One thing we all learned from last year’s Venom was that without the opposing force or arch nemesis, there’s no reason for the film to exist. Yes, Venom looks cool. Yes, Venom is fun because he inhabits and enables his host’s deepest desires. Yes, Venom likes to eat body parts and snack on anyone who gets in his way. Yet once Eddie Brock fully became the titular character, the film didn’t know what to do with him.
Without a great foe like Spider-Man to go against, it spun in circles scrambling for a plot to justify its runtime. Whether you found it fun or not, the movie became another lifeless turd in the wind. Fans of the villain deserved better, and the character of Venom deserved more than just fights against corporate goons or another symbiont that looked exactly like him. Instead of adapting any of his great storylines from the comics spanning the last 20 years, the pic was made so Sony could hold onto the property of Venom instead of Marvel poaching him for their any of their future Spider-Man films.
Now, Joker won’t necessarily suffer the same exact fate that Venom did, but it looks like it was created in the same laboratory of thought. Make a movie centered on a bad guy everyone loves and forget why we all fell in love with him to begin with. Oh, and to make lots of money, too.
Ledger’s Joker was so unpredictable and exciting because his origin story kept changing depending on the person he was interacting with. Whether his stories were lies, half truths or a little bit of both, the point is that he had a name before he was the Joker and probably was at one point considered a normal human being. It didn’t matter if he fell into a vat of acid, worked for the wrong gang or was a down on his luck gambler with too much debt to repay, his origin didn’t impact the actions he was committing. The man he used to be was dead, and only chaos reigns.
An origin story on the birth of Joker isn’t necessarily a bad thing to show on screen, but it really demystifies the character and the evil he commits. It’s similar to showing the full shark in Jaws too early, or letting Hannibal Lecter out of his cell to show his kills instead of him describing how well his victims taste with fava beans. The heroes can always have more screentime, but the villains always steal the whole show.
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Joker has Phoenix playing Arthur Fleck. A man on the verge of instability, being pushed down by society, a social outcast who cares for his sick mother and works a dead end job. He obviously snaps at one point, and becomes the anarchist known as the Joker. Phoenix can play this role in his sleep. His ability to truly become someone this unhinged early on does look fantastic and could rival DeNiro’s performance in Taxi Driver, but what about when Joker is finally unleashed in the film? When he dons the full costume and makeup and becomes the character we’re all familiar with? All the work to keep the movie grounded, a character study dealing with a serious topic of mental health, and standing up for the little guy gets thrown out the window when a super villain walks on screen.
No matter how hard it tries to stray from common comic book sensibilities, calling the film Joker confirms that Arthur Fleck will eventually become the DC character who crosses paths with Batman. Or maybe this version of Joker never does and he just terrorizes the police or people who previously had wronged him. But then why call him the Joker? Why associate a potentially great re-imagining of Taxi Driver with a fantastic actor and have him venture into comic book territory at all?
Why include a young Bruce Wayne instead of Batman and choose not to embrace the complex, fascinating connection that he shares with the Joker? Ledger’s Joker had many memorable interactions with Batman that barely scratched the surface of what the two characters mean to each other. In fact, his speech in the The Dark Knight’s climax sums up their relationship perfectly.
“This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible, aren’t you, huh? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness, and I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and me are destined to do this forever.”
Having Joker run around in The Dark Knight to cause mayhem would’ve been entertaining enough. This is purely due to Ledger’s incredible acting, but it wouldn’t be able to sustain a full length film. Batman’s Rogues Gallery is so popular because he himself brings out the worst in Gotham, the very same city he’s trying to protect. He puts on a mask and takes matters into his own hands and others follow suit, with varying intentions. No one knows this more than the Joker and he takes advantage of it every chance he gets.
Because of this, Joker looks like a film that’ll be at odds with itself. After all, how can it embrace the essence of one of the greatest villains in comic books if it ignores that very same source material?
A trailer can easily sell a shallow story and make it seem like there’s depth beyond two minutes of footage. It’s why they exist, and a talented actor can still keep a movie relatively up afloat with a wild and brave performance, like Tom Hardy tried in Venom. Yet, when you have a director whose career is filled with unfunny comedies, unnecessary sequels and no distinct style after over a decade of filmmaking, it doesn’t exactly inspire hope about an origin story for the only comic book character to ever win an Oscar.
Trying to be different can work on paper, but executing it without properly thinking it through can lead to structure problems, and a ton of rabid diehard comic book fans feeling betrayed. Joker is a brand name at this point, so of course Phillips’ movie will roll in the dough, at least for the opening weekend. Judging by the trailer and its failed attempt to look like anything beyond a Taxi Driver wannabe, though, the legacy of Joker could be tarnished by bad worth of mouth and potentially bad reviews, and make Phoenix regret jumping into the superhero pool in the first place.