Coming fresh off a Golden Lion win at the Venice Film Festival, the DC supervillain film "Joker" hasn't been without its controversies, especially for its portrayal of its protagonist devolving into violence and seeking revenge on society. Is the movie itself any good or is it a self-serious undertaking that doesn't have much to offer on the topics it touches upon? Here's what the reviews say.
The Movie Traces How The Character Of Joker Came To Be
Joker imagines a Gotham City that looks suspiciously like Manhattan in the early '80s […] The air is stinking with gloom and decay, and among the morbidly downcast populace is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), our Clown Prince of Crime to Be.
When a trio of drunken Wall Street goons attack Arthur in a subway car, he reaches a breaking point. The fallout from that incident lights the match for an already on-edge Gotham City — plagued by garbage strikes and "super rats" and general civic decay — sending angry mobs into the streets in protest.
And While It Is A DC Movie, It Feels More Scorsese Than 'Suicide Squad'
Early on, director Todd Phillips films Phoenix from behind as he saunters his way down a bustling street, and we see in the actor's gait the unmistakable phantom of Travis Bickle, that seething rat in the big-city cage. If the Scorsese connection weren't clear enough, there's also Robert De Niro, essentially cast in the Jerry Lewis role he played against in The King Of Comedy — which is to say, as a talk-show host emulated from afar, and eventually up close, by an obsessive aspiring comic. Joker pantomimes '70s grit, wearing it like an extravagant vintage suit.
Phillips has said that though elements were drawn from 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke (in which the Joker is an unsuccessful stand-up), the film doesn't follow the comic books. A bold move for a universe with such an ardent fan base, but it's the film's greatest asset. Not only does it, and the character, sit completely apart from the rest of the DC Cinematic Universe, but it stands apart from comic book movies entirely (even The Dark Knight, as grounded as it was).
Joaquin Phoenix Delivers A Tour De Force Performance As Joker
As for the star of the show, this is undoubtedly Phoenix's movie and there is no denying that he is remarkable in it. More than anything, it's a surprisingly physical role: Arthur has a way of moving and dancing that is almost lyrical in its gumby-limbed contortion. While the uncontrolled laughter is a tic that the screenwriters rely on too heavily, Phoenix's dedication to the bit and his decision to infuse it with a kind of hyena cackle is suitably unnerving.
Phoenix fashions an astoundingly original portrayal of the seminal villain. That's not to say he's ignorant of the history behind the role though. While he claims he left past performances entirely out of sight, his depiction says otherwise. Traces of Jack Nicholson peak through, but Heath Ledger's impact is much more prominent — the long, greasy-green hair, the nervous ticks, the realism and concomitant departure from comic book movie stereotypes, the dread.
… But His Performance May Be The Strongest Thing In A Thinly-Plotted Movie
The film traces his gradual uncovering of family secrets, and his slow descent into homicidal mania — and I do mean slow. Joker doesn't have much of a plot, let alone any subplots, so there are only a couple of major sequences that haven't already been in the trailers […] However unusual its grungy 70s styling may be, Joker is ultimately nothing but a flimsy, two-hour supervillain origin movie, so the viewer is just waiting for Arthur to become the fully-fledged Clown Prince of Crime. If it had been chopped down to an hour and then intercut with a Batman plot, what a film that might have been.
Though Joker boasts Phoenix's finely layered performance, it contains nothing as quote-unquote "bonkers" as, say, Sandra Bernhard's absolutely deranged performance in The King of Comedy. There is nothing unpredictable about Joker, nothing we haven't seen before, no revelations that shift how we see the world or the story. For a movie that clearly prides itself on its edginess, it is weirdly inert and stolid.
And It's Hard To Watch The Movie Without Pondering Its Ethics
Watching Joker, it is impossible not to see the real world parallels. This is a film about a loner who is medicated and has a history of abuse. He feels invisible; he is mocked and disparaged by those around him. He is vulnerable and preyed upon, and he ultimately resorts to violence without remorse because he feels wronged and owed.
These are the kinds of justifications that have been propagated in manifestos and on the web by alt-right groups and by incels; we see it linked to individuals who commit domestic terrorism because they hate women, or minorities, or immigrants.
Phillips doesn't just observe his (de)evolution; he seems to revel in every rung of madness that Arthur descends, and in the growing fame and adulation it brings him.
Maybe he only sincerely means to capture and reflect the times; a mirror held up to the anger and alienation and class disparities that have shaped the world we find ourselves living in. The rules of the movie's moral universe, though, don't point toward some greater good as much as they just seem to celebrate — or at least tacitly approve — chaos as a cure for hopelessness, or merely for its own destabilizing sake.
Art cannot be blamed for stirring violence in the masses because art doesn't have agency. But it's always fair to question the artist. Why would Phillips choose to glorify and empathize with a terrorist? Why would he weaponize the justice-craving masses in order to arm the titular villain? Maybe he's just a nihilist?
But At The Very Least, It's Trying To Do Something Different With The Superhero Genre
Many have asked, and with good reason: Do we need another Joker movie? Yet what we do need — badly — are comic-book films that have a verité gravitas, that unfold in the real world[.]
[I]ts thrills, such as they are, may be secondhand — a faint echo of a bygone Hollywood — but not since Nolan has someone made a take on this particular world that feels so comfortable in its insulation.
At a time where existing pop culture properties — particularly comics — have become source material for almost every other work of art, Joker arguably deserves credit for breaking the mold in its own way. Sure, it's still a comic book film, but it's its own bonkers creature who has decided to absorb a bunch of Martin Scorsese, particularly Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, into its DNA like Seth Brundle hopping into a telepod with a fly.