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The ‘Joker’ Exit Survey

The Ringer staff tries to parse the message of the movie, talks about the future of superhero movies, and breaks down Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar chances

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

After at least a month of discourse surrounding it, Todd Phillips’s Joker finally premiered on Friday. As it turns out, some of that discourse was warranted, some of it was overblown, and some of it hung like a cloud over the film—though that didn’t exactly stop anyone from going to theaters. To dig through it all, the Ringer staff came together after seeing Joker to divulge their thoughts.

1. What is your tweet-length review of Joker?

Miles Surrey: I’ve been trying to will an Arthouse Superhero Movie into existence for years but … I take that back now!

Alison Herman:

Alyssa Bereznak: Does Joaquin Phoenix really have scoliosis or is he just that Method?

Andrew Gruttadaro:

2. What was the best moment of the movie?

Gruttadaro: Either the horror of Joaquin Phoenix’s operatic dance moves after Arthur Fleck committed a triple homicide—or the humor of the Gary Glitter dance sequence being cut short as Shea Whigham and Bill Camp stood at the top of a staircase watching Fleck hump the air to silence.

Bereznak: The tension of Arthur Fleck’s guest appearance on The Murray Franklin Show was both excruciating and mesmerizing. And I’m still haunted by his admission that he “doesn’t believe in anything,” moments before he murders someone on live TV. It seemed to be posing the argument that nihilism is just as dangerous as extremism. Or maybe: After a certain level of systematic neglect the two are indecipherable.

Surrey: It’s hard to deny Joaquin Phoenix’s bravura performance, which carries the entire movie. He might not be the best Joker, but he did have the best Joker laugh. Oftentimes, it was hard to discern whether Arthur was laughing or crying—and that was scary.

Herman: As my paying to see this movie shows, I will watch Joaquin Phoenix do anything. Even stand-up comedy.

Warner Bros.

3. What was your least favorite part of the film?

Surrey: In what world do three sauced finance bros know all the lyrics to Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”?!

Herman: The weeks of performative hand-wringing over a movie that’s too boilerplate to merit our outrage.

Gruttadaro: The fact that they shoehorned the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne into the climax of the movie was extremely silly and unnecessary.

Bereznak: Like many of the most vocal critics of this movie, I struggled with the level of empathy that it demanded for Arthur. On one hand, yes, he was abused for an entire lifetime, was mentally ill, and was so beaten down that you almost wanted him to break. On the other hand, his delusions of grandeur (a successful comedy career, a girlfriend who looks like Zazie Beetz) felt familiar and threatening. The sad truth is, I’ve read versions of Arthur’s story in the news since Columbine, and I felt deeply uncomfortable, and almost tricked into, sympathizing with a character who embodies those figures in society in some fictionalized form. Then again, I suppose the whole point of this movie was to present the origin story of a villain, soooo … mission accomplished. I just don’t feel great about it!

4. Does Joker stand for any message in particular?

Herman: It stands for the message that if a film has enough prestige actors, handheld cinematography, and gritty period detail, it has to stand for something—right?

Surrey: Well, that’s the biggest issue with Joker: It wants to be taken very seriously, but then the Joker himself admits he doesn’t stand for anything. The great thing about Heath Ledger’s Joker was that he was an agent of pure chaos with no discernible background—that same spirit can’t be achieved when you spend an entire movie giving the murder-clown an origin story where he lives with his mom and sucks as a stand-up comedian.

Bereznak: In choosing 1970s New York as the movie’s setting, Todd Phillips automatically draws parallels to our country’s current state: a wheezing economy, disintegrating physical and social infrastructure (super rats! Cuts to social services!), and high racial tensions. But the anti-rich movement that Arthur accidentally starts is far too simplistic to feel like it’s a commentary on anything current. It could be either antifa or the alt-right, depending on which news station you watch. This movie feels just as deliberately apolitical as Taylor Swift’s Reputation. We are directed to concern ourselves only with the viewpoint of the narrator. The point of the film is not a moral, it’s to let Joaquin Phoenix say “Look What You Made Me Do” in as compelling a way possible. (Sorry.)

Gruttadaro: It’s not so easy to tell! In moments, Joker seems to depict Arthur as a true villain; in others it places the blame for his crimes on systemic issues. There is some class commentary, some commentary on the modern thirst for fame, some commentary on male disenfranchisement, some commentary on the media, and maybe even some racial commentary—but none of it is fleshed out or clear enough to qualify as a uniting principle. Which is why I think this movie has turned into such a lightning rod—it’s so malleable, and so easy to project your own agenda onto it.

