Joker movie is no laughing matter – but it looks and sounds great on 4K disc

By Jim Bray
January 9, 2020

So, can we now expect a loving, forgiving fawning "origin story" of Jeffrey Dahmer?

Todd Phillips' Joker turns old fashioned storytelling on its head to give us the back story to one of the DC comics universe's most infamous villains – probably the most infamous. While most comic book-based movies deal with the heroes, because that only makes sense, this film takes the other tack, giving us a backstory for the Clown Prince of Crime, trying to make him a sympathetic character and basically glorifying his victimhood.

Guess that's what happens when you cast the charisma-less Ben Affleck as Batman; there's a void to fill in the Batman universe…

Hmm. Is there a Lex Luthor "biopic" in the offing, too?

Joaquin Phoenix turns in a spectacular performance as Joker, nee Arthur Fleck, and he deserves the kudos he's getting. The movie, however, is an ordeal to sit through, a story that focuses not on how its protagonist faces his many challenges and rises above them to become a better person, but one in which he wallows in his victimhood, using it as an excuse for his execrable actions.  

Let's face it, he's a loser, a mass murderer and a thug and there's not much to glorify in that.

Arthur has mental issues and is on what seems to be about a million prescriptions (okay, that's an exaggeration) that are meant to help keep him on an even keel. He does have aspirations – he aspires to be a stand-up comic, though he isn't particularly funny (at least Cesar Romero and, to a lesser extent, Heath Ledger had senses of humour in their portrayals, as warped as they may have been). In the meantime, he's working as a clown for hire, one of several working out of a Gotham City office; his job is to go to parties (or whatever) and entertain the folks there.

But he's very much a misfit – and not much of a clown either. And he suffers from a syndrome that causes him to laugh madly and inappropriately. And that's no joke!

Fleck lives with his mother in a dump of a building; this Gotham City is a dumpy, grimy and unhappy place in this film, which pits the have-nots against the haves in a typically liberal way. And of course, they get it 180 degrees wrong with their "Trump's Deplorables" ripoff "Clowns" theme, where ordinary people are rising up against The Machine in a way that's more reminiscent of Antifa than any Deplorables.

Heck, even Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen, playing the father of the boy who'll become Batman) is portrayed as an out of touch elitist instead of the philanthropist I'm more used to seeing him portrayed as (Batman Begins comes to mind as an example) and he becomes a target of Arthur because his mother (another wacko) has convinced him that Wayne is his real father.

Early in the film, Arthur gets the bejeebers kicked out of him by some thugs who stole the advertising sign he was waving around on the sidewalk as part of his gig (think those pizza signs people wave at street corners), after he quite stupidly tries to chase them down to retrieve the few dollars-worth sign.

One of his co-workers gives him a hand gun with which to protect himself in the future, but at another gig (a kids' party), the gun falls out of his pocket, causing the kind of reaction from his clients that one might expect, and this leads to him getting fired. So, he concentrates on his stand-up career, which has so far gone nowhere, and with good reason.

A clip of his inappropriate laughter-filled monologue at a comedy club makes its way to Gotham city's version of Johnny Carson (the movie is set in about 1981), where he's lampooned mercilessly by the host (Robert De Niro) and his audience. This adds more layers of angst to his psyche and makes him angrier than he is already, especially since he was (earlier in the film) brought onstage from the show's studio audience in a scene that defies the suspension of disbelief for anyone who's ever watched such TV shows.

Oh, yeah. He also gets accosted on a subway by some trendy young Wall Street types and once again (nearly) gets the bejeebers kicked out of him – except that this time he has the hand gun and uses it to great effect, setting off a media and police sensation as the Subway Killer becomes the story of the day.

Arthur does manage to make a friend, a girlfriend, even: his neighbour Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a single mother. Does she make it to the end of the film, once he's started his spree of brutal killings? You'll have to watch the movie to find out.

It's a depressing and heartless movie, and a left-wing wet dream in which "power to the people" is the basic overarching theme. What a surprise, coming from today's Hollowood!

On the upside, SPOILER ALERT, people who'd like to see Robert De Niro get a comeuppance may be pleased, though his character doesn't really deserve that particular comeuppance.

Director Todd Phillips has crafted Joker well, as a movie. It's as a story that it falls down, and that – to me – makes everything else superfluous. It's a shame. The film looks great, the shots are composed beautifully, the music is very good (and there's some lovely old stuff here, too, including multiple takes on Frank Sinatra's great "That's Life") and one can't fault the performances.

But it was a real ordeal for me to sit through, and not what I like seeing in a comic book-based movie. Oh, I know some of you are undoubtedly thinking "Suck it up, buttercup and allow yourself to be challenged". Fair enough. But there are anti-hero movies out there that are more enjoyable as films: in my never humble opinion, titles such as Bonnie and Clyde and Scarface were much more enjoyable to watch than this depressing thing.

Joker was apparently shot digitally, and the 4K HDR (Dolby Vision) picture is for the most part exquisite, with excellent black levels and fine detail, though quite a bit of it is muddied by darkness in this very moody vision of Gotham. Joker's aspect ratio of 1.85:1 fills the 16x9 widescreen TV almost fully, so there are only tiny black bars above and below the image.

The Dolby Atmos/TrueHD soundtrack is also up to snuff, with an immersive and dynamic presence that plants you right into the experience – and without the overpowering bass that plagues some other Warner titles (I'm looking at you, Christopher Nolan). I'd love to recommend the film based on its audio and video, but then you'd have to sit through the movie.

Extras are surprisingly sparse, but okay. There's a "Making of" feature that's quite interesting (and which tells you clearly that this movie was set in 1981 because back then, NYC – Gotham's inspiration – was a crime infested crap hole, though they somehow forget to mention that was during the reign of Democrate Ed Koch). There are some alternate takes featuring Phoenix, some costume tests, etc. I figured a movie that's this much of a blockbuster would have "special edition" written all over it, but such is not the case here. Probably just as well…

I did like how the producers laid out the Special Materials menu on the disc's main menu (the specials are, as usual, limited only to the Blu-ray disc that accompanies the 4K one), running vertically down the right side of the screen, but it's hardly a big deal.

The package also contains a code with which you can download the movie.

I went into Joker looking forward to this alternate take on the DC Comics universe, but came away disappointed to find that it's just another social justice warrior screed that elevates an unfortunate soul (who learns nothing positive from his life experiences) into the status of a folk hero who, at film's end, appears ready to become a figurehead for the Antifa-type crowds wreaking havoc on an already unhappy Gotham.

I think I'm going to watch Christopher Nolan's excellent, yet still disturbing, The Dark Knight again to cleanse my palate.

Copyright 2020 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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