Joker: Proof that Standalone Comic Movies Still Work

Before we dive in, I want to give a quick disclaimer. I would not consider myself to be a comic book movie aficionado by any means. At the very most I would categorize myself as slightly more than casual comic book movie fan. I have seen all of the MCU movies only because I binged them all before Infinity War and I’ve only seen a few of the DCEU movies (Wonder Woman, Justice League, Aquaman, and Suicide Squad to be exact). I also want to warn everyone reading this that this might contain spoilers so if you haven’t seen Joker now is your only warning. If you have seen it, or just don’t care about spoilers proceed on.

First things first, I thought that the movie was stellar, but going into it I was hesitant. I felt that the early festivals may have over-hyped this movie just a tad,  Mainly I thought the report that it had gotten an eight-minute standing ovation when it premiered in Venice was a bit absurd. However, after my first viewing, it’s apparent that it was well warranted. The movie brought an authenticity that has been missing from a lot of films these days. Rather than being overpopulated with CGI and special effects, it came off as a story about something that could actually happen, a rarity in super hero movies.

One of my initial fears going into this movie was the fact that the Joker inherently doesn’t need a backstory, in fact that fact is a huge part of what makes his character so great. However, this movie creates an unbelievable narrative, and sets up the story of one of the most iconic villains ever in an incredible way. Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely incredible in the titular role, and delivers a performance that would make Heath Ledger proud. He develops this character in such a way that I found myself rooting for him.

Phoenix does a phenomenal job leading the audience through the twists and turns of the movie. Perhaps the greatest example of this was watching The Joker go through a bunch of different life events with his girlfriend by his side. Succeeding at stand up comedy, the passing of his mother, all of it, she’s there. Yet, in reality he had only imagined that she was there the whole time. A small twist, but one that shows the insanity of the character in a moment that felt like it was straight out of Fight Club rather than a comic book movie. It’s rare to see an unreliable narrator in a comic book movie, yes you see things from multiple points of view, but they’re typically all straight forward. With Joker the entire movie takes place from his perspective, leaving the viewer guessing whether what he/she is seeing is reliable.

Another highlight of this movie comes from interactions between The Joker and his therapist. There’s a point, after multiple therapy sessions, when he sort of snaps at his therapist with the line “You don’t listen, do you”? . It paints an important picture of how mental health professionals can listen all they want, but sometimes it comes down to putting together steps to help their patients move forward in life outside of journaling (if that isn’t working) and prescription medication.

The motives from The Joker are not always as cut and dry as they have been in past movies. With Heath Ledger, his portrayal was always about watching Gotham (and the world) burn. He was in the purest form, an agent of chaos. One of my favorite moments in the movies comes when Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro asks The Joker what he believes in and his simple, but powerful, reply is that he doesn’t believe in anything. I loved this, and for a character (especially an antagonist) to not believe in anything or have a specific motive carries a lot of weight. It portrays the true “rebel without a cause” nature of the character very well.

The hype behind Phoenix and his performance throughout the movie is well deserved. I haven’t seen anything quite like it this year and he will be well deserving of an Oscar nomination. Will he win? Probably not.Would he deserve it? Absolutely. For 75% of this movie, it is him not playing off any other characters and he nails it every single scene. He gives a performance that is absolutely on par with Ledger, and that is a statement. You can tell that Phoenix wanted this role and he put everything out there to deliver the best performance possible.

This was a very different feeling movie for the comic book genre, begging the question, where do we go from here? Now, this is not to say that Joker is going to change comic book movies forever. This is simply an assessment of the current state of comic book movies. I think this movie proves that despite the amazing success of the “team-up” movie, there is still a place for character driven standalone movies. Where other movies fail by trying to leave opportunities for creating a “universe” Joker succeeds by creating a compelling narrative, and fully developing a character. It’s entirely self-contained, and there’s beauty in that.

In the age of universes, it took the Joker of all people to come along and remind us that there’s still a place for good storytelling, and standalone comic movies.

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