When Marvel blew the world apart back in 2012 with The Avengers and the creation of the most financial dominant shared universe in cinema history, two things leapt to my mind. The first thing was that DC and Warner Bros. weren't going to be able to compete with that financially, and it would maybe be much more aesthetically satisfying if they didn't try, but used their (much superior, in my opinion) stable of characters in a series of one-off cinematic adventures that would allow filmmakers with more vision than Marvel's factory-like house style permitted to play around in comic book iconography. This would not be unprecedented; both DC and Marvel had lines dedicated to non-canonical stories that did interesting but unsustainable things with their characters (DC's was called Elseworlds, Marvel's was called What If?). The second thing was that there was no chance in hell that this was going to actually happen.

It did seem, for a solid few minutes after the film's release, that 2013's Man of Steel was actually going to head in this direction, though that was of course retroactively called up to serve as the none-too-stable foundation for a jerry-rigged DC cinematic universe. And I really don't know what's up with Shazam!, but let's not humiliate ourselves by pretending that it stars a particularly iconic or important DC character, or that intriguing things are being done with him. But at last, we have evidence that apparently somebody at Warner's shared my instinct in some small way, for here we have Joker, a thoroughly non-canonical retelling of the origin of maybe the single most iconic supervillain in comic book history, Batman's arch-nemesis, and it is in the form of a film whose particulars make it almost completely impossible for it to ever kick off a sequel, let alone fit into a broader Batman franchise. For that one fact alone, I do not think that there could exist such a level of controversy around the film that I wouldn't have happily given it a passing grade. Also,  the mere fact that it's impossible for this film to have a Batman-oriented sequel doesn't mean that I don't fully expect Warner's to greenlight such a bastardly thing anyway, but for the span of this review I am going to be optimistic

I say "non-canonical", but of course the idea of the Joker having an origin story is inherently non-canonical; only the 1989 Batman feature, to my knowledge, has ever given the character an unambiguous "yep, this is where came from" backstory, as opposed to "well, maybe this happened, but he's probably lying". Sort of the whole point of the character is that he's simply insane and chaotic and inexplicable, the unfathomable id to Batman's superego. But that's the fun of one-offs; it gives the storyteller a chance to play around  with the bits of a character they can make work in weird new settings. To be sure, the storytellers Joker has ended up with wouldn't have been my first choice: director and co-writer Todd Phillips has made some movies I've enjoyed well enough, including 2003's Old School, the only Will Ferrell vehicle that doesn't give me the dry heaves, but none of them demonstrate a proclivity for iconic visuals or taking things very seriously at all. The other writer, Scott Silver, has no credit on a film more impressive than 2010's boxing picture The Fighter, which belongs to a subgenre so formulaic that you'd have be actively trying to sabotage the script in order to fuck it up. And, sure enough, Joker's biggest weaknesses are almost invariably based in its screenplay, which is at its best when it's at its most derivative, and at its worst when it tries to be weighty and grand by dragging in the gloomy mythos of the Batman comic books; without spoiling anything, I will say only that Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), Batman's dead dad, is a major character in the film, and every single scene in which he appears is extremely horrible.

But it's not his story. This is the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a failing clown, hopeless wannabe stand-up comic, and obvious piece of bad news from the word go; he's carrying a deep, likely subconscious reservoir of rage that doesn't explicitly manifest until a very long way into the 122-minute film (which is too long, of course, but it's almost breezy by comic book movie standards), but has been implied basically from the first frame. Because here's the thing, Todd Phillips may not have an obvious head for comics iconography, but it turns out that somebody who does is cinematographer Lawrence Sher. And this is its own surprise, given that nothing he's ever shot would suggest that he could handle a thriller, and at least a couple of his films (including the most recent, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) look actively bad. But it turns out that everybody has their niche, and it would seem that Sher's is providing Phoenix with some of the god-damnedest key lighting, and especially eye lighting, that you ever did see. There's even a swell motif of eye lighting: while Phoenix's entire face is exposed properly, his eyes themselves - not even his eye sockets, just his eyes - are uncannily dark, and that darkness is offset by the perfect little pinpricks of reflected light bouncing from the depths of his pupils. That's as good of a way of foreshadowing "I'm destined to turn into one of pop culture's most beloved psychopaths" as I think you're likely to come up with.

Sher's the film's MVP, almost without question, though Phoenix does well by the flickering menace that the cinematographer has haloed him with. The film's vision of Arthur is that he's a helpless loser, with just about everything that could go wrong for him having already done so long before we meet him. He's a mentally unsound 30-year-old living with an also obviously mentally unsound mother (Frances Conroy, who is also pretty great in a much smaller register); he's got no talents, his demeanor is naturally off-putting owing in part to a tic that makes him laugh manically when he gets nervous, and he lives in an unbelievably dismal city that calls itself Gotham but is obviously a pre-Giuliani New York, where nobody has sympathy for anybody else. To combat all of this, he practices a childishly naïve optimism that's obviously too much work for him to sustain: whenever he has to respond to some setback or indignation or slight, Phoenix operates at a just-too-slow speed that suggests that every beat of Arthur's life has to be calculated in advance and then carefully play-acted with a big smile and chipper, shrill vocal register. If there's meant to be something sympathetic in this, I frankly don't see it; Arthur is a sad figure, sure, but he's also obviously a dangerous figure from the very start, or anyway, danger is very much an omnipresent possibility in his tightly-wound personality.

And so the film plays out as he finally runs out of coping resources, and lets out all that darkness. Joker is a nasty, bleak film, more over-the-top in its very serious grimness than any major comic book movie since the 2000s, and maybe it's even a bit ludicrous about it; but Sher and production designer Mark Friedberg (who sneakily hides the character's traditional purple, orange, and green hues in the sets) build a world that makes this at least seem plausible. Along the way, the film racks up several individually striking images that feel satisfactorily like comic book panels from the 1980s and 1990s heyday of post-Frank Miller nihilism, particularly in the film's handful of bursts of bloody violence; it also sets up a nice recurring image of Arthur contorting his body in a jerky, lanky dance, always used to signify moments when he's made another major step along the path to becoming the Joker.

As a chain of grime-soaked comic book moments, enough of Joker goes right that I wish I loved it, instead of just liking it; but there's a hell of a lot that simply doesn't work. The final sequence is, I think, too big and grandiose to make sense in the context of what has only ever been a character study; and there's a running plot thread involving a hokey chat show host played by Robert De Niro that stretches to the outermost edges of plausible suspension of disbelief, while not doing anything that wasn't already done by its extremely obvious influence, the De Niro-starring 1983 masterpiece The King of Comedy. Speaking of which, Phillips's much-ballyhooed and very overt attempt to pay homage to Martin Scorsese with this film really doesn't amount to much; Sher and Friedberg gamely photocopy Taxi Driver here and there, but those are never the moments that feel most true to the film's visual personality, which is much better when it's sticking to hazy beams of muddy sunlight and unrealistically toxic colors. Phillips has claimed that he didn't want to make a comic book movie, and that's apparent throughout; the problem is that Joker's strength is precisely in being an especially grungy and meanspirited comic book movie, and when it manages to shake that off to be a simple crime drama is when it's least interesting. But the Joker is a bold enough character to overpower the film he's been placed in, and as the film tracks Arthur's descent into more overt madness, it keeps picking up enough of a queasy-making potency that it succeeds, sometimes quite well, despite the director's best intentions.