Todd Philips Joker is going to be controversial and divisive (in many ways, it already is). This is to say, it will be needlessly controversial and divisive. This is not to say that Philips is not aiming for provocation, or that those worried about the film’s content are in the wrong for it. But this is also to say that, in the end, Joker is nothing more than a hollow experience meant to be edgy without any true substance. Which is not to say that Philips and co-writer Scott Silver do not attempt at a statement on something beyond the film. It is just that the thin political subtext is almost laughably myopic.
And that is the only laughable thing about the film. This “origin story” of the DC Comics villain has the most bleak worldview of any superhero film I’ve ever seen, and they’ve made a Watchman film. From moment one, we know we are in for a miserable experience. We watch as Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a clown-for-hire, is spinning a sign on the streets of seedy Gotham City. Philips puts a Taxi Driver filter over the city (the film owes so much debt to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy that it might as well be credited as an adaptation). Throughout the film, we see scummy alleys, graffiti-ridden subway cars, etc.
Fleck is introduced to us running after a pack of ne’er-do-well kids who stole his sign. They lull him into an alley, hit him over the head with the sign, and then literally kick him while he is down while the ringleader of the group repeats “harder.” Cut to title card.
Fleck lives with his mother in a rundown apartment. He is working on a standup career—his jokes come to life in the form of crazed scribbling in a notebook that is also lined with cutouts of pornography. He stalks his neighbor (Zazie Beetz), who he has a crush on.
The “romantic subplot,” it should be noted, is perhaps the most pitifully-executed aspect of the film. Not only does Zazie Beetz not have a memorable name, but she also literally does not have a voice of her own. I’m not here to spoil plot details, but the truth behind the romantic angle of the film is so obvious from the second time we see Beetz on screen that it is almost laughable how self-serious the script takes it. And the film takes it all the way, culminating in an on-the-nose flashback scene.
Perhaps the prevailing issue with Joker is the self-seriousness. There are plenty of issues, to be sure. Even the crowning achievement at the forefront of the film, Phoenix’s performance, is nothing to smile about. For the majority of the script, he plays Arthur narcoleptic, occasionally bursting with aggression but mostly mumbling through the script with heavy eyelids and a world-wearied weight to his face. It is a choice, but it is one that enhances the narcoleptic nature of the film’s first two acts.
The final act is the “provocative” and brash showcase of Joker’s true villainy, one that is occasionally surprising but that mostly reads as slightly irresponsible in its glib, unnuanced handling of mental illness. I say slightly, because I understand this is a comic book property, and thus the realism is a dubious concern. But if you see the film, you know that Philips’ goal is gritty realism and an exploration of mental illness perpetuated by a broken system. Arthur’s climactic monologue attests to this bottled up aggression over a society that “created” him. It is a frightening scene not because Arthur has reached the threshold of his villainy, but because it makes a superficial spectacle out of a serious real-world conversation about mental illness in America.
Throughout all of this, Joker dresses itself up in adult clothes and contests to its own maturity. In doing so, it nullifies whatever maturity might actually exist within the frame (there is certainly a visual maturation in Philips’ directorial career evidenced here). After an early outburst, the film pauses for Arthur to interpretive dance his violent catharsis while an over-bearing, melancholic cello score rumbles underneath. It follows such a stark, Scorsese-esque display of violence that it is an empty gesture. It is a creative flourish without any soul.
To put the final nail in the coffin, Joker is a movie that feels like a trolling mechanism. It may live on to become the quintessential anti-blockbuster, a film that will gross $80+ million in its opening weekend while pushing back against the traditional notion of a money-making studio picture. For some, this will be a selling point. It will prove that originality and risk still exist in the conglomerate system.
But this stunt feels as mean-spirited as the film itself. Watching the film, it feels as though Philips and Silver are embittered by the superhero formula. It seems they not only want to spit in the face of the genre, but that they aim to mock those who enjoy it as well. Joker is far removed from the superhero aesthetic and proud of it. It boasts a smaller death toll than other DC adaptations, but it makes each death a pointed moment of unsettling titillation. Perhaps this subversion of superhero violence is clever, but I read it as nothing more than cynical. Joker doesn’t want you to have fun at superhero movies, and if that’s what you came for than it duped you out of the price of admission. In this way, the joke is on you, and it is a cruel joke at that.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)