Tag Archives: super hero movies

Secret Society of Second-Born Royals

A bunch of teenagers get sent to summer school and find they have something in common: they’re all second-born royals. Their older siblings are destined to inherit thrones while they are the spares, side-lined and over-looked. Not this time. This time, teacher James (Skylar Astin) tells them they’ve all been sent here under false premises; this isn’t summer school, it’s a training academy designed to awaken their super powers.

Super powers? You heard right. They’re just as surprised as anyone, but the story checks out: Sam (Peyton Elizabeth Lee) has super senses, Tuma (Niles Fitch) can get anyone to obey him, Roxana (Olivia Deeble) can turn invisible, Matteo (Faly Rakotohavana) can command insects, and January (Isabella Blake-Thomas) can borrow anyone else’s super power by touching them.

This movie is not meant for adults but tween girls 8-12 should be in heaven. It basically borrows from the Netflix blueprint for princess-themed romantic movies that usually air around Christmas with a dash of Artemis Fowl with a light Hamlet twist. Rebellious teenagers, royal jewels, family secrets, cute boys, and what passes for rock and roll these days: what more could a girl possibly want?

It’s definitely wholesome enough for family viewing and while parents probably won’t enjoy it, it’s also not the worst thing to get stuck watching. There’s a training montage that rivals popular game show The Floor Is Lava, sparkling tiaras and the plump little pillows they sit on, some truly terrible CGI, a few surprisingly bottom-of-the-barrel super powers, royalty-free jamming, a dead dad, an extremely brief cameo from Prince Harry, a diverse cast of talented kids, and a dog named Charlie.

Secret Society of Second-Born Royals is deeply inoffensive and perfect for family viewing. Find it on Disney+.

Unknown Origins

Detective Cosme (Antonio Resines) is being put out to pasture, but he’s showing his young replacement, Detective Valentine (Javier Rey), the ropes before he goes. They inspect a gruesome crime scene together, a possible homicide of course, a maniac bodybuilder so intent on building muscle mass he winds up with a windpipe crushed by his own weights. Cosme is meticulous and organized in his habits, in direct opposition to his son Jorge (Brays Efe), your classic lazy slob, a good for nothing grown son who works at a comic book store when and if he gets out of bed and still lives at home. But luckily for Cosme and Valentin, Jorge spots something neither of them ever could: the crime scene looks suspiciously like a panel from issue #1 of The Incredible Hulk. And the next murder scene they’re called to seems to be another comic book recreation. Madrid has a serial killer on its hands, and Valentin will have to tolerate Jorge’s help to stop the man bent on using seemingly random victims to imitate various superheroes’ origin stories. Oh, and did I mention Valentin’s beautiful new boss Norma (Verónica Echegui) is a bit of a cosplaying geek herself? Yeah.

This cop movie is spiced heavily with super hero flavour. If you know and love comics, you’ll likely predict the outcome a lot faster than the rest of us, and pick up on clues and cues planted specifically for your discerning eye. The film is a little uneven, sometimes cheesy heroic catch phrases, sometimes gritty police procedural, sometimes real horror and gore, other times goofy costumes. And yet it’s obvious that director David Galán Galindo is not only offering a send up to the super hero genre, he’s inspired by it, influenced by it, and given it a more real-world setting than others have been able to. It’s less slick than M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, less glossy, less ambitious, but it’s obvious too. The script is occasionally awkward and juvenile, and the sole female character could use a fuller and more subtle approach, but mostly Unknown Origins is a story we know very well, and it works because we love the genre and we can never get enough.

