“Joker” may be the best-made film that I actively hated. With brilliant acting, excellent cinematography, and phenomenal source material, this movie should have been amazing. I really wanted to love it, too. I’ve always held deep affection for comic book movies, and the more serious, artistic tone sounded exciting.
Unfortunately, there was nothing enjoyable, moving, or engaging about “Joker,” which decided to trade an interesting story and compelling characters for a grim tone and a dearth of anything in which to emotionally invest. The fact that the film has been nominated for 11 Oscars (more than any other this year) and is likely to win a fair share is frustrating.
“Joker” was a colossal disappointment. The opening showed promise, and the cast was exceptional. However, the dull and meandering story never gave any cause to truly invest in the proceedings. The best word that could be used to describe “Joker” is “bleak.” Everything about the world inhabited by the protagonist Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is as depressing as humanly possible.
Depression With No Bright Spots
Fleck, a professional clown and aspiring stand-up comedian, has been broken down by the world. His mother is domineering and unstable, he is regularly assaulted on the job, and his mental instability (including a condition causing him to laugh uncontrollably at odd moments) leave him isolated and marginalized from society. He does have a hope: a dream of becoming a stand-up comedian.
In a better film, this ambition would provide one spot of hope in his otherwise dreary existence, making his ultimate failings a tragic reversal. However, director Todd Phillips does not have so deft a touch, and it becomes overwhelmingly clear from the outset that Fleck’s career will go nowhere. With no hope, the narrative has a frustrating lack of positive momentum needed to keep the audience invested.
I did not hate the film from the beginning. The dour tone established Fleck’s tragic circumstances, which would mold him into the insane criminal he inevitably became. This is an origin story, after all, and the point is to watch the events that drive Fleck to don the clown makeup and begin terrorizing Gotham.
However, the tone never lets up for even a moment. I kept hoping for the turning point, at which the plot would take off and the story would become interesting. This never happened. Instead, Fleck’s life became increasingly dire, as the narrative pulls away any remaining reasons to care about him or those around him. Nor are his actions examined with any depth or nuance required to make a satisfying character study.
“Joker” also becomes muddled in messaging in the latter part of the film. I am not of the mind that every film needs to have a message or grand theme to be worthwhile or enjoyable. However, “Joker” professes to have some deep, important raison d’être, but the expression is confused amidst mixed messages surrounding class warfare and societal struggles.
Even before “Joker” came out, the film became the subject of a moral panic. This focused on a tragic shooting in Colorado at a theater showing “Dark Knight Rises” perpetrated by a man dressed as Joker and leftist fear of an incel uprising prompted by the central character’s rage. Many wrote the film off before it even came out, due to its alleged humanization of a violent criminal. It was perceived as a testament to white male rage, especially due to trailer footage of a massive riot filled with faces in clown masks.
However, once one actually sees the movie, it becomes abundantly clear that Antifa is a far better comparison for the clown movement than the alt-right. The message of the riots is “kill the rich,” expressing a fury towards the elites, represented by billionaire and gubernatorial candidate Thomas Wayne (father to the future Batman, Bruce Wayne).
It is unclear whether Phillips wishes for the audience to sympathize with the plight of the downtrodden citizens of Gotham City, or be turned off by the brutality of their violence. In one of many callbacks to original Batman source material, the riots culminate in a protester murdering the aforementioned Thomas Wayne and his wife Martha right in front of their young son, Bruce.
The chilling if cliché moment of Martha’s pearls spilling in the alley and Bruce’s heartache seems to imply a negative thought of the clown movement. Joker’s triumphant moment amidst the crowd keeps the situation ambiguous, but not in a good way. In watching the film, it becomes laughable to recall how leftists clutched their pearls at the potential right-wing implications of humanizing a violent criminal, but a simple viewing renders the political outrage moot.
The 1981 pre-Batman Gotham City the film inhabits is a cruel, sadistic unfeeling place, compounding Fleck’s misery. The cinematography highlights the city’s decay with stunningly composed shots. Gotham is clearly an allusion to the pre-Giuliani New York City that housed Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” But no amount of homages, or casting of Robert De Niro, can give “Joker” a fraction of the artistry exhibited in the masterpiece. In “Taxi Driver,” Scorsese balanced the tone beautifully, providing audiences just enough sympathy and optimism to allow the audience to invest in Travis Bickle, a character far better developed than the Joker that graces Phillips’s film.
Compare It to Other Batman and Joker Portrayals
Joker is a truly iconic character, up there in importance and notoriety with his sworn enemy, Batman. He’s been brought to life brilliantly several times, most notably by Jack Nicholson in “Batman,” Mark Hamill in “Batman: The Animated Series,” and Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight,” who broke a long tradition of comic book movies being overlooked by awards voters when he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
All three portrayals are remarkably different. Nicholson is more akin to a clown-themed mobster than a supervillain. Hamill’s rendition truly lived up to the moniker “The Clown Prince of Crim”’ through balancing dual motivations: attaining and maintaining Batman’s attention and completing the jokes that appeal to his sadistic sense of humor.
Compared to the other two, Ledger’s Joker is shrouded in mystery, from giving three possible explanations for the origin of his scars to a shadowy motivation of spreading chaos. Alfred sums him up best, saying “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Just as fans love debating between Michael Keaton and Christian Bale as the best cinematic caped crusader (Bale being the obvious answer), the respective merits of Joker’s disparate iterations have become standard fodder for discourse.
Phoenix Coulda Been a Contender
Then it was announced that Phoenix would be the next illustrious actor to take on Joker. When the news broke, I and many others were overwhelmed with excitement. Phoenix is easily one of the best actors working today, effortlessly effective and compelling in every project he attempts.
From quieter indie fare like the underrated 2018 western “The Sisters Brothers” and “Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” traditional Oscar-bait dramas including “The Master” and “Walk the Line,” and major movies such as “Gladiator,” he disappears into his roles, creating fully realized, fascinating people from each. His talent and weirdness combine to made him seem to be the perfect choice to bring Joker back to the big screen.
In the aftermath of The Dark Knight trilogy, DC comic film adaptations have failed to recapture the great heights attained by Nolan’s take on Batman, with a train of hit-or-miss properties plunged in sorrow. Even the two most upbeat (and coincidentally best) films in the DCEU, “Wonder Woman” and “Shazam,” deal with heavy themes of loss, abandonment, and man’s capacity for evil. And they were the happy ones.
This jarring tonal situation for the DCEU should ideally serve a Joker film. The Joker can be a remarkably dark character, even for a supervillain. The sadistic villain has taken part in some atrocious crimes. He beats Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) to the point where she loses the use of her legs. He abuses and manipulates off-and-on girlfriend Harley Quinn. He brutally murdered the child Jason Todd, Batman’s replacement Robin from Dick Grayson.
Nevertheless, there is an odd levity to everything the clown does. To the Joker, everything is a joke. Not in a nihilistic “nothing matters, and my life is a meaningless joke” sense, but legitimately funny and clever to him. Todd Phillips, best known for the puerile but hysterical “The Hangover,” clearly has the comedic chops to handle the darkly humorous side of the character, and his oft-referenced Scorsese influences and experience producing more dramatic fare sounded like the ideal balance between for bringing to life the most iconic villain in superhero history. “Joker” should have been everything “Venom” failed to be. Yet it wasn’t.
Phoenix will most likely win Best Leading Actor at the Oscars. And he definitely deserves the award. His performance was chilling, captivating, and endlessly believable. However, this performance was the only redeeming aspect in an otherwise disappointing film.