Review: ‘Joker’ isn’t as smart as it thinks it is

This review includes some spoilers.

Jokeradopts a paint-by-numbers approach to making a serious comic book movie, drawing directly from Martin ScorsesesTaxi Driver andThe King of Comedy.Instead of portraying the Joker as a sadistic prankster with a perverse sense of humor, director/co-writer Todd Phillips reimagines him as a tragic figure who struggles with mental illness, plagued by relatable socio-economic problems in a harsh, unforgiving city.

Phillips was keen to find realistic explanations for the Jokers appearance and behavior, abandoning the old origin story of a man falling into a vat of chemicals like Jack Nicholson in Tim BurtonsBatman. Differing from Heath Ledgers chaotic terrorist or Mark Hamills rascally megalomaniac,Jokers Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a professional clown who becomes a garden-variety serial murderer. His constant, inappropriate laughter is the result of a neurological condition, and his motives are easy to parse. Hes also uninterested in pranks or tricks, echoing Batmans evolution from caped crusader to a grim-faced Ben Affleck branding his logo into criminals skin.


RELEASE DATE: 10/04/2019
DIRECTOR: Todd Phillips
RELEASE: Theatrical
Joker reimagines the classic Batman villain as a sympathetic loner who struggles with mental illness. Set in a version of Gotham City inspired by Taxi Driver, this R-rated thriller offers a compellingly disturbing lead performance from Joaquin Phoenix, but isnt as sophisticated as it thinks.

Always eager to make himself repulsive onscreen, Joaquin Phoenix gives a hypnotizingly creepy performance, equal to his work inThe Master. But as the story wore on, I kept remembering Phillips admission that he used the Joker brand to sneak a real movie into the studio system, where original films are increasingly hard to fund. This background shines through becauseJokers gritty psychodrama side clashes with its role as a DC Comics origin story. Starting as a powerfully unsettling character study, it builds to the kind of corny and obvious finale youd expect from, yes, a studio superhero movie. If were going to talk about thematically mature superhero films,Logan had a better script, andBlack Panthers politics are more sophisticated.

Joker/DC Comics

Modeled on 1970s crime wave-era NYC,Jokers Gotham City is a gorgeous visual accomplishment. Grainy cinematography and a vintage color scheme give the impression of a film made 40 or 50 years ago, and the costumes (Mark Bridges) avoid the obvious retro choices you often see in period pieces. Its a perfect fit for the chaos and grime of Gotham.Unlike the gleaming metropolis of the Christopher Nolan movies, this city really does feel like somewhere that would spawn the Joker and Batman.

Usually viewed through a misty haze of Bruce Waynes childhood nostalgia, Jokers version of Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is more obnoxious. Hes a Reaganesque mayoral candidate who wants to save Gotham, but he blames working-class rioters for their own misfortune. Arthurs elderly mother Penny (Frances Conroy) writes unanswered letters begging Wayne for help, while Arthur aims his attention at a different celebrity idol: late-night talk show host Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro. It feels a little unfair to accuse a superhero adaptation of being derivative, but this set-up is identical toThe King of Comedy. In that film, De Niro played the wannabe comedian Rupert Pupkin, who idolized a late-night talk show host played by Jerry Lewis. Both Pupkin and Fleck fantasize about going on TV, and stalk attractive Black women in their neighborhoods (Jokers is played by Zazie Beetz, in a very minimal role).

Joker/DC Comics

Both movies culminate in violence, and both characters attract a kind of public following. Arthur Fleck is like a strange cross between Tommy Wiseau(whose extreme weirdness provokes fascination) andBernard Goetz, a vigilante who shot four Black teens on the New York subway in 1984. While Goetz sparked a conversation about crime and racism, Jokers inciting moment of violence is all about economic inequality.

Without going into detailed spoilers, Arthur Flecks first victims are rich; a crime thats interpreted by the media as the first volley in a class war. He becomes the unlikely face of a social movement, inspiring people to don clown masks and take to the streets. Thus begins a riot that paints movements like Occupy Wall Street as one-note thugs. On an individual level,Joker is great at portraying the tiny moments of pain caused by welfare cuts and an uncaring society. But on a macro scale,Jokers politics are childishly cynical about activism, and no more complex than your average Batman films view of capitalism.

