Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (The Master), Robert De Niro (Goodfellas), Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2), Frances Conroy (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), Brett Cullen (The Dark Knight Rises), Douglas Hodge (Red Sparrow), Marc Maron (G.L.O.W.)
Director: Todd Phillips (The Hangover)
Writers: Todd Phillips & Scott Silver (The Fighter)
Runtime: 2 hours 2 minutes
Release Date: 4th October (US, UK)
It’s hard to talk about Joker without addressing how controversial it has become. When it was first floated that Warner Bros. was going to start a new brand for gritty reinterpretations of DC Comics characters with no ties to the ongoing DCEU, starting with an origin story for The Joker, opinions were immediately polarised, and the reaction has only grown more heated once people finally saw it. Some have hailed it as a revolutionary next step for comic books becoming a basis for legitimate cinema, whilst others have trashed it as a tone-deaf and conceited piece of Oscar bait that is harmful to the community it attempts to spotlight. In these troubled times, it is impossible to remove Joker from the socio-political culture that spawned it, making it a film that is absolutely impossible to critique objectively (well, more so than any piece of art, at least). So for what it’s worth, what do I think? Well, get your torches and pitchforks ready, because I am about to get honest.
A word of warning: if you struggle with your mental health to any degree, be wary if and when you see Joker. It’s an unrelentingly bleak movie that tackles abuse, trauma, and the general unfairness of the world, all through the lens of an unhinged man who’s had one too many bad days. It’s a phrase that has been ruined by the Internet, but Joker is going to be a triggering film to many audiences in a variety of ways; it certainly affected me during and after watching it. With that said, the film has very little to say of value after subjecting you to its horrid outlook. It is very obviously cribbing its style and lens from Martin Scorsese films like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and those movies at the time had similarly twisted but original and thought-provoking views of the culture that spawned them. Joker, however, only seems interested in parroting the ideas of its inspirations without the originality or depth. There’s a fine line when homage drifts into theft that Joker dances around constantly, and when it can’t just copy Scorsese it instead rambles off with the same “look what society has turned me into” talking points that are tired to the point of parody.
Most damningly, it fails to grasp the core of why Scorsese’s tales work: they remind you not to fully sympathize with their protagonists. Whilst it is easy to assume a general audience’s moral compass will kick in, the film completely negates to frame Arthur (Phoenix) and his actions in an appropriate context. His victims are always people who seemingly deserved it, those who criticize him are usually hypocrites, there’s no effective moral compass character to anchor the audience in sanity, and there’s never that moment where a line has clearly been crossed and we completely lose sympathy. It’s not just a poor way of framing a character with psychotic tendencies, but an irresponsible one than benefits neither a general audience nor those who suffer from poor mental health. I wouldn’t say the film condones the actions and views of its protagonist, but it does absolutely nothing to safeguard itself from such an interpretation, and that’s highly concerning.
That’s not even getting into how the film plays with the Batman mythos, but its viewpoint is just as weak and disrespectful, achieving easily the most uninformed thesis of a comic book character since David Carradine interpreted Superman as a smug elitist with contempt for humanity in Kill Bill. A distinct sense of disdain for the source material reeks from every frame of Joker, and director Todd Phillips’ statements about the film and its conception only further fuel that perception. Much like how Arthur has to take notes on when people laugh at a stand-up gig to understand how comedy works, Joker is a film that’s trying to seem like both a legitimate Oscar-worthy drama and a comic book movie based on context-less observations, having such a shallow interpretation of one and a dismissive ignorance for the other that it fails equally at both
What singlehandedly saves the film from being an entirely despicable mess is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck. Whilst not necessarily a great interpretation of The Joker per se, the character has fascinating potential and Phoenix wrings every piece of character detail out of the material. Though it has faint echoes of Heath Ledger’s iconic interpretation from The Dark Knight, Phoenix and the screenplay takes a vastly different approach to exploring Joker’s psyche, and removed from the context of Batman it is a compelling character transformation. However, the payoff is ultimately unsatisfying, as once Fleck goes full Clown Prince of Crime he just devolves into the aforementioned living embodiment of the “we live in a society” meme. That’s more the fault of the screenplay than Phoenix, whose work here is certainly worthy of Academy Award consideration, but it does hurt his portrayal nonetheless.
In regards to the rest of the cast, most of them barely get enough screen time to leave an impact. Robert De Niro essentially just plays himself via Johnny Carson in the film’s most blatant homage to the tale of Rupert Pupkin, with Marc Maron essentially rendered to a cameo as his producer. Zazie Beetz is utterly wasted as Arthur’s neighbour Sophie, left with a mere blank slate character whose only purpose is so blatantly obvious that it’s hard to believe the filmmakers thought it worthy of a twist, whilst Frances Conroy has potential as Arthur’s delusional mother Penny but she gets written out of the movie just as their relationship gets interesting. Brett Cullen is completely underutilised as the film’s cynical reinterpretation of Thomas Wayne, with again the film opting for the obvious direction for his character journey, and Douglas Hodge apparently plays Alfred Pennyworth in this movie? He only gets one scene and is barely even recognisable as the character, so why even include him?
Though the film’s aping of aesthetics rarely goes beyond the superficial, Joker does absolutely nail the grimy atmosphere of 1980s New York for the film’s period-inspired imagining of Gotham City. It’s easily the most distinctive and imaginative portrayal of the locale on screen since the Burton/Schumacher era, and everything from the production and costume design down to even the lighting and sound just oozes with seediness. Laurence Sher’s cinematography is the only aspect of the film that feels remotely comic book-inspired, shooting the film with a composition and palette that evokes the dark graphic novels of the 1980s in a vivid but grounded way. The film’s music by Hildur Guðnadóttir is also suitably eerie and uninviting, perfectly evoking the warped mindset of its protagonist; it’s a score worthy of a far better film.
Joker is to Martin Scorsese what Battleship was to Michael Bay; an empty attempt at imitation that confuses aesthetics and homage for quality and flattery. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance may be worthy of all the hype, but it cannot carry a film that without him is just an edgelord fantasy that thinks it is poetry. Phillips feels completely out of his depth like a toddler trying to talk at the big kids’ table, repeating the naughty words they heard on TV and hoping everyone thinks they’re cool, and just reeks of a filmmaker who thinks they are better than the material they are working with. The concept of making DC films outside of continuity with radically different takes is a great one, but Joker is a wasted opportunity to do something far more subversive with the material. Comic book movies shouldn’t have to pretend to be Oscar movies to receive respect. As Black Panther proved, you can get there by just being the best version of what you are.
FINAL VERDICT: 4/10