JOKER – an Alternative Lens review

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

Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

34 thoughts on “JOKER – an Alternative Lens review”

  1. “As black panther proved”
    Why are you comparing a marvel movie to a movie based on a character you clearly don’t understand?

    1. Because I am trying to demonstrate that a comic book movie can receive critical acclaim and Oscar attention by simply being a great example of the genre it is from, rather than adopting the trappings of “real cinema” in order to deemed “worthy” as Phillips himself has admitted.

      Also, I understand The Joker. I even understand this Joker. I just didn’t like it. There’s a difference. If there’s any misunderstanding here, I think it’s that you have misunderstood my review, possibly wilfully so.

      1. Do you enjoy anything? Or are you just another millennial getting their joy and sense of self-worth by hating everything. “Critics” like you forget why we go to the movies. Portraying headliner 2019 issues doesn’t make a good movie, only makes you sheep by easily hopping on the emotional bandwagon. Where everyone has to give a crap about every single person’s feelings or otherwise be outcasted. Get off your computer, go watch a movie, eat popcorn, and enjoy the created Entertainment! If you want “real cinema” get back on that high horse and go watch CATS when it comes out for all you pretentious goons. The word different is around for a reason, as well as genre, style, taste, interest, fun, boring, sheep, hermit, dumb, annoying, heaton, and jennifer.

      2. Dude, you’re the one who gives enough of a crap about my opinion to send me this screed. You like the movie? That’s fine! Go enjoy it. You are as entitled to your opinion as I am to mine. If anything, you’re the sheep for joining in with the herd bombarding me with the same angry crap.

        And yes, I enjoy plenty of movies. If I didn’t like movies, I wouldn’t be a critic. And if I hated on everyone who disagreed with me, I’d be a troll. Sound familiar?

  2. I’m not sure we saw the same film – I found this utterly compelling from the first moment to the last, and the reveal (which maybe I should have seen coming) of his relationship with his neighbor being entirely in his head worked perfectly for me. I found that Phoenix’s impeccable acting made him vulnerable, and his backstory made him sympathetic, and the masterful music score reinforced both. I believe this will be as well regarded as the dark knight.

    1. That’s great! Nothing wrong with liking the movie. I don’t disagree with you that Phoenix and the score are fantastic. Cinema is subjective, and we simply diverged in opinion here.

  3. I think the movie just went over your head. Anyone who doesn’t give this film a positive review is uncultured swine. This is high art; not a happy, children’s comedy, Marvel movie. Treat yourself to a juice box and some fruit snacks and let the adults take it from here. Send in the clowns.

    1. Sweetie, you can like the movie as much as you want, but you’re the one leaving a smug comment filled with cliches. If you want to criticise my review, go ahead. Back it up with a demonstrable argument and points of reference. Just leaving disparaging remarks makes me question who is the real child here. Send in the trolls…

      1. Black Panther proved? Yes, I’m sure a film underlined with many memes is such a great example of what a movie should be pertain too. Also, may I include that many people believed the Black Panther shouldn’t have won, but due to negative reviews of the oscars and it’s exclusivity towards certain race groups is what got the Oscar handed to them. Their are many versions of the joker, and I respect yours, but I believe some people don’t mind this gritty dark side that’s revealed. It’s actually gives a sense of reality instead of some marvelous DC or Marvel depicted character with 3/10 movie rating like captain marvel. It might also be that some people are tired of seeing the same depicted bad guy like Loki. I believe this movie wasn’t intended to sympathize and idolize a bad guy, but to shed light and understand the tragedies certain individuals go threw, and in today’s society recognize and understand the signs for whatever that may be. And reading other reviews from this movie, other people can certainly relate with the prejudices society has unto itself. Is it family friendly? No, but should a director change his vision just to fit certain people into this category? Absolutely not. With that being said I don’t understand why a movie must meet comic book requirements when comic movies themselves are way off. And if people don’t like it, they can create their own movie. Problem solved.

      2. Wow, honey! You are majorly projecting here!

        I am not saying every movie should have to like Black Panther. I want a wide variety of different comic book movies. I am saying explicitly draping your movie in the aesthetics of another beloved filmmaker in an attempt to be deemed “real art” as if comics books aren’t is limiting and demeaning to the form.

        Also, Black Panther didn’t win Best Picture. It was nominated and won some technical awards. But considering you seem to think it was nominated because of “race groups” and go on to deride Captain Marvel out of nowhere, I don’t exactly take your opinion seriously.

