It’s remarkable what a film can go through before the general public has even had a chance to buy a ticket. The trailer for Todd Phillip’s Joker was the best of the year. When it dropped, suddenly an eccentric side-project—a mid-budget standalone origin story, inspired by Scorsese flicks, starring Joaquin Phoenix and inexplicably separate from the rest of the DC franchise—became one of the most anticipated films of 2019. When it won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, the stakes were raised. Nobody could miss the new precedent: this was no longer just a comic book movie with a more “adult” approach (Logan, say), but a film that had been prestigiously anointed like no other of its kind. Nobody could miss the irony either. Venice has faced controversy lately over a lack of female representation, and any hope that jury president Lucrecia Martel might change that gave way to a reality where one of the 21st century’s most acclaimed female filmmakers gave a Golden Lion to the director of The Hangover, a frat-bro touchstone unable to imagine a woman who isn’t either a domestic shrew or a down-to-party stripper. Meanwhile, critics fretted about whether Joker‘s outside-the-box take on superhero IP portended freedom or an insidious dependency. Law enforcement went on call at certain screenings, in case the film’s perceived glorification of violent loners inspired a mass shooter to open fire (this is, apparently, the world we live in now). And just for good measure, Todd Phillips stirred the pot on Twitter when he said that PC culture was killing comedy.
You could be forgiven for exhaustion. By the time I waited out the frenzy and actually saw the movie, a different quote from Phillips’ press junket came to mind. As he told TheWrap, mid-controversy:
We didn’t make the movie to push buttons…I literally described it to Joaquin at one point in those three months as like, ‘Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film.’ It wasn’t, ‘We want to glorify this behavior.’ It was literally like, ‘Let’s make a real movie with a real budget and we’ll call it fucking Joker’.
You can’t argue with success; Joker is now most the profitable comic book film ever made and the first R-rated movie to gross $1 billion. But I wondered, as the end credits rolled, if Joker would have been a better film if it had been made to push buttons—or rather, if it showed a better grasp of which buttons it most certainly pushes, and why.
It definitely makes a number of contrary decisions for a movie called fucking Joker. It’s a scaled-back character piece about madness, with barely two action sequences to rub together but lots of ugly imagery and a running commentary on Reagan-era indifference. It’s also, by my count, the first big-screen version of the character we’re never meant to find funny or charismatic at all. This Joker—Arthur Fleck, by name—is a pitiable and unsettling creation, as Gotham City’s criminal mastermind is boiled down to a picked-on, mentally ill struggling comic who develops a taste for killing and the sense of power that comes with it. He lives with his mother and is cut loose from both his job and the public health facilities he relies on for treatment. But when he uses force to make himself felt, he grows confident; as he puts it, “people are starting to notice.” Any review is duty-bound to note the debt Joker owes to Martin Scorsese’s portraits of sociopathic urban loners, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. From The King of Comedy, it takes a heap of plot points, character notes, and unreliable narration. From Taxi Driver, it gets its vintage Big Apple grime, self-righteous vigilante, and most interesting idea: that a society might become so dire that it mistakes a head case for a folk hero.
So in a time when we can’t keep track of either reboots or horrifying headlines, Joker enjoys playing with fire. And no skeptic should deny it: there’s a lot of craft and intelligent filmmaking in the result. As a piece of tentpole revisionism, it’s well ahead of almost every other blockbuster this year in its plotting, character arcs, thematic detail, aesthetic distinction, and political topicality. But set it alongside where it sources much of the above, and you’ll see how clumsy Joker can be—how often it bluntly reduces its ideas, or montages its way through scenes it doesn’t know how to dramatize, or defines important characters with a single simplistic trait, or hops over a logical gap so it can go straight for the sucker punch. And if any movie, especially a “real” one, is to withstand scrutiny, all of that matters. The audience’s perception of Travis Bickle will shift several times over the course of Taxi Driver without ever losing unity. The King of Comedy has real pathos for the desperate or resigned characters on its ladder of success. Joker‘s hard-R world of alienation (nobody is civil, you get what you deserve, etc.) is not much less of a caricature in its persistent cruelty than the average Marvel movie is in its exuberance. And setting aside ambition, transgression, or craft, it’d be worthwhile to debate which is actually more honest.
There is, however, one way in which equating Joker and The King of Comedy is genuinely deserved, and that is this: both are living embodiments of their main character. The King of Comedy, like its anti-hero, is an aggressively off-putting misfit that spreads discomfort wherever it goes, but by the end, you’ve grown to actually understand and feel for it. Joker, like Arthur Fleck, takes violent actions that resonate politically—but like Arthur, does it ever truly care? At times, it even seems to acknowledge the adolescent limitations of its own worldview. But for every smart wrinkle of nuance, you get choices like the needle-drops for “Rock and Roll, Pt. 2” or “White Room”, which are so self-consciously “edgy” and tonally off from what surrounds them that they practically exist to say fuck you if you want to think too hard about all this, or if you think that provocation means more than nihilistic postures and technique.
The “real movie”/comic-book-film argument has been an incurable meme all season, ironically kicked off by Scorsese himself. Whether or however that divide exists, Joker has a peculiar relationship to it: everything that’s bracing or sensational about the film requires it to draw the line and exist on both sides at once. It’s nearly impossible to be apathetic about it, which is rare enough these days for comic book movies and “real movies” alike. If Joker demonstrates anything, it’s that audiences are eager for more from the former and deserve more from the latter. I suspect that if the film came to edify the multiplexes, it’s also here to troll them.
Joker is still in theaters and primed for the Oscar race. It played at the Bruin in Westwood Village for over a month. They eventually swapped it for Doctor Sleep, but when Doctor Sleep tanked, Joker was back the next Friday.