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Something like Joker was inevitable. With the superhero genre having long since conquered contemporary cinema, it was only a matter of time before it turned its voracious stomach on the ghosts of the past. First into the maw are Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, which DC and Todd Phillips have recycled into this grim, nihilist origin tale of the bad clown from the Batman comics.

That's not to say that Joker is such a bad film, because there's no question that it's better than its own origin would suggest it deserves. Joaquin Phoenix baits the Oscars as failed stand-up Arthur Fleck, giving a nervy, unsettling, stylised performance that flicks back and forth between affected loucheness and impotent rage.

Arthur is a singular character, but in 1981 in Gotham he's not as alone as he feels. Many people suffer the poverty and directionlessness that Arthur does. An uncaring billionaire class is headed up by the disgusting plutocrat Thomas Wayne and the streets are filled with trash and super rats.

Joker doesn't know what to say about all this, except to repeat endlessly that monstrous times produce monsters. In itself that's provocatively revealing of the worldview of the Batman mythos - that politics is a meaningless veneer covering endless and inevitable violence. But the film can't escape thereby feeling as glib and cynical as The Dark Knight Rises did back in 2012.

Where Joker succeeds, however, is in closely studying the repulsion and fascination of villainy. The archaeology it performs on Arthur's soul never manages to unearth even a kernel of sympathy. It only seems to find more layers of deceit. Joker teases us with the possibility that it will eventually grant meaning to Arthur's actions or his history but, in the film and in the man, there's nothing there.

Next article in issue 140

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