For a modern Hollywood producer who has an eye on a sequel that has to do with money, or even a full-blown cinematic universe, some movies create more problems than they solve. Warner Bros. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice features the superhero every comic book fan thought they wanted to see, but ruined the Dark Knight on the big screen for the better part of a decade (away from the fancy and wacky movies of Lego Batman). Star Wars: The Phantom Menace gave us Anakin Skywalker before he turned to the dark side, but George Lucas’s decision to show us Darth Vader’s future as a child ended up imposing a tiny glow on the foreground of stalking and his aftermath.
Alien Resurrection brought Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley back from the dead as a clone of herself, but … well, you know the rest.
Joker Todd Phillips has the same problem. A few weeks ago in this column, I speculated that Warner Bros would probably want to team up the Gotham clown Prince Joaquin Phoenix with Robert Pattinson the Crusader in a supposed sequel to the upcoming Batman. But now that you’ve seen the Joker, it’s very hard to imagine someone wanting to be the spark that lights a new cinematic world for Gotham’s darkest stories.
Phillips’ film is an essential viewing for anyone with more than a passing affection in the 1970s and early 1980s for the films of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, the king of comics and the taxi driver in particular, to whom he pays tribute for his vision of the troubled, quasi-working-class white man. Psychotic to fend for himself for society, with disastrous results. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck is one of the astonishing greatness of nowhere – a jewel found shining amid dead things. However, this is not a movie to get fans and girls excited about future episodes, despite Phoenix’s stated desire to return to the role. Because it takes the Joker, and the indifferent Gotham that gave birth to him, to harsh and harsh inhuman depths that it is hard to imagine that even Batman could penetrate the frenzied feeling of unease.
Where were the previous incarnations of Joker, Jack Nicholson’s cuddly villain; Heath Ledger’s cute plan: It had a prickly, operatic sense of joy, there’s nothing about Flick’s descent into madness that would likely cause the average viewer to leave the theater with Spring in its wake. Kill his mother, kill his friends and hunt down his beautiful neighbor as the worst monster. This is a story of despair and decadence. From a cruel and cruel world an even more cruel man is created. Perhaps the Joker that we see right at the end of the movie, when he becomes a hero to Gotham’s legions of neglected youth, has the potential to become the type of larger-than-life villain everyone loves to hate. But it’s hard to imagine someone reaching color temperature with repeats of Tortured Phoenix and pencil. The natural response here is a mixture of pity and disgust.