Leading up to the release of Joker, you could not browse social media, talk to friends, watch TV, or simply exist around other people, without hearing a “hot” take about the new Joker movie; it was either the most controversial and evil release of modern cinema or the best movie ever that’s going to be a game-changer for comic book movies. After having seen the movie twice, my frustration with this increasingly ludicrous discourse surrounding the movie has been replaced with genuine bafflement and curiosity, because it’s clearly neither of the two extremes; it’s simply a very good movie with an Oscar-worthy performance that has some problems and deals with controversial manners…just like most character study dramas have done since the existence of cinema, particularly Taxi Driver which is a consistent and blatant reference point for the Joker’s stylistic and narrative sensibilities. It’s a shame that, like Taxi Driver when it was released, a lot of the current discourse surrounding it will be about the controversy and the knee-jerk reactions to some aspects of it, rather than a logical and civil discussion about its merits and flaws.
First of all, no this movie does not encourage or glorify violence; it is a huge part of the story and Arthur’s arc as a character, however it’s not straightforwardly condemning it. It has more “high-brow” ambitions than simply saying “violence bad”, and whether it achieves those ambitions is obviously up to the viewer. On the flipside, no this movie is not a “game-changer” or the best comic book movie ever; it’s a really good movie, but this isn’t Batman Begins, Logan, or Deadpool, where those movies showed studios and mainstream audiences a different and unexpected take on the genre with high critical and audience receptions.
Having said that, I can now finally start talking about the actual movie! Directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix, Joker follows the story of Arthur Fleck and how he eventually reaches a point where his alter ego (the Joker) emerges in the backdrop of a frustrated Gotham City, which is a ticking time bomb. More so than usual your enjoyment of the movie will hinge on your willingness to think and interpret the ambiguous elements of the story, the world, and the characters, due to the nature of the movie and its ambitions; however, there are some “objective” truths about this movie that are pretty safe to discuss and will most likely please most people. Namely, Joaquin Phoenix gives an award-worthy performance that might be his best work to date; he makes the movie better than what it actually is, and I believe that his performance is not only nuanced and strong, but also relatable and sympathetic, which might be the reason behind all of this controversy surrounding the movie. It’s an absolutely riveting performance that slowly builds and descends into madness, from a well-meaning and struggling individual that just can’t seem to catch a break, to full-blown sociopath by the end; the brilliance of his performance is that by the end, you think back on the events and his portrayal and see where in that struggle of his, there was a monster lurking and waiting for his chance to emerge and consume Arthur, but also there’s sadness in seeing that come true because of how ‘true’ and relatable Arthur feels from the get go and throughout most of the movie. The rest of the cast also do a pretty good job with the roles; Robert De Niro and Zazie Beetz are good, but Frances Conroy and Brett Cullen are great as Arthur’s mom and Thomas Wayne respectively, however they are overshadowed by Phoenix.
Besides the excellence that elevates the movie in front of the camera, there’s a solid foundation build from the talent behind the camera as well; the movie has excellent set design, looks appropriately gritty and well shot, and has an excellent soundtrack, but all of that is put together superbly by the director. Todd Phillips direction leads the movie’s many puzzle pieces into a unified vision, which has a lot of questions and themes it’s looking to explore that makes the coherency and consistency of the sets, music, cinematography, and direction of the movie even more impressive; it’s not groundbreaking or any less from what you’d expect from a movie looking to be a character study of such a controversial and difficult subject, but given the popularity of the character and the pre-determined aspects that have to be adhered to, it adds another layer of difficulty to an already difficult task.
This brings me to the point where I discuss the more “subjective” elements of the movie and to a light spoiler warning; in this paragraph, I’m going to refer and discuss what some may find to be light spoilers, so if you don’t want to know anything about the movie or go in without expectations, this could spoil that for you. Joker is a movie that wants to do more than just say “violence bad” and “violent people are bad”, without exploring those statements further; what leads people to violence, are we blameless in creating the ‘Jokers’ of the world, can/should we attribute violent acts of others to another separate act? Furthermore, it’s interested in asking similarly difficult questions towards mental issues, and in all the questions it is asking, it’s providing little in terms of solid answers; this is where the movie will either win you over or lose you. I like it when movies want to ask important, difficult, and meaningful questions about our world and Joker certainly did that; it is full of scenes, moments, and shots that implore you to think about what was shown and how it got to that point. However, it’s cowardly and boring to raise questions and not provide clues and/or answers, and thankfully Joker provides enough food for thought when it comes to Arthur as a character not being idolized for his actions, making sure that the audience understands that his violent ways have severe consequences, and delivering a compelling character study of a person who thinks he’s owed glory and recognition, while all around him people are struggling to cope, finding a way (through violence and madness) to “get” what he wants. Furthermore, the movie is pretty good at respecting the audience’s intelligence and does not provide long, unnecessary exposition dumps or spell out information or concepts the audience should have picked up by now; for example, I’ve seen some critiques of the movie focusing on the fact that Gotham City is only shown in times of distress thus the audience does not care about the future of the city, but if we demand that filmmakers don’t spend time showing us the death of Batman’s parents because it is common knowledge by this point, then the same applies for Gotham City, meaning we know it’s a city worth fighting for because we’ve seen Batman movies before and read the comic books (also it’s kind of dumb that we need to have seen a city be nice in order to care if it falls in a violent, chaotic, upraise from villainous goons). However, the movie does stumble in this regard when it comes to mental health issues and delivering a satisfying twist, the former not having a satisfying or meaningful exploration, while the latter allowing the movie to have depth and rewatchability on some regards, but mostly being disappointing in terms of foreshadowing and consistent visual/auditory clues for a second viewing.
All this is to say that the Joker is a pretty good movie; I expected a lot of “hot” takes because of the popularity of the character (and the controversial nature of the movie and its director), but the discourse surrounding it has gotten ridiculous. If you hated the movie, then I’m sorry you had a bad time and I respect your opinion; if you thought this was the best movie you saw, then I’m happy for you and I respect your opinion as well. The reality is (as usual) somewhere in between: The Joker is pretty good, but not groundbreaking.
P.S. At the time of writing and editing this, a new stupid trend has emerged where journalists are now asking legendary directors what they think of Marvel movies knowing the answer and “cashing in” on the reactions. Can we please stop asking Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and whoever else these silly questions and try focusing on their exciting projects? As a massive fan of these artists (and a fan of comic book movies) I don’t care what they think of Marvel (unless they are directing a movie for them), because I just want them to make what they consider the best entertainment they can make; to fans, stop reacting to this click-baity, poor excuse of journalistic work; to journalists, stop asking dumb questions and start doing your job by maybe asking why legendary directors like Scorsese have such a hard time funding their work and keeping it in cinemas, or what can be done to make every genre sustainable in its own right (which is what we all want). In any case, people like different things and have different opinions; if Martin Scorsese does not like or respect comic book movies, then I respect his opinion but will continue to look forward to the new Batman movie; if a Marvel executive/director does not like or respect a Scorsese movie, then I’ll respect his/her opinion and still be eagerly counting down the days to the Irishman’s release (FYI it’s on November 27th, which is for streaming). It’s like their preferences and opinions don’t actually matter regarding the validity or value of our favorite things?! Who knew?