Arthur Fleck is a mentally ill man. He’s either been ignored or disregarded his whole life. People have no problem telling him that he’s “weird” to his face.

Now he’s lost his job, and he’s just lost the one person who showed him affection.

And now he has a gun.

“Joker” is not a superhero movie. There is no Batman here to swoop in and save the day against his most renowned supervillain.

This is an origins story, but in the R-rated comic book movie world, we have moved from “Deadpool” (satirical comedy) to “Logan” (tragedy) to “Joker” and its dark cautionary tale.

This is an angry movie for what its filmmaker is telling us is an angry world.

And he makes some valid points about society turning its back on people in need only to later say, post-horrific events, “how did something like this happen?”

Writer-director Todd Phillips (“The Hangover” movies) might have seemed an odd choice for such a movie. However, look back at his films and you’ll see darkness amid the comedy.

But it is the enigmatic Joaquin Phoenix who proves to be astonishing in his portrayal of the seriously disturbed Arthur/Joker, creating a man who exists in his own world.

That world is a descent into madness.

Phoenix is fearless in his ability to disturb all of us, whether that be through Arthur’s crazed laugh (always at inappropriate times, which is off-putting) or his physicality, which involves his having lost more than 50 pounds (many shirtless scenes show a strange angularity to his physique).

And then there’s Arthur’s “in his own world” dancing, like a slow mix of martial arts and ballet that he seems to perform as if on his own private stage.

It’s creepy and it’s unforgettable, and despite Phoenix turning 45 this month, he is so tiny here that it made me think of his teen performance in 1989’s “Parenthood,” in which he played a confused little boy.

His Arthur is not that different from that description, but without the loving family to give him guidance in early 1980s New York City, itself a disturbed city with crime rampant and a garbage strike making matters worse.

In this case Arthur only has his troubled mother (Frances Conroy); his co-workers at his rent-a-clown employer; and a woman in his building (Zazie Beetz) that he sees as a potential friend in his friendless world.

The only person he speaks with about his life on a regular basis is a social worker who listens and regulates his medication — until her job is cut.

The only other real conversation going on in his life is with his journal, a disturbing litany of how the world has wronged him and his death having meaning that reads like a mass-shooter’s manifesto.

You can see where this is headed.

“Joker” is a cry for help, posing that society naturally creates what Arthur eventually becomes.

That’s from a lack of compassion to a lack of funding (the poor vs. the “1 percenters” is another prominent theme here) to a summation that “in a world this crazy, it’s surprising that more people don’t go crazy.”

A subplot of the awkward, unfunny Arthur seeing himself as a stand-up comedian — whose dream is to appear on a “Tonight Show” program with Robert De Niro as a Johnny Carson-knockoff — feels stilted from the start, and that affects the ending, too.

But “Joker” effectively tells a story with themes borrowed, but not stolen, from movies like “Taxi Driver” and “Network” and makes them its own platform through its own disturbed form of avenging angel.

“Joker” is not going to be for everyone, and it’s certainly not a comic-book movie for children to attend.

It’s for those who want an early look at a front-runner for an Academy Award in Phoenix.

That is astounding considering what Heath Ledger achieved not so long ago with a version of the same character, but in a very different film.


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Michael Smith

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