WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
A character study of how a socially-awkward but harmless clown-for-hire named Arthur Fleck would go onto become the Batman’s most feared enemy: The Joker.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Despite being released today worldwide, I could have sworn that Joker has been out for weeks. Superhero and/or comic book movies are so commonplace now that it takes something like Avengers: Endgame to really conquer the public – at least geek-public – discord, but Joker has been a hot-button topic ever since reviews started to pour in from the Toronto Film Festival about a month ago.
Marking the first entirely standalone film from DC Comics since Warner Brothers started the DC Extended Universe series of films, Joker is a serious, sombre, reasonably realistic take on one of DC’s most iconic villains. It borrows a little from the graphic novel that is usually considered the ultimate Joker tale, The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, but it’s mostly an entirely original take on how an ordinary if slightly socially-awkward man could go on to become something as insane and as monstrous as The Joker.
It has largely been very well received by everyone who has seen it but the message of the film has very much come under fire in some quarters. Crucially, unlike your usual media-causes-violence hysteria that seldom has a leg to stand on and is normally fuelled by prudish, knee-jerk reactionaries, there is actual substance to worries about what the film is saying – or, at the very least, what the wrong people might think it’s saying.
Before looking at that message, though, there’s no denying that the delivery of that message is mighty impressive. Joker is, before anything else, a very fine piece of filmmaking. And I say this as someone who may be a lifelong comic book fan but who is more than a little bit tired of the Joker. Yes, it’s unbelievably po-faced with nary a laugh to be found anywhere in its two-hour running time (ironic, considering its subject matter, perhaps, but that’s only if we assume that clowns are actually funny) and it does have the air of a filmmaker thinking they’re too good for the genre in which they’re working, but it is, undeniably, a really good piece of work.
My favourite Joker will always be Mark Hamill’s immortal take on the character in Batman: The Animated Series (and later follow-ups like Justice League Unlimited and Batman Beyond) but Heath Ledger’s place as the definitive live-action version now has some serious competition. Joaquin Phoenix is sensational as Arthur Fleck, and every step of his downfall (uprising?) towards becoming the Joker is both believable and dramatically compelling. It’s not the subtlest performance in the world - his top-notch supporting cast is there for that, including a small but film-stealing turn from Robert De Niro, who hasn’t been this good in years – but it is undeniably a highly committed one that makes it impossible to tear your eyes away from the screen even in the film’s most disturbing moments. If nothing else, his laugh will haunt your nightmares for nights to come.
And, make no mistake, Joker is disturbing as hell – and that’s even before we get to its big controversy! Director and co-writer (along with celebrated screenwriter, Scott Silver), Todd Phillips is probably still best known for dopey but sometimes very funny comedies like Old School, Road Trip and the increasingly crap Hangover movies and, though he did do the slightly more serious War Dogs a couple of years ago, Joker is a remarkable heel-turn. It’s a slow-burn of a character study that features none of the wildness, comedy, or silliness with which Phillips has long been affiliated.
Despite my many reservations about the humourlessness of the film and the snottiness of Joker playing like its above mere superhero films, Phillips’ transition towards drama is very impressive, even if his attempt at social commentary is not (I’m getting to it, I’m getting to it). The pace is slow, yes, but it is expertly controlled, and there’s no denying just how good Phillips is at manipulating the audience’s emotions: there’s a sense of dread throughout, but he shoots that through with moments of pathos, revulsion, full-blown horror and, yes, even some thrills. He’s even smart enough to allow the marvellous Zazie Beetz to provide some moments of much-needed tenderness to the proceedings as Arthur’s next-door neighbour and potential love interest. And, for all that Phoenix deserves the plaudits he will receive for bringing Arthur Fleck to life, Fleck is a very well-written character, even on paper.
The problem, ultimately, is that though Phillips has clearly become a very impressive director, there is a sense that the subject matter of the film somewhat gets away from him. This is, after all, a Serious movie with something Serious to say but, really, what exactly is that something – and is it anywhere near as toxic as its harshest critics suggest?
The brilliance of the Joker in most incarnations is that he is a force of pure, uncontrolled chaos. He’s a character that is, very simply, a violent psychopath who exists purely to be the yin to the law and order of his arch-nemesis’ yang. Making him the murderer of Thomas and Martha Wayne in Tim Burton’s Batman was one of that film’s biggest failings, as was even the merest hint of an origin story for the character in The Killing Joke that book’s greatest weakness. Going in, Joker had an uphill battle of being an origin story of a character that works best without an origin story and one that makes far more sense as a twisted reflection of Batman than as a character in and of himself.
That Joker works as well as it does it testament to the excellent work put in by everyone to make the film as good as it could possibly be but humanising the Joker has proven to be a bit too tricky a minefield to ever entirely overcome. For all that the film tries to escape its comic book origins, by the end of the film, the Joker is very much the (modern-era) Joker with which we are all familiar. The way the film tries to explain how someone like Arthur Fleck can become something like the Joker can most charitably be read as a “bad world makes bad people” - which is, I believe, Phillips’ point – and, let’s be honest, that is rather less than inspired.
More worrying, though, is that the film can be read as a heroic (or at least anti-heroic) portrait of its titular character and, through that lens, the entire film really can very easily be read as an “incel” wish fulfilment fantasy: an affirmation that a certain kind of person’s (Google “incel” for a better understanding of the kind of person we’re talking about here) worst antisocial behaviour can be excused by the fact that the world is a messed up place that treats the socially awkward as pariahs. Whether any of these people will ever actually use the film as an excuse to commit heinous acts is, honestly, pretty unlikely, but the fact that it is so easy to read Joker in that way IS a failing of the film on a purely dramatic level.
Not that any of this means that you shouldn’t see Joker. It has great performances, it’s expertly put together, and it’s simply and quite undeniably incredibly absorbing. It’s also worth seeing just to debate its questionable conclusions. For all of its portentous seriousness, though, and for all that more ignorant critics are calling it something like "the film where superhero films finally grow up", it still doesn’t hold a candle to what is still the best comic-book movie of the year, Avengers: Endgame.