Freaks: You’re One of Us

Wendy (Cornelia Gröschel) is a wife and a mother and a waitress at a German pork chop fast food joint (!?!?). She goes to weekly therapy sessions and wishes she could be more assertive at work. Money is tight and she could use a raise. She is a good mother and generally content in life. One evening, while running some trash out to the dumpster behind her work, she comes across a vagrant man, digging around for scraps of food. She’s decent to him, but it’s he who has a message for her: “you’re one of us,” he tells her. “Follow the mermaid.” It’s exactly the right kind of mysterious and intriguing that she can’t help exploring at her earlier convenience. But what she finds is totally unexpected: not only does she have dormant super powers, the pills she’s been prescribed her entire adult life are what’s keeping these powers sedated, unbeknownst to her. Wendy’s beginning to unravel a vast conspiracy that’s been keeping her and others like her in the dark. But why?

This is a dark, live action version of The Incredibles where the government has medically suppressed super powers as much as possible, and driven outliers underground. Usually such a movie would tend to be sympathetic toward those denied their true potential but this one makes a pretty strong case for government interference, which is interesting, especially because the film itself tiptoes awkwardly around the “Hitler” thing. But even the mostly well-intentioned Avengers leave behind some pretty serious collateral damage.

The first half of the movie, the secret uncovered and the powers tested, is the much better half. The second half falters a bit without a strong stance or identity, and is too often tempted into outright cheesiness. Which is too bad, because I liked how grounded in reality we were, how Wendy seemed poised to embody the meek inheriting the earth. But it seems that neither director Felix Binder nor screenwriter Mark O. Seng is willing to commit to super powers being a net gain or a net loss, a feature or a bug. Are they something to be feared? Controlled? Exterminated? Should the government be legislating ANYONE’s body? Is it okay to ask some people to change who they are for the greater good? And what exactly is the greatest good, how is it measured, and who does the measuring? My mind takes off racing in a thousand directions and unfortunately the movie just stalls out. Missed opportunity.

Project Power

911 is being flooded with calls of very, very strange occurrences. People are having some very unusual reactions to a new drug they call Power. Everyone reacts differently to it, and some very badly. Police aren’t just powerless to stop it – some people can out-run cop cars on foot while taking it, others become bullet-resistant. Basically, you get some kind of super power, but it’s temporary, you don’t get to choose it, and sometimes it just kills you dead. As they say: results may vary.

Today this drug is toppling police precincts, tomorrow: governments. So one local cop, Frank, operates a little outside the bounds of his badge with a young drug dealer named Robin to get it off the street before it’s too late. Which may or may not line up with the intentions of a man named Art, an ex-military man who is rather single-mindedly looking for his daughter who is somehow mixed up in all of this.

Discerning individuals may already think this premise sounds interesting, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Perhaps you don’t need any further convincing, so this is just icing on the cake: Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It seems like not very long ago we were lamenting his rather lengthy sabbatical from Hollywood, but he’s following up his return to film in 7500 with a far different turn as a dedicated but unorthodox New Orleans police officer. Once he teams up with super stubborn soldier dad Art (Jamie Foxx), you’ve got a combo you can’t take your eyes off of. But you will, because the third member rounding out their trio, Robin (Dominique Fishback), may have rap dreams, a sick mom, and unfinished math homework, but she holds her own between these fiercely driven men. This is a star-making role for Fishback, whose talents help set this film apart.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman serve up an adrenalized sci-fi action film that’s got some pretty slick and nearly non-stop violence binges. It hardly leaves room to catch your breath, let alone contemplate these characters and who they might be when they’re not chasing down Dr.Evil. Project Power is thrilling and engaging but it’s no Marvel: not everyone can afford the many phases and chapters of a cinematic universe. Most films, this one included, have just under 2 hours to tell a complete story. Project Power can only hint at themes like what is power, and who should wield it. Most of the time, Joost and Schulman choose action over narrative, and you can hardly blame them for it, given the tempting material. I do, however, blame them just a bit (and screenwriter Mattson Tomlin) for an embarrassing lack of imagination. Not one of their super powers is original; you will find each one has already been dreamed up by comic book writers 50 years ago. Which doesn’t mean it’s not a lot of fun to watch someone ignite like a real-life human torch. I just wish we knew enough about the guy (Machine Gun Kelly, ugh) to appreciate what in his DNA or his personality is self-selecting this particular power and how finely it straddles the line between weaponized flame thrower and self-immolation.

