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"an ambitious, brave and quite extraordinary film"

★★★★½ - STUFF 

- Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005) and Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy (2004) have long been my favourite superhero-origin yarns.

Both of those films seemed to me to be perfectly cast, leavened with enough humour to make the essential ridiculousness of the stories still likeable, but still – crucially – took their subjects seriously enough to let the audience know the characters and their whakapapa were being respected and revered by the film makers just as much as they were by the fans.

A decade-and-a-half on, there have been plenty of enjoyable comic-character based films, but nothing that has ever seriously nudged my affections quite like those two.

Well, until today anyway. Having just sat through a morning session of Todd Phillips' Joker, I'm pretty sure it impressed me just as much as Batman Begins once did. And for very similar reasons.

Like Nolan's film, this Joker raises the stakes on how seriously and reverently a film-maker can treat a comic writer's creation. And, as Nolan had Christian Bale, Phillips has as his star someone who might once have been regarded as far too serious an actor to ever take on the role.

Joker is set in Batman's Gotham, that same mash-up of Lower Manhattan, Jersey City and a dash of Chicago that must now be the best known fictional city in all of literature. Seen through cinematographer Lawrence Sher's lenses, it is a filthy, strike-bound, congested and violent place, stuck forever in early winter beneath leaden, starless skies.

Somewhere on the fringes, in a crumbling apartment he shares with his possibly demented mother, Arthur Fleck is a professional clown-for-hire, with dreams of a career as a stand-up comic. We glean pretty quickly that Fleck – played by Joaquin Phoenix – is more than a little troubled. An early session with a city-appointed therapist hints at some severely delusional behaviour and incarceration in Fleck's recent past. He is on "seven different types of pills" and becoming more erratic with every passing day.

Soon enough, the perfect storm of an available gun and an obnoxious trio of drunken Wall Street-types on a late-night subway lead Fleck to murder. And in murder he finds an unlikely route to adulation and respect.

Joker is a movie determined to be taken seriously. There will be people who hate it, simply because it doesn't contain any of the fun or light relief we usually expect from the genre. Even Nolan's Batman trilogy never forgot to occasionally throw us a laugh, usually via a line from Michael Caine or Morgan Freeman, who I miss even more than Bale in the current iterations of Batman.

Phillip's touchstone for Joker isn't really comic books at all. It's a couple of earlier Martin Scorsese films, specifically Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. As with those film's protagonists, we understand immediately that Phoenix's Arthur Fleck is a misunderstood and damaged outsider. The film's work is to show us just how badly we might have underestimated what the characters are capable of. Like Scorsese's Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin (both played by Robert De Niro), Fleck is a delusional man who taps into a mutated strain of heroism, to the horror and dismay of most people, but the adulation of a few. De Niro even contributes a cameo to Joker, as an unctuous and narcissistic talkback host. Unsurprisingly, it's the best work he's done in 20 years.

Joker is an ambitious, brave and quite extraordinary film. If we accept – at least for a couple of hours – that there is a parallel universe in which men and women dress up in costumes and routinely do battle as super-villains and super-heroes, then this Joker is probably the greatest movie that the genre has ever produced.

It is brilliantly performed – you can put the house on Phoenix getting an Oscar nomination, at least – stunningly well staged and disarmingly well written and argued. It also contains the seeds – the Batman origin story is revisited – for a remake of Batman Begins.

A few hours ago I would have been about as enthusiastic for that film as I was for that bloody awful Hellboy reboot from a few months back. But now, having seen Joker, bring it on.

- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF


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