his monstrous worldview is exposed for the sham it really is, with a sudden attack from Batman acting as a physical manifestation of the Joker’s own doubts. In Joker, Todd Phillips’ new origin story for Arkham’s most famous inmate, there is never any doubt in the Joker’s mind - nor the screenplay, from Phillips and Scott Silver - that his actions are 100% justified; that his crimes and misdemeanours are not only right, but actively the fault of society.
In a move that has caused some controversy ever since a version of the script leaked online, this film’s Joker (real name Arthur Fleck) is drawn not from the vat of chemicals-induced madness of movie notoriety, but from the cloistered loner ‘nice guy’ of current web culture. Fleck is much more likely to be found on a 4chan forum than the seediest depths of the criminal underworld. As the film is set in 1981 (peppered with associated era paraphernalia and kicked off by that decade’s version of the Warner Bros. logo), Arthur Fleck has no internet - his mouthpiece is rising mob mentality in a Gotham City on the brink of collapse.
Trump-ish Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) sits in his ivory tower as rubbish piles up on the city streets, and a state of emergency is declared. Arthur (saddled with a condition that causes bouts of involuntary laughter) spends his days as an advertising clown, his nights caring for his sick mother, and his dreams chasing a career in stand-up comedy like his idol, talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).
Beyond the supposed moral panic surrounding Arthur’s incel-like rise from disregarded loner to mass murderer, the real problem at the cold, black heart of Phillips’ film is bat-shaped. The Joker has always served as the antithesis, the flip-side, the ‘look what you could have become’ of Bruce Wayne, and in setting out to make a Joker myth without the Caped Crusader as central antagonist, the filmmakers have rather shot themselves in the clown-shoed foot. There’s no use simply pitting Arthur against the rest of society, as it just exposes him as another crazed killer - with no deathly-serious, brooding Batman to incubate that deliberately bright, sing-song aesthetic, what identifies him as the Joker?
Well, in the case of Phillip and Scott’s screenplay, it’s the Thomas Wayne-centric premise and a crowbarring-in of key Bat-lore; a movement so misjudged that it repeats the one honking error of Tim Burton’s 1989 franchise-kickstarter. A shame, because Joaquin going wacko is irrepressibly watchable. Phoenix plays Arthur with a laugh like a barely-suppressed dry heave, smiling his way through trembling lips and chipped teeth. His skin-and-bone, Travis Bickle body (Joker’s influences are more Scorsese than Nolan) is an uncomfortable sight, with the glory of such a performance undercut by the copious amounts of obsessively unhealthy method-acting dreck he supposedly went through to deliver it.
Phoenix’s screen-stealing turn aside, the only element that will surely stand the test of time are certain moments which seem set up purely for endless future appearances as reaction GIFs. Expect to see Arthur’s plaintive “I forgot to punch out” before landing a heavy blow on the punch-card box appearing as a poorly-looped animation on your social media feed for the next half-decade. The only moment this critic felt was appropriate for repetition was Marc Maron (in a role so small that even ‘cameo’ puts too fine a spin on it) miming ‘“cut it out”.
A memorable selection of ‘funny’ moments in a film about a man who finds his true calling in gunning down innocents may not inspire - as many reports have feared - actual violence by self-entitled loners, but it will turn up on their internet message boards. For all the real-word allusions, the philosophy of this joker is paper-thin, with the extent of his ‘madness’ amounting to doing a silly dance in a bathroom stall because shooting some jocks gave him a purpose. It’s as subtle as Jared Leto’s ‘Damaged’ tattoo from Suicide Squad, and about as clever.
When the film finally becomes bored of projecting this willowy veil of genuine psychology (a mockery with which The Killing Joke’s Joker would sympathise), it just goes for a monologue from Phoenix, delivered to a cryostatic De Niro. There’s a closing tribute shot to Heath Ledger’s immortal backseat police car jaunt from The Dark Knight (cinematographer Lawrence Sher reveals wonderful and previously undiscovered skill with grain and focus), but it serves only to highlight this reboot’s shortcomings. Phillips’ version of Joker reads as a made-up origin story that Ledger’s chaotic clown would cut from his act for being too vapid, vain and leaden: “Why so serious?”
Joker is out in the UK from Friday October 4th