        Seriously, it’s like you are deliberately missing the point just to get yourself riled up. All you guys are just a bunch of clichés.

    1. Lol I agree this post is lame and i also loved the movie. I thought it was brilliant. This was the first negative review that came from the critics column on Flixter app. I decided to read it and am leaving with the impression that anyone can be a critic. I’ll file this review under the same categorie as those amazon reviews that flag a solid product as a 1 star because the shippent was late a few hours. The audience reviews is where its at.

      1. I never said you couldn’t like the movie. You are entitled to your opinion, as I am to mine. The fact you admit you found my review by clicking on the first negative one you saw on Flixster proves a point: you are purposefully looking for negative criticism. Plus, dismissing me by saying “anyone can be a critic” and then saying audience reviews are better is somewhat of an oxymoron, ain’t it?

  4. It’s a shame to hear, I was looking forward to this movie thinking it may buck the trend on terrible DC movies. I will of course see it myself and make my own mind up. I love the Joker as a character but I find the way he is almost idolised is disturbing, the same way Walter White in breaking bad.

    Great review as always!

    1. Thanks, man. Glad I have some positivity in the ocean of troll comments I’m currently wading through.

      Also, hey! I loved Wonder Woman and Shazam!

      1. I haven’t actually seen those yet. I’m waiting for them to appear on a streaming service. I have heard good things about both.

        I enjoyed Man of Steel, yet I think that was the only I did enjoy of the DCU. I turned Suicide Squad off after an hour (I’m cautiously optimistic for Suicide Squad 2 given the director.) I also turned Justice League off after twenty minutes.

        I also wish they’d just bring back the Constantine TV show.

  5. This is a joke of a review. You sure you saw the movie? Your review was so interesting that I feel asleep halfway.
    I would appreciate you if I could find atleast one worthy reply to your review here complementing it.

    1. Well, if you fell asleep reading it, maybe you should finish and consider my opinion before deriding it?

      Also, I don’t do this because I want to be unanimously agreed with. I do this because I want to share my opinion. I’m not some mindless troll who has to agree with their tribe and hate on everyone who disagrees with me. Or is that how things work on your planet?

    1. obvious troll

      See, I can hurl unimaginative insults just as good as the boys.

      Also, I like to think I’m a fairly intelligent slut, thank you very much!

      1. If I delete, they’d just call me a coward or say I’m “silencing” them. I let them stand to demonstrate the ridiculousness of the trolling, and I comment to put their words in context and show them up for the fools they are. It’s hard, but it’s how I roll.

  6. Any way. I watched the movie and I do say it was one of the best movies I have seen lately. For the time span of some 2 hrs, the movie was very well made. Joaquin Phoenix did a very good job with his acting which is worth every appreciation. The direction was good.
    The movie clearly depicts how dark and unethical our world has become which I feel is apt in today’s scenario. The character ‘Arthur’ has given well to go messages through out the movie on different aspects of Human’s sinister behaviour, whether it be through himself or be it through other characters.
    The movie wasn’t about the ‘Hero’ Joker or a character on whom we are supposed to sympathize on, it’s about the rise of Joker. How various traumas in his life, starting from his childhood turned his the way he now is.
    I feel every movie is different on its own and so is this one. I don’t understand thrashing a movie just by comparing it with some other movies or with directorial factors. Your rating of 4/10 just because you found some meek dislikes doesn’t justify the fact that you are a ‘Critic’.
    Some ‘poor excuse to be a movie’ movies have better ratings one of the best examples being ‘Captain Marvel’.

    1. You are literally criticising me for doing my job. It isn’t my duty to like a movie. It is to give my honest opinion. You disagree? Great! Stop trying to explain to me why I am wrong. You are not going to bully me into suddenly liking it. If you don’t like what I had to say, you can leave it and find plenty of other critics who do agree with you.

    2. 4/10 is hardly a terrible score; it simply means bad but with bright spots. No one dictates what I score a movie except me, and I think 4 is fair.

  7. Nice review. I didn’t like your comparison to Travis Brickle, where you state we are reminded not to emphasize with them. I completely disagree. For one, the phone scene where Travis is destroyed by Cybil shepherd is clearly meant to have us empathize with Travis, Martin has even said as much. Secondly, while the ending of TD is open to interpretation, taking it face value actually glorifies Travis Brickles actions. So I really do not feel like you are making fair or relevant comparison between the two movies

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