There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
“Joker’s Favor,” a 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series. Ed Begley, Jr. provides the voice of Charlie Collins, a harried Gotham resident whose road rage gets him into huge trouble when the driver he’s cursing at turns out to be Batman’s archnemesis, the Joker. After pleading for his life, Charlie is let off the hook, provided he promises to answer the call whenever the Joker needs a hand. When Charlie realizes this “favor” might involve helping the supervillain kill Commissioner Gordon and a room full of cops, he tries to figure out how to warn Batman — and how to convince the Caped Crusader he’s just a patsy.
Why watch now?
Because Joker opens wide in theaters this weekend.
Eagerly anticipated by action-adventure devotees who like their movies grim and gritty, this R-rated addition to the DC Comics cinematic oeuvre stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a soft-spoken wannabe comedian and clown-for-hire who endures a miserable life of poverty and abuse in a decaying Gotham City neighborhood. When Arthur is pushed into an act of violence while on his way back from a gig, his rage — and his makeup — inspires an anarchic anti-itarian movement in the city. The film follows this accidental antihero as he grows into his role as a criminal cult leader.
Joker borrows liberally from the work of Martin Scorsese — specifically Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy — as well as Fight Club and Breaking Bad. It’s a slow-paced, often punishing film, with a bleak take on human nature, which is unusual for what’s ostensibly a Batman picture (minus Batman).
But it isn’t unprecedented. Phoenix, writer-director Todd Phillips, and co-writer Scott Silver are shadowing Christopher Nolan’s version of the Joker from the movie The Dark Knight, as played by Heath Ledger. They’re also attempting something similar to what writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland did in the horrifying graphic novella The Killing Joke. The latter book has been adapted into a 2016 animated film — R-rated as well — by some of the Batman: The Animated Series creative team. The Killing Joke movie features the voices from the 1990s cartoon: Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker.
Hamill’s Joker may be the best of any of the screen versions of the Joker. In “Joker’s Favor,” for example, he plays the villain as simultaneously unhinged and creepily aware. He stalks Charlie Collins for years after their initial encounter, then bullies him into doing his will. He’s debonair and overbearing — the kind of man everyone wants to avoid at a party. Because The Animated Series was aimed at a younger audience, this Joker isn’t as scarred or scary as Heath Ledger or Joaquin Phoenix’s versions. But he isn’t cute and harmless, either. Hamill gives the character a sense of panache, but he doesn’t spare the menace.
Who it’s for
Bat-fanatics and animation connoisseurs.
“Joker’s Favor” is one of Batman: The Animated Series’ better-known episodes because it introduced Harley Quinn (voiced by Arleen Sorkin), the Joker’s sassy partner in crime and occasional girlfriend who went on to become a fan-favorite character in further cartoons, comics, and movies. This episode is also a fine illustration of why this show is so beloved among superhero buffs. Director Boyd Kirkland and writer Paul Dini — working with designers / animators Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, among many other attentive creators — strike a fine balance between a kid-friendly tone and a style that resembles classic film noir, inspired in part by Tim Burton’s more gothic Batman movies.
Also, in contrast to today’s superhero TV shows (and cinema and graphic novels, for that matter), “Joker’s Favor” is a concise, unified piece of storytelling, making no demands that viewers watch 50 episodes or read a decade’s worth of comics to understand what’s going on. It’s as cleverly plotted as a Silver Age comic book from the days when nearly every individual issue could stand alone. One sequence where Charlie rigs up a kind of bat-signal using whatever props he can find is like something out of the late 1950s DC Comics, where stories were focused on heroes thinking their way through problems and relying on their schooling.
But there’s an emphasis on character here, too. The episode defines the Joker by the man he annoys. To Batman, the Joker is a deadly scourge. To Charlie, he’s a nagging inconvenience. In a way, Charlie’s problem is more relatable.
Where to see it
DC Universe. The subscription service has a lot of Joker-related animated movies and TV episodes that are carefully curated and easily accessible via their own page. It also has comics available for subscribers to download and read, including the fascinating, short-lived 1970s solo Joker series in which the clown prince of crime mostly tries to out-evil his fellow Gotham rogues.