Film Review: Joker

“Revolutionary” Origin Story Reimagines Itself Back Into Familiar Territory

Devin D. O'Leary
7 min read
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Less than a week into release and the superhero-adjacent film Joker is already igniting controversy—from fears that misguided fans would shoot up theaters to speculation that the character serves as inspiration to disenfranchised incels, gaslighting abusers and internet trolls worldwide. As a piece of filmmaking, Joker has flashes of skill. It looks good and features some gutsy performances. It’s not a terrible movie by any means. A truly terrible movie is unworthy of any debate. If someone tells you Bio-Dome with Pauly Shore is the greatest comedy in the history of American cinema, you don’t argue the point. You walk away shaking your head. Trust me, Joker invites plenty of debate.

Method-acting machine Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a pitiful sidewalk clown in Gotham City who dreams of becoming a stand-up comic on his favorite late-night talk show, “The Murray Franklin Show.” Every night he stays up with his doting (and tellingly obsessive) mother (Francis Conroy from “American Horror Story” and “Six Feet Under”) watching the show and fantasizing about joking around with the famous Mr. Franklin (Robert De Niro). But poor Arthur has led a tough life. Mom has been sick (both mentally and physically) since quitting her job working for billionaire Thomas Wayne. Arthur suffers from a mental disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at the most inopportune times. He’s bullied more often than the characters in
Revenge of the Nerds. Despite the piles of “comedy” journals he keeps, Arthur is an inexcusably bad comedian. Oh, and the heartless government cuts medical funding, ending his access to medication and therapy (which, frankly, didn’t seem to be doing much anyway).

So how does our protagonist respond? Naturally, he kills a couple random stock brokers. Somehow, this inspires the poor, downtrodden citizens of Gotham City to put on clown masks of their own, take to the streets and start protesting the rich and powerful—which motivates Arthur (now dubbed “Joker”) to kill some more people. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.

Joker is set in a sort of late ’70s New York fantasia. This Gotham City is a cesspool of crime, garbage and graffiti. While it gives the film a certain level of grit, it’s hardly an original take on Batman’s birthplace. In fact, it’s pretty much the same spin everyone puts on the location. Giving it that grungy ’70s crime film look is cool and all—but FOX’s “Gotham” did the exact same thing for seven seasons. It even had the same pre-Batman, Bruce-Wayne-as-a-kid timeframe. Yet that drama came up with more mad, colorful, over-the-top inspiration than 100 Joaquin Phoenixes dancing to “Rock and Roll (Part 1)” could offer.

Writer-director Todd Phillips and his crew have clearly been influenced by the work of Martin Scorsese. His NYC-set films
Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are obvious antecedents. That’s all well and good. But Phillips goes way beyond “influence” and “homage.” His Joker is nearly a beat-for-beat, character-for-character mix of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. (His casting of De Niro, in the role played by Jerry Lewis in King of Comedy, is less a winking nod and more an admission of guilt.) Scorsese’s Taxi Driver has always been the cracked, mirror universe template for a particularly dark Batman-style vigilante. So it doesn’t take much to transfer the idea back to the comic book realm. But Phillips (best known, so far, for raunchy comedies Road Trip, Old School and The Hangover) conveniently ignores the original’s ironic use of violence as catharsis and its overall cautionary tone.

Instead, Phillips’ well-voiced contempt for “cancel culture” and his “why isn’t anyone laughing at my gay jokes anymore?” sense of persecution sweats from nearly every frame of the film. By being entirely wishy-washy in its political and social convictions, the script thinks it’s sidestepping controversy. (This Joker seems to have no particular motivations or goals other than mental illness.) But the controversy has sprung up anyway. The Joker’s followers adopt masks and call themselves “clowns” after a rich, would-be politician dubs them such. In context, “clowns” sounds an awful lot like “deplorables.” The film’s excuse for someone going on a murderous rampage is not the ready availability of guns or the institutional ostracization of segments of our population. Instead, the excuse here is bullying and women who won’t sleep with creepy adult virgins and bleeding heart liberals who want to keep poor people tied to social welfare and—worst of all—“politically correct” people who just can’t appreciate a good joke. In truth, none of these things is a legitimate excuse for going on a murderous rampage. Becoming a mass murderer is not an appropriate response to … anything.

There’s sufficient ass-covering on display that the filmmakers can say Joker is portrayed as a villain and not as an admirable icon of “silent majority” outrage. And yet … the film still ends with Joker (quite literally) lifted up on a pedestal and cheered by throngs of worshipful followers. How else are we intended to interpret this film?

To be fair, Phoenix throws himself, body and soul, into his performance. But it’s questionable, really, how much he has to work with. He plays a deeply disturbed guy who … gets even more deeply disturbed. So, yeah, he’s pretty good at acting crazy. But there are no other shades to highlight here. No twists or turns in the narrative. No surprises. Nothing resembling a character arc. The film’s trajectory is a rocket pointing downward.

All of this brings up the question of “why even make a Joker movie to begin with?” The Joker has always existed as a diptych with Batman, two sides of the same flawed coin. Without Batman to bounce off of, there’s really not much for the character to do. And it’s not like Phillips comes up with any deeper level of understanding to the character. We spend an awful lot more time watching Arthur go crazy (well, crazier), but all of this could have (and pretty much has been) summed up as a 15-minute flashback sequence in another film entirely. We end up with a lot more details (troubled mother, abusive stepfather, weird mental affectation, early employment as a clown), none of which provides any actual insight into the character’s evolution. They’re just … more details. We don’t need to see Godzilla’s childhood to get a window into his adult behavior. Godzilla simply is. And perhaps the Joker works better when he simply is. An unfathomable force of nature. A villain for the hero to defeat. Not a sympathetic sad sack who’d probably be fine if he just got his meds back. I can’t, for the life of me, imagine
this guy becoming the criminal mastermind who bedevils the Dark Knight Detective.

For all its hype about focusing solely on the Joker, for all its controversy-courting, for all its dogged insistence on ignoring DC Comics canon in order to spin its own “new” mythology,
Joker adds next to nothing fresh or original. Hell, Phillips even ends up including the umpteenth restaging of Batman’s origin. We get to see Thomas and Martha Wayne gunned down in the alley outside a movie theater once again—slow-mo pearls bouncing off the cement and everything. Maybe Joker isn’t a misguided misstep because of Phillips. (Though he certainly doesn’t help the cause.) Maybe—and I hate to think this—the mythology of Batman has simply run its course. Until somebody comes up with something different to say about these characters and this setting, it may be time to give them a well-deserved rest.
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