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Why Joker is a film to be taken seriously

After winning at the Venice Film Festival, supervillain movie Joker could prove an Oscars wild card. Writer-director Todd Phillips talks to Alexander Bisley.

Comic-book movies may rule the global multiplex, but it seems Joker, a genre-defying origin story for the Batman villain starring Joaquin Phoenix, is a film to be taken seriously. This month, it won the Golden Lion at the 76th Venice Film Festival. Winners in previous years have included the Oscar-winning Roma and The Shape of Water.

The film is a critical hit despite its writer-director Todd Phillips being best known for The Hangover trilogy and other broad comedies that have never troubled the juries of major film festivals. Talking in Venice, Phillips says he believes there’s less of a leap from his popular comedies to his latest than some might think. “It’s all storytelling: a beginning, middle and an end.”

But Joker still feels like a radical outsider in the Warner Bros-DC Comic universe of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman. It’s the fourth big-screen portrayal of the Joker, following Jack Nicholson in 1989’s Batman, Heath Ledger in 2008’s Dark Knight (for which he won a posthumous best supporting actor Oscar) and Jared Leto in 2016’s Suicide Squad.

Phoenix’s Joker starts out as struggling clown and stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck, a back story that appeared in the 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke. Fleck is a mentally fragile loner who offers a warning on a laminated card: “Forgive my laughter. I have a condition.” Events involving Gotham’s moneyed Wayne family – the young heir of which will one day become Batman – and their business empire set Fleck on to a radical path.

Looking full-fleshed and healthy following his 24kg weight loss for the role, Phoenix says the appeal of the film was to create his own interpretation of the famous villain. “I didn’t refer to any past iterations of the character. It was something that just felt like our creation. For me, that was really key.

“I was attracted to the light in Arthur, for want of a better word. It wasn’t just the torment, it was the joy. It was his struggle to feel happiness, and to feel connected, and to feel warmth and love. That was the part of the character I was interested in and felt was worth exploring.”

Set in 1981, Joker is clearly influenced by the Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro films Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy – De Niro himself stars in the film as a talk-show host who resembles a later-in-life version of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin.

Despite taking place in a Gotham of nearly 40 years ago, Joker mines such contemporary issues as mental health treatment, inequality and the power of elites. “Empathy is a big part of what the movie is about,” Phillips says, “the lack of empathy we were seeing in the world.”

It may have a political and social conscience, but Joker also erupts into some extraordinary violence. “This movie was always supposed to be a slow burner,” Phillips says. “I think the violence is part of that slow burn. We were very careful with it … A movie such as John Wick 3 has a lot more violence. Why it might affect you differently is we paint with as realistic a brush as possible, so when it comes it’s a punch in the stomach.”

Joker opens in NZ cinemas on October 3.

This article was first published in the September 28, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.