The Old Guard

Andy (Charlize Theron) is one weary warrior. She leads an elite team of mercenaries but when they’re called for a new job, she hesitates. She once believed they were doing ‘good’ but as she scans the news channels and her friends’ faces, she can no longer find any proof. The world isn’t getting any better. Is it even worth it? But client Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is insistent: a bunch of young girls are being trafficked and only the very best team – her team – can save them. So Andy swallows her cynicism and leads Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Nicky (Luca Marinelli), and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) once more into battle. Except Andy’s instincts were right: it’s a trap.

Copley’s been secretly tracking her team all along, on behalf of “the youngest pharma CEO ever” (Harry Melling). Eager to make a splash, not to mention a billion dollars, he wants to study Andy and her team to see what make them so special – and to replicate it, of course. Because humans are both greedy and vain and we never, ever learn a lesson.

This could have been a fairly by the numbers action movie, even if the action is pretty impressive. Of course, it kind of has to be these days; John Wick went and raised the bar on that, and now even a fairly trash movie like Extraction needs some intensely choreographed and inventive sequences. And of course, somewhere along the way, Charlize Theron has become a bonafide action star. But what makes The Old Guard stand out from the rest is its philosophy, director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s instinct to slow things down and instead of asking ‘what’s next?’ asks ‘why?’

It’s hard to know whether to categorize The Old Guard as a sci-fi movie or a super hero movie or a straight up action adventure. But like Wonder Woman, a film easily among the best in any of those genres, this movie doesn’t just explore the extent of their so-called super powers, it wonders when to use them, why to use them, and if they should be used at all. If Andy’s Guard isn’t quite human, the people they fight, and the people the save, are. The cost is high and the price is grief; Andy’s body may be strong but so is the emotional toll. And when new Guard member Nile (Kiki Layne) is discovered, the whole group has to decide whether it’s all been worth it.

The Old Guard isn’t a perfect movie but it dares to depict heroics occurring somewhere between survival and sorrow. It shows us not just its true cost, but both the weighing of it, and its weight.

The American Nurse

It shouldn’t take a global pandemic to appreciate the nurses who have been working fairly tirelessly and devotedly all along and yet we all too often take them for granted.

Today, May 6th, is National Nurses Day in the U.S. while internationally it is celebrated May 12, Florence Nightingale’s birthday. The interim between the two is usually called Nurses Week and if ever there was a time to make it a week-long act of gratitude and commemoration, it’s now. The International Council of Nurses picks a theme each year and for 2020 it’s ‘Nursing the World to Health.’

Florence Nightingale is largely credited with founding what we think of as ‘modern nursing.’ Her emphasis on proper hand washing alone saved countless lives (literally countless – think about that), beginning on the battlefields of the Crimean war. It is remarkable that in 2020, we are fighting an epic battle against a virus wherein hand washing again is the most important weapon.

The American Nurse is a 2014 documentary by Carolyn Jones who explores aging, war, and poverty through the work and lives of 5 working nurses. The camera follows them through a typical day’s work while we consider what it truly means to care: to care with our hands, with our hearts, with experience and knowledge, with commitment and dedication.