5. Finish the sentence: “As the director of Joker, Todd Phillips …”

Bereznak: … really wanted us to remember how sharp scissors are.

Herman: … watched a lot of Martin Scorsese movies—actually, maybe just two—and very carefully took notes.

Surrey: … is guilty of romanticizing the Joker, which is not how a pastiche of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy is supposed to work.

Gruttadaro: … made a not-so-great movie that might nonetheless change the way superhero movies—and really, movies in general—look in the future.

6. Will Joaquin Phoenix earn a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars? Should he?

Gruttadaro: To answer these out of order: Yes, I think he should be nominated. I’m not sure anyone will deliver a more bracing performance this year, nor will anyone be asked to carry a movie the way he was asked to carry Joker. But I’m not convinced he’ll be nominated—there are many times in the movie when its muddy messaging and shocking material overshadows Phoenix’s performance.

Herman: Phoenix’s winning a trophy for playing a done-to-death character in an act of corporate brand-building instead of for, say, Freddie Quell is as perfect an encapsulation of modern culture as anything, so yeah, why not? Chaos reigns!

Surrey: The Oscars are sometimes guilty of rewarding the most acting instead of the best acting, and his performance certainly falls into that wheelhouse. Ideally, this would be the only awards-season attention Joker will get.

Bereznak: Hey, if Rami Malek can win an Oscar for Best Actor for doing his best in a terrible movie, I don’t see why Joaquin Phoenix can’t do the same thing for a much better, albeit slightly more problematic, one.

7. Which barely seen actor should have been in this movie more?

Herman: It’s a movie about how comedians are all self-loathing assholes—WHY WASN’T MARC MARON THE STAR?!

Bereznak: I felt like all the other actors were in the movie a perfect amount!

Gruttadaro: The fact that this movie cast Bill Camp and Shea Whigham as hard-boiled detectives and showed them only, like, three times is the most offensive thing about it.

Surrey: Can we please get a spinoff from the perspective of Gotham detectives Shea Whigham and Bill Camp? These elite That Guys are such a fun inclusion that giving them nearly nothing to do is the cruelest prank the Joker ever pulled.

8. Is Joker too connected to the larger lore of Batman, or not connected enough?

Gruttadaro: It’s way too connected (see: Question 3). On the other hand, though, the shot of a young Bruce Wayne sliding down a pole was the kind of winking humor that Joker could’ve stood to have more of.

Bereznak: Haha, I would have to know the larger lore of Batman to answer that question. But I will say it was refreshing that Arthur’s transformation did not involve falling into a vat of chemicals.

Surrey: Even though Phillips insists that Joker is not a comic book movie, it feels like Warner Bros. required a certain amount of comic book tie-ins to get this indie-aspiring project off the ground. That’s fine, and the Wayne family stuff didn’t feel shoehorned in until we saw Bruce Wayne’s parents get killed—again! Poor kid can’t catch a break.

Herman: Including the Wayne mugging, an event we’ve seen hundreds of times before, feels like proof positive that Joker isn’t interested in reinventing squat. It’s a well-made, superbly cast re-creation of what we already know, whether about the Batman universe or personal alienation.

Warner Bros.

9. After Joker, will superhero movies irrevocably change? Why or why not?

Bereznak: It would be great if they did! I prefer a superhero movie that bears as little resemblance to a superhero movie as possible.

Herman: Joker is a perfect expression of superhero movies’ preexisting status quo: rote homages to better, more original works of art shoehorned into a massive franchise that’s crowding said art out of the marketplace. How can it change what it already is?

Surrey: Winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival is arguably the most impressive marker of prestige a superhero movie has garnered. If manufacturing superhero films as Oscars bait doesn’t become a trend, then at the very least, Joker could revive midbudget films—so long as they’re tangentially tied to popular IP.

Gruttadaro: Joker made $93.5 million this weekend, so they’ll change in the sense that we’ll see more big swings and more R-rated, prestige-dramas-masquerading-as-superhero-movies in the near future. I don’t think this necessarily stops Marvel’s drip, though.

10. What is your read on the movie’s ending?

Surrey: It appears … that we live … in a society.

Bereznak: It seemed very clearly like the murder scene in the alleyway was paving the way for a sequel where Bruce Wayne confronts the man who inadvertently caused his father’s death.

Herman: So, is the Joker we’ve known all these years a 60-year-old man or what? Get me his skincare