After all the political backlash to this movie, I was surprised by a more subtle problem:Joker really buys into the old idea of queer-coded villainhood. This is a long-running trope in everything from Disney cartoons to Bond movies, and its different from actually portraying a character as gay. We know Arthur Fleck is attracted to women, illustrated by him stalking his neighbor. But subtextually, the film draws clear connections between his mental illness, his violent behavior, and his inability to perform traditional masculinity.

Joker/DC Comics

As a flamboyant figure who seeks to destroy Batmans macho heroism, the Joker has a long history of queer coding. Phoenixs version is a blatant example. There are numerous scenes where he gazes into mirrors while applying makeup, contrasting with other clowns who are portrayed as regular Joes, rarely wearing greasepaint onscreen. He has a close relationship with his mother (an old favorite in the queer-coding playbook, harking back toPsycho), and fixates on the handsome, confident Murray Franklin as a father figure and imaginary friend. In private moments we see him dance gracefully and experiment with his appearance, portrayed as freakish yet oddly delicate. His slim figure, long hair and bright clothing offer a clear contrast with Cullen and De Niros grey suit-wearing patriarchs. And when Fleck finally embraces the Joker persona, his big monologue sounds almost camp. Its one of the main ways he differs from De Niros characters inTaxi Driver andThe King of Comedy, adding a subtly homophobic edge to a film that doesnt actually feature any gay characters.

People who sawJoker at early festival screenings had a very different experience to the audiences watching it on opening night. At the Venice Film Festival, a jury of art cinema insiders awarded it the Golden Lion, placingJoker alongsideRoma andBrokeback Mountain. They embraced it on the terms its director wanted, treating it as a real movie, probably without intimate knowledge of the lead characters fandom and political baggage. But in the wider pop-culture context of 4chan, incels andmass shooting threats,Joker has a more complicated impact than an indie drama with similar themes.

Following hard questions aboutJokers potential to inspire real-life violence, Warner Bros. canceled all press interviews at the premiere. We now face a new twist on the debate about separating art from artist. Can we separateJokers artistic quality from the characters toxic baggage? Do we actually need another movie sympathizing with a violent, isolated white man?It is unfair to judgeJokerpurely on thoseterms?The strangest part of this whole controversy is that Warner Bros. was seemingly unprepared for it, when this was alwaysa depressingly predictable outcome.

We can easily clear up one part of this debate, however:Jokerdoesnt portray its protagonist in a positive light. Its certainly sympathetic, in the sense that we feel the visceral awkwardness and pain of his isolation. He tries and fails to understand social cues that most people follow instinctively. At the same time, the film repeatedly highlights how Arthur makes women feel uncomfortable, and how easily he slides into violence. Some of the extended close-ups of Phoenixs face are almost too uncomfortable to watch. Its the least glamorous, least charming depiction of the Joker weve ever seen, and the violent moments are grimy and unpleasant. Theres no Tarantino-esque flashiness here. For all that we might feel bad for Arthur Fleck at first,this film isnt ambiguous in its moral message. However, I still think the two sides of the isJoker irresponsible? debate are arguing at cross-purposes.

While Phoenix, Phillips, and co-writer Scott Silver didnt plan to glorify the Joker, the story structure does exactly that.Joker is a power fantasy for the kind of person who has Arthur Flecks emotional problems and delusions of grandeur. At the start, hes miserable, downtrodden, and overlooked by the world. By the end hes a celebrity villain, sparking a violent uprising of people who copy the hair and makeup that previously made him a target for bullying. Hes also embraced his true identity as a dangerous, misunderstood outsider. Jokertakes the themes and imagery of two classic Scorsese movies and tacks them over the simple struggle-and-victory arc of a superhero story.

The question of whether the Joker is portrayed as admirable (which he isnt) is immaterial. Hes portrayed as successful andnotorious, which is generally the end goal for copycat killers. Its honestly unbelievable thatJokers creative team didnt take this into account, especially considering the characters existing status as the edgy, violent king of the trolls. So whileJoker has plenty to offer especially in terms of Joaquin Phoenixs performancethis oversight makes it less thematically coherent than plenty of straightforward superhero blockbusters.

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