And now nurses are again at the forefront of the meanest and most threatening bug we’ve faced in a lifetime and we’ve been unable to provide them even the most basic personal protective equipment necessary for providing the care we’re demanding. Not only are healthcare workers more at risk for contracting the virus due to repeated exposure, they’re also more likely to have life-threatening symptoms (perhaps because they’re exposed to a much higher dose, or to multiple strains, but science has yet to confirm the reason). I know a nurse who works in mental health who spent the early days of lockdown seeing patients with no PPE at all as they’d all been locked away for when they were “really needed.” Now she gets 1 per day, which means she’s eliminated coffee, water, and food before and during shifts because going to the washroom would contaminate them. And at any time she faces redeployment to the E.R. even though she hasn’t practiced that kind of nursing in a decade. She has young kids at home, which means after a long shift she can’t hug or kiss them until after she’s stripped and scrubbed. And then the fun of homeschooling begins. She was telling me about a local grocery store that allows healthcare workers to skip the line. She would never accept, of course, because she’d feel like a jerk – lots of people are pulling double duty these days, and everyone would rather not be there. But also because standing in line 6 feet apart at the supermarket is the quietest and easiest part of her day.

COVID or not, The American Nurse is a well-made, interesting documentary which you can watch here for free. It gives us a little insight into what it takes to heap the world’s healing upon your shoulders, to run towards the crisis instead of away from it, to feel compassion for others when you could use some yourself.

Thank you, nurses.

Birds Of Prey

This is the Harley Quinn that Margot Robbie deserves. That we all deserve, really, away from the male gaze and into the capable hands of director Cathy Yan, writer Christina Hodson, and with Robbie herself producing.

Harley to Black Canary: “Do you know what a harlequin is? A harlequin’s role is to serve. It’s nothing without a master. No one gives two shits who we are, beyond that.” Harley Quinn has broken up with her on-again-off-again longtime love, the Joker, this time for good. Without him as an anchor, she knows she’s vulnerable. Under his protection, no one could touch her, but it turns out she’s accumulated quite a few enemies, and now that she’s untethered, they’re gunning for her. Number one on her tail: a guy who calls himself the Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), who seems to think of himself as a rival to the Joker, though he styles himself more like a Miami Vice drug lord. He does have a bit of a fetish for peeling people’s faces off, though, so don’t go underestimating him. The only way Harley can keep her keister safe is to find the missing diamond he and literally every bad guy in Gotham would like to get their greedy paws on.

In Harley’s sparkly shoes, Robbie proves she can make this role her own, and without her emo boyfriend in tow, Harley Quinn is actually an interesting character in her own right. Her origin is glossed over with a couple of smartly and quickly tossed lines; the rest of the film is devoted to amped up action sequences. Yan doesn’t just have some tricks up her sleeve, she’s got entire confetti cannons up there, glitter bombs and rainbow grenades. Her violence is slick and beautiful, set to a perfect array of pop tunes you’ll be stomping your feet to even as someone one screen’s getting their skull caved in.

I’ve seen far too many reviews mention ‘female empowerment’ (of course in a derogatory manner, eye roll) and I can only assume those people are a) men and b) morons. Did anyone refer to the Avengers movies as ‘male empowerment”? No? Yeah, didn’t think so. Birds of Prey is better than 99% of the other DC movies released in the last decade, and if it happens to star women, well, so be it. This is not about female empowerment, it’s about empowered females, women with their own agency, women who can save themselves and best their male antagonists. The only thing being fetishized here is a breakfast sandwich. Feel threatened by that? Maybe you could do with a little male empowerment yourself. I believe the Batman franchise was built on the theory of overcompensation.

Meanwhile, Robbie has built herself a fearsome army: Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez, and even young Ella Jay Basco. And none of them are rolling around on the ground crying about mommy Martha.

Can’t get enough? We’ve got more thoughts on Birds of Prey here.

The Rocketeer

Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) is a crack pilot training for the air racing nationals who has a bad case of the wrong place/wrong times. When testing out his plane, he flies over a shootout between mobsters and G-Men. In the end, his plane gets trashed, he is on the hook to pay for an exploded fuel truck, and he’ll have to put on a clown costume to earn enough money to settle his debts. But wait, what’s that underneath his plane’s seat? Why it’s Howard Hughes’s jetpack superweapon that the Nazis will do anything to get their hands on, and the FBI is racing to track it down first.

