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Todd Phillips

The Joker is one of pop culture’s most enduring figures, consistently re-contextualised and reimagined, and a new onscreen interpretation of the Clown Prince of Crime is always an exciting prospect. Joaquin Phoenix is the latest actor to tackle the role, following on from the likes of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s now legendary performance in The Dark Knight. Here however, the iconic arch-villain is no longer a supporting character; this is the Joker’s story, and he is its horribly-watchable protagonist.

"intimate and introspective...the comic book film as character study."

The film takes place in a Gotham City modelled after 1970s/80s New York, all graffiti-covered train carriages and wet piles of rubbish steaming away in dark alleyways. Arthur Fleck (a very skinny Phoenix) is an aspiring comedian; lonely, troubled and with a medical condition which periodically makes him burst out in eerie peals of high-pitched laughter. He is something of a Travis Bickle figure, pathetic and deranged but utterly compelling in his transformation into the Joker. While the Taxi Driver comparison may seem obvious, writer/director Todd Phillips borrows liberally from Scorsese’s entire back catalogue, not least in the casting of Robert De Niro as late night television host Murray Franklin.

Where The Dark Knight ushered in a new wave of dark and gritty superhero films, and Marvel’s current output relishes big-screen spectacle and a sense of fun, this (already controversial, already award-winning) film is something different. Smaller in scale, more intimate and introspective, with intense outbursts of violence, it is the comic book film as character study, and Phoenix in the clown get-up gives us a performance which is already being talked about as a serious Best Actor contender for next year’s Oscars.