Film Review - Joker

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from “Joker.”

The Joker first appeared in a 1940 “Batman” comic book. This deranged villain was the creation of Bob Krane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson.

As Krane told it: “The Joker looks like Conrad Veidt – you know, the actor in ‘The Man Who Laughs,’ the 1928 movie based on the novel by Victor Hugo. ... Bill Finger had a book with a photograph of Conrad Veidt and showed it to me and said, ‘Here’s the Joker.’”

Thus, the insane villain with a clown’s smile was born.

The Joker has been listed among the greatest comic book villains and fictional characters ever created. In 2006, the Joker was number one on Wizard magazine’s 100 Greatest Villains of All Time. And in 2011, Wired magazine named him Comics’ Greatest Supervillain.

When I consulted at DC Comics, the editors saw The Joker as Batman’s main nemesis. “The Clown Prince of Crime” he was called.

Caesar Romero played The Joker on the old “Batman” TV show. Jack Nicholson took on the character in Tim Burton’s first “Batman” movie. And Heath Ledger won an Academy Award as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.”

Now Warner Bros. (the parent company of DC Comics) is spinning off a “Joker” movie starring Joaquin Phoenix.

Good casting, Phoenix himself is a slightly crazy actor. Remember his 2008 charade about quitting movies to become a rapper?

In this so-called psychological thriller directed by Todd Phillips, we get yet another origin story. The film follows Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a failed stand-up comedian who turns to a life of crime.

Joaquin Phoenix saw the role as a “character study.” He says, “I always felt, like, there were characters in comics that were really interesting and deserve the opportunity to be kind of studied.”

He wanted to create a character that audiences could not identify with. So rather than studying the performances of previous Joker actors, he read a book on political assassins to get a sense of how killers think. He lost 52 pounds for the role and developed a laugh based on videos of insane people.

In the film, Dante Pereira-Olson plays Bruce Wayne/Batman. Douglas Hodge is cast as Alfred, the Wayne household’s ever-present butler. Francis Conroy is Arthur Fleck’s mother, and Zazie Beetz is his love interest. Robert De Niro appears as a talk show host who has a part in Arthur’s downfall.

As Todd Phillips describes his movie: “No one is going to fly in it. No buildings are going to collapse. It’s just going to be on the ground, so to speak.” No fancy CGI, no capes, no high-speed chases. It’s 45 minutes into the movie before anyone fires a gun. “It’s a slow burn,” says the director.

Phillips pitched the idea for “Joker” to Warner Brothers as a low-budget stand-alone film – costing only $55-million, about a third of most DC superhero movies.

Jared Leto, who currently portrays the Joker in the DC Extended Universe movies, was displeased with the idea of “multiple different contemporary Joker characters.” However, after the success of the stand-alone “Wonder Woman” film, Warner Brothers decided to create a new series of comic book films under the rubric of DC Black. These new movies will have non-traditional takes on the heroes and villains of DC.

Joaquin Phoenix liked the idea that this would be an intimate, small-budget movie. And being a one-shot film, he wouldn’t have to repeat the role like with a Marvel blockbuster.

The actor got so wound up in his role as a deranged psychopath that he sometimes had to walk off the set to compose himself. As Robert De Niro tells it, “Joaquin was very intense in what he was doing, as it should be, as he should be.”

“Joker” is the first live-action “Batman” film to receive an R-rating due to its “strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language, and brief sexual images.” found the film to be “scarier than most 2019 horror films.” IndieWire called it “potentially toxic.”

No, this is not your kid’s comic book movie.

Shirrel Rhoades is a film critic and former media executive. He previously served as executive vice president of Marvel Entertainment and has produced several movies and documentaries. He was also a senior faculty member of New York University’s Center for Publishing. He lives in Key West, Florida, and Lake Lure, North Carolina. Contact him at

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