Naturally, Cliff takes to the skies and becomes a superhMV5BYzM3Mjk5MTktNzcyZC00MWVlLWEwNzEtOTkyNDYxNjRiNWNlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTEwODg2MDY@._V1_ero, with the help of his engineer Peevy (Alan Arkin). But in doing so, Cliff attracts the attention of the Nazis and mobsters, and before you know it Cliff’s girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) needs rescuing. It’s up to Cliff to hold onto his jetpack long enough to save Jenny and, I guess, also save America.

I hadn’t seen this movie since the 90s and what stuck with me after this recent viewing is how badly the Rocketeer’s effects have aged. They probably weren’t great even at the time but now they just look sad.

But in a way, the bad effects are kind of fitting, because this film’s whole raison d’être is nostalgia, and the clumsy effects feel like a remnant of that same bygone era. The COMICS-NAZISRocketeer is a throwback to that fabled time in America’s history where men were men, women were eye candy, the good guys always won, and even criminals were too patriotic to work for Nazis. It’s the cinematic version of Captain America punching Hitler in the face. Cue the flag waving and tears of pride.

Let’s talk about Joker

Sean and I both saw Joker at TIFF last month, at back to back screenings. We met up for lunch afterward (I believe we had a slight pause before seeing the Harriet Tubman movie) because boy did I have thoughts, comments, and questions, which I tried not to yell too loudly because: spoilers.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck in a totally new but not entirely unfamiliar way. He works as a professional clown (semi-professional, maybe? – he gets sent to hospitals or going out of business sales by a central booking agency that employs many other clowns besides) but dreams of becoming a stand-up comic. He’s not a great clown – he gets complaints a lot. Maybe it’s because he breaks clown rules with the way he does his makeup. Real clowns prefer to paint in large circles because pointy-ended makeup gives kids a subliminal fright. As you can see, Arthur paints both eyes and mouth with sharp ends, normally prohibited in the clown community. But there was another rule-breaker, historically. His name was John Wayne Gacy, and Joker’s makeup is likely a subtle nod toward this man, a serial killer who entertained kids on the side as Pogo the clown. He raped, tortured and murdered at least 33 teenage boys  during the 1970s.

Arthur has a complicated relationship with his mother (Frances Conroy), with whom he lives. She’s not well, and depends on his support, meager as it is. She may be somewhat delusional because she writes long-winded letters about her poor living conditions to one-time employer Thomas Wayne, hoping his outrage will be enough to improve their circumstances. Until such a time, mother and son alleviate their suffering by cuddling up every night to watch their favourite late night talk show, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro).

Arthur is dangerously thin, but people aren’t just uncomfortable about his physical self. There’s also the laughing. He laughs often, and inappropriately. It’s a neurological condition, and he hands out cards to strangers to ease their discomfort when his laughing goes on just a little too long. Still, it gets him into trouble. Joker’s laugh is iconic, and Phoenix taps into something so deranged, so haunting, it’ll nail your feet to the floor. The laugh alone justifies casting him. It is at distinctive, different, perfect. Unforgettable. Scary as hell. It sounds almost painful for Phoenix and it sent shivers down my spine.

Meanwhile, Gotham City is a total shit show. Garbage is piling up everywhere, home to super rats that terrorize the city. It’s never explicitly stated, but I’m guessing it’s 1981. The clothes are very late 70s/early 80s, you can still smoke indoors, and both Blow Out and Zorro The Gay Blade are playing at the movies. People are starting to agitate. The city’s becoming increasingly dangerous. There’s an undercurrent of discontent. It isn’t safe. Arthur gets robbed, jumped, beaten. There’s a certain electricity in the air. We all know Joker to be a villain, but the way things are going, these people may see him as more of a hero. Kill the rich – that’s their slogan. Not a great time to be the Wayne family. But is Joker the symbol this rebellion needs?

