The character of The Joker was first introduced to comic book fans in April of 1940, and soon became the top nemesis of Batman. In the world of comic books the Joker was presented as a criminal mastermind, a psychopath, and a goofy prankster with a sadistic take on humor. In the early 1970’s DC turned the Joker back to his darker roots, and has been pivotal in many story lines including the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, and causing the paralysis of Barbara Gordon (Batgirl). Over the years we have been treated to many live-action and animated versions of the Clown Prince of Crime, including the goofy Cesar Romero version from the 1960’s series “Batman”, the 1989 Jack Nicholas version in the big screen “Batman”, “Star Wars” Mark Hamill’s take in “Batman: The Animated Series” from the 1990’s, Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning take from 2008’s “The Dark Knight”, and Jared Leto’s controversial version from the 2016 film “Suicide Squad.” We can now add Joaquin Phoenix to the Joker collection as he stars in the new film “Joker“, directed by Todd Phillips (“War Dogs’). This film is described as a psychological thriller, and is definitely not a typical comic book movie. In other words, don’t expect any Marvel “lightness” in this effort. The origin story in set in the Gotham City of 1981, and the side of the city we see is gritty and dirty. Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a guy who makes a living being a clown, while longing to be a stand-up comedian. Arthur lives in a part of Gotham City that is impoverished, and cares for his ailing mom Penny (Frances Conroy), who was a former employee of the ultra wealthy Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). In the story line, the city is rife with unemployment and crime, only adding to the pre-Batman developing character of the famous fictional city. In addition of his impoverished life, Arthur suffers from a brain disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, causing him to be dependent on medication from social services. The medication helps him control the laughter to a certain extent, allowing him to work for a company who supplies clowns for businesses. During one of his assignments as a clown, Arthur is attacked by a group of teenage thugs, who beat him almost senseless. The aforementioned act, leads a co-worker to give Arthur a gun for protection (uh oh). The aforementioned gun leads to nothing but trouble for Arthur, and causes him to be fired after the weapon falls out of his pocket while he is performing at a children’s hospital. After his firing, Arthur heads home on the subway in full clown attire, and is once again attacked, this time by three drunken employees of Wayne Enterprises. This pushes Arthur over-the-edge, and let’s just say, the three gentleman don’t make it to their destination. The actions of Arthur lead to a condemnation from now mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne, and demonstrations in the streets of Gotham against the rich. All the protestors are wearing clown masks or attire, as they desire to emulate Arthur. Meanwhile, Arthur’s comedy stand-up routine at a local comedy club proves to be disastrous, and leads television talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) to poke fun at the budding comic, breaking his already fragile heart. However, the talk show host is so intrigued with Arthur, he invites him to appear on this show, and this is where the Joker revels who is really is, a psychopathic criminal. The film is certainly a jarring introduction to the Joker for those not that familiar with the character (who would that be?), and provides a clear background for the character we have never seen in film. In addition to the appearance of Thomas Wayne, and his wife, we also see a young Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson), who has a brief, yet foreshadowing scene with Joker. The film also has a surprising twist involving the Wayne family and Arthur that many fans will no doubt find a bit shocking. While the aforementioned twist has no connection to the Joker/Batman relationship in the comic books, it is fascinating, and only adds to the Joker‘s obsession with Batman. The film is both shocking and mesmerizing, just as any film about the Joker should be. The performance of Phoenix was amazing, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off him, as you never knew what he might do next. Oscar may come calling come awards time. Keep the kids at home, and if they want to see a film/story with the Joker there are plenty of other options. “Joker” is a film that will jar you, but proves to be a masterful origin story for the famous character. Now playing in theaters. (Rated R)
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