Joaquin Phoenix stars as Batman’s arch-nemesis in a new origin-story movie. But is this dark, dingy drama any better than any of the other supervillain films?

Now that Hollywood studios are running out of superheroes to make films about, they’re turning to supervillains instead, starting with Suicide Squad and Venom, and moving onto Batman’s smiley-faced arch enemy, the Joker. Todd Phillips’ revisionist origin story is different from those other entries in the bad-guy sub-genre, though. Devoid of fist fights and bank robberies, Batcaves and Batmobiles, Joker is a dark, dingy drama about urban decay, alienation, and anti-capitalist protests, with a distinctive retro vision and a riveting central performance by Joaquin Phoenix. Whether these differences make it much better than other supervillain movies, however, is open to question.

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The film doesn’t specify when it is set, but its Gotham City is modelled on the graffiti-sprayed, litter-strewn pre-gentrification New York of Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy. This is the home of Arthur Fleck, played by Phoenix as a greasy, disturbingly emaciated figure with ribs and vertebrae poking out at all angles. No male actor has been this skinny since Christian Bale – yes, Batman himself – starved himself to stick-insect proportions for The Machinist.

Joker is ultimately nothing but a flimsy, two-hour supervillain origin movie

Arthur scrapes a living as a party clown, and shares a crummy flat with his aged mother Penny (Frances Conroy), one of the film’s many resemblances to Phoenix’s last outing as a damaged killer, You Were Never Really Here. Years earlier, Penny worked for Gotham’s richest industrialist, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) – the father, of course, of a certain Bruce Wayne – so she hopes that if she writes begging letters to her old boss, he might just swoop down and save her. Arthur, meanwhile, hopes that he might get a date with the attractive single mother (Zazie Beetz) who lives down the dreary hallway. He also hopes that he might make it as a stand-up comic, perhaps even appearing on a talk show hosted by Robert De Niro’s Murray Franklin. But as Arthur has an array of mental illnesses that require him to take seven kinds of medication, the chances of these hopes being fulfilled are almost as thin as he is.

The film traces his gradual uncovering of family secrets, and his slow descent into homicidal mania – and I do mean slow. Joker doesn’t have much of a plot, let alone any subplots, so there are only a couple of major sequences that haven’t already been in the trailers. Phoenix is a magnificent presence – always believable, how outrageous he becomes – and I was quite happy to sit and watch him skipping around in his outsized shoes and striking balletic poses on beautifully grimy staircases. But, however unusual its grungy 70s styling may be, Joker is ultimately nothing but a flimsy, two-hour supervillain origin movie, so the viewer is just waiting for Arthur to become the fully-fledged Clown Prince of Crime. If it had been chopped down to an hour and then intercut with a Batman plot, what a film that might have been.

Batman could polish off this poor sap without crumpling his cape

The screenplay, by Phillips and Scott Silver, does make several witty additions to Joker lore. One of these is that Arthur has a medical condition related to Tourette’s syndrome, which forces him to dissolve into fits of cackles at the most inconvenient moments. Phoenix makes these fits both blood-chilling and heartbreaking. The script also repositions the Joker as an anti-hero (or super-anti-hero), an accidental vigilante who guns down three Wall Street brats in self-defence, thus inspiring Gotham’s underclass to put on clown masks and protest against the city’s fat cats – including the interestingly thuggish and unsympathetic Thomas Wayne. Well, OK. Phillips and Silver are entitled to imagine any version of the Joker they like. But their film is way too superficial to take seriously as a study of class conflict and mental illness. And, compared to the sadistic mastermind who has been in the comics and on screen, its protagonist is strangely passive and unthreatening. Batman could polish off this poor sap without crumpling his cape.

For what it’s worth, Joker is superior to the aforementioned Suicide Squad and Venom. Its flawless recreation of an earlier decade is a remarkable feat of impersonation. And I would dearly love it if Phoenix revisited the character in a sequel. But the idea that Joker is significantly more mature and intelligent than previous superhero (or supervillain) films? You must be joking.

★★★☆☆

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