Arthur Fleck is nobody’s idea of a hero. He’s a mentally unstable man. He’s been in psych wards. He takes 7 different kinds of meds but still feels bad all the time. He keeps a joke diary filled with suicidal thoughts. “The worst part of having a mental illness,” he writes, “is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” I’ve lost count of how many Jokers we’ve seen on screen now (feel free to help me out in the comments section if you can), but it truly feels like Phoenix doesn’t fuck with any of them. Truly, he and writers Todd Phillips and Scott Silver have created Arthur/Joker from the ground up. He is an amalgam of childhood trauma, torment, debasement. You really get the sense that if anything had gone even just a fraction differently, you’d end up with a different guy. Arthur’s natural reaction to the world isn’t insanity or violence or evil. He genuinely seems to want to bring joy to the world. He wants to make the people laugh. He is searching for a way in. He is searching, I suppose, for identity. For something that makes him real, makes him feel like there’s a reason why he exists. But for one reason or another, this guy just keeps slipping through the cracks. There’s nobody to help him. If one person had reached out when he needed it, this would be a very different story. And I suppose that’s why this movie is so good. It doesn’t feel like a comic book movie, it feels more like Taxi Driver. It’s a character study. This man feels unpredictable, and yet we know his ending. There is a surprising amount of tension for a movie that can really only end one way. But director Todd Phillips creates this constant sense of swirling stress and anxiety, this emotional tautness by repeatedly having Arthur reach out. He doesn’t want to be a weirdo, or a loner. He wants that same connection that we all do. But society is keeping its distance. He’s isolated. He’s forgotten and ignored. We have countless opportunities to save the world from the Joker but we never do – we fail Arthur Fleck. Does the film show empathy toward him? I suppose it does, in many ways. Or at least to people who fall through the cracks, who get left behind. Personally, I had a hard time feeling empathy toward his first victims. Arthur is a complex man living in some complex times. There is no single reason that tips him over into villainy. There are just an awful lot of cracks in the pavement. A chasm is bound to open up, which is maybe the scariest way to look at it. There is no vat of acid. Joker’s descent into madness, or crime, or evil, or whatever you want to call it – it’s grounded in reality.

Comic books and super hero movies tend to deal in quite general archetypes of good and evil. This makes the characters instantly recognizable as hero or villain, but it also serves to put a distance between audience and character because there is little to relate to. Todd Phillips’ Joker is much more layered, which means at times you’ll root for him, and other times you’ll be disgusted by him. It’s a push-pull that few actors could pull off, and it’s why Joaquin Phoenix, already one of this generation’s biggest and truest talents, deserves an Oscar nomination, and as of right now, I’d say even the win.

Joker, however, is not just a great performance. It’s a wonderful, thoughtful film, a send up to gritty character studies of another era. Todd Phillips has said “The goal was never to introduce Joaquin Phoenix into the comic book movie universe. The goal was to introduce comic book movies into the Joaquin Phoenix universe.” Goddamn I love that quote. I think it shows great appreciation for Phoenix’s body of work. This isn’t just another origin story, this is a deep dive into a man’s psyche. Phoenix tends to gravitate toward the broken and tormented, but they’re not one-dimensional. They are faceted individuals. Different actors have interpreted Joker in many ways: a fiend, a terrorist, a thug, a psychopath. But Joaquin Phoenix goes with something else: human.

 Edit:

So I wrote all of that last month, after seeing Joker at TIFF. Since then, certain media outlets have tried to whip up a story about possible violence at Joker screenings and whether this movie sends a terrible message. I have wondered whether I should contribute to that noise at all but find that I do have something to say about it. Feel free to debate.

