The storm of controversy surrounding Todd Phillips’ “Joker” has been going on for about a month and a half now; it’s been in the media spotlight way longer than any modern movie can expect to be. Reactions range the gamut from rapturous praise (receiving an eight-minute standing ovation when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it eventually won the Golden Lion, their top prize) to withering dismissals that decry its jet-black tone and “glamorization” of violence. The more reviews are filed, the lower its score on Rotten Tomatoes has creeped (when I first checked it was 83 percent, and as of this writing it’s 68).
Warner Bros. can’t be too surprised at this outcome. They leaned into “Joker” being “more than your average superhero movie.” The release date in October, post-summer, the time when Oscar hopefuls begin to stake their claim, was a signal. The film is set in what looks to be the late ’70s, based on the technology, cars and fashion (it even features the old Warner Bros. logo). The title cards are more suited to your “prestige film” fare. In the United States, it’s got a hard R rating. Everything felt positioned to say “We’re making a serious film here; take it seriously.” And then people did, and it felt like the response was “Well, it’s just a movie.”
It’s hard not to roll your eyes when Phillips says it’s “not a political film,” which reportedly prompted laughs at a press con. He’s not releasing “Joker” in a vacuum. The political divisiveness, the return of fascism, the tension over climate change and extinction alerts, income inequality, and most relevant, the specter of gun violence in the United States, which has seen more mass shootings this year than days in this year; these problems plague the world that “Joker” is being released into. If Phillips is right, it’s because “Joker” is almost gleeful in its willful ignorance of politics and context. Its purported social commentary is juvenile, reducing the working class to a mindless mob. It dangerously equates mental illness with violence, and Joker himself has troubling interactions with at least four people of color, three of them women. Did no one spot these red flags while this was being made?
Phillips himself should’ve just let the film speak for itself, but kept giving fodder for the media; either a very shrewd or insecure move. He asked why this scrutiny wasn’t on the “John Wick” franchise (which doesn’t have half the pretensions to realism and seriousness that “Joker” has; also, THEY KILLED HIS DOG), and then said that woke culture had stopped comedy from being possible—further evidence of his ignorance. Many people clapped back, celebrities and other directors included, citing all the amazing comedy that’s come out in the last few years. Even comedian and “Joker” actor Marc Maron put paid to that claim, adding that perhaps “you’re just insensitive.”
None of this has hurt the film, money-wise. It opened at a whopping US$93.5 million on its first weekend in the US and looks to win its second. What this bodes for other WB/DC movies and other superhero movies in general remains to be seen. Though many factors about the decision to make this film confound me. Why make a bleak, cynical, noncanon film with limited-to-zero sequel potential? Doesn’t that lead to brand confusion? Why does Joker display none of the cunning or smarts we associate with the arch nemesis who constantly vexes Batman (you know, The World’s Greatest Detective)? Why is the character of Thomas Wayne suddenly a jerk? None of this matters if the dollars come in.
When I first saw the film I too wondered how this won the raves it did in Venice; then I remembered that it was also at Venice last year when one critic said that “A Star is Born” was the best film ever made.
Is Joaquin Phoenix amazing in “Joker?” Yes, and he’ll likely at least be nominated as Best Actor for it at the Oscars. Is it cinematographer Lawrence Sher’s best work of his career? Yes, and it looks terrific on Imax. The production design is good, and Phillips does direct some sequences very well, but “Joker” is still in service to a script that is a frat douche’s idea of what an art film is (“Then he starts dancing for no reason!”). It’s derivative and unoriginal, and builds to an uninteresting climax in which one of only two things can happen, and does. It’s largely a one-note film that has nothing to say, unless that something is “the world is a bad place.” But did you really need a movie to tell you that?