  1. Does the movie treat the Joker too sympathetically? In a word: no. This is not the Joker from Batman comics. That Joker doesn’t exist yet. Arthur Fleck is a sad man with mental health problems. When he kills, he has a reason. None that justify the violence of course, but it’s not senseless or diabolical or insane.
  2. Is Joker gratuitously violent? Actually, no. There is some violence, of course, but compared to other films, relatively little – in fact, probably relatively little even compared to other Batman movies. This is primarily a character study, so a lot of the interesting stuff is introspective, in his head, as his character transforms.
  3. Is the film inviting violence from incels? Of course not. An incel, if you haven’t heard, is a man who believes himself to be INvoluntarily CELibate – ie, no one will sleep with him, and he blames it on some big female conspiracy. Incels have found each other in chat rooms and encourage each other to be nasty and wrong and gross, and angry toward women generally, and perhaps even violent toward them. They somehow think they are owed sex and even more confusingly, plot revenge for all the sex they aren’t getting. And somehow no one stops to think: this is why. This is why no one wants to date me. I am a creep. Women get a creep vibe from me, and they stay away because they sense I am an angry, dangerous dude. Maybe I should try…being nice? But the situation in the Joker movie doesn’t apply. There’s a woman he fixates on but even a criminally insane Arthur Fleck doesn’t blame her for his failures. He’s not an incel and I don’t think they even tread into that territory, so people trying to associate that with the movie are just being deliberately inflammatory.
  4. Let’s remember that this movie is only the Joker’s birth. He’s a Joker fetus. He isn’t a criminal mastermind. There is no Batman yet; Bruce is still just a boy and Arthur is just a man finding his identity on the dark side. Where society has rejected him, the underbelly accepts him and raises him up. Of course it’s intoxicating. And of course it’s wrong. But if we’re talking body count, he’s responsible for only a fraction of Blade, or The Bride, or Rambo, or Walter White’s. And if we don’t protest every instance of violence, why are we targeting Joker? Especially when we could instead read it as a plea for early intervention, as a workbook for reaching out to the Arthur Flecks instead of merely condemning the Jokers.

TIFF19: Joker

As any comic book fan knows, Marvel Comics has more interesting heroes than DC, because Stan Lee’s storytelling focus was as much on the hero’s day-to-day life as on the showdown with that month’s villain.  DC’s heroes have never had the same issues, because they are either literal gods (Wonder Woman), aliens who are stronger than most gods (Superman), or humans with seemingly unlimited physical, mental and financial resources (Batman).  But because DC’s heroes are so powerful, DC’s villains have always had the edge on Marvel’s, and the Joker is at the very top of the list of DC’s best villains.

jokerDC’s latest movie, Joker, tells the origin story of the iconic villain.  Well, it tells an origin story for Joker, one that to my knowledge doesn’t line up with anything in the comics.  It is a fitting origin that has some nice touches, including a subplot that casts Gotham’s beloved Wayne family in a very interesting new light.

We’ve seen the Joker on screen before.  Jack Nicholson was suitably over-the-top and cartoonish, but still maintained a dark centre, in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989).  Heath Ledger was a flat-out monster in The Dark Knight, delivering an all-time great performance that gave a new level of legitimacy to comic book films.  Jared Leto’s gangster Joker was almost an afterthought in Suicide Squad, and it probably would have been better for Joker not to have made an appearance in that film at all.

Now, in Joker, Joaquin Phoenix takes on the role, and he’s phenomenal.  Phoenix’s Joker feels different enough from Ledger’s to be original, but borrows smartly from Ledger’s mannerisms to give Joker the manic energy that makes him the clown prince of crime.  Seeing Joker emerge from the man formerly known as Arthur Fleck is a riveting process.  Director Todd Phillips rightly describes Joker as a slow burn and the pace of the movie creates significant tension.  We know Fleck is going to snap, and we can almost understand why, but we don’t know when or how.

Joker is worth watching for Phoenix’s performance, which, like Ledger before him, should get serious Oscar consideration (this time, for Best Actor, as Ledger won Best Supporting Actor for his Joker in 2009).  Joker might be up for other awards as well, and the awards buzz is well-deserved.  There is more than one way to make a comic book movie, caped crusaders are not always needed, and when the villain is this mesmerizing, it’s okay for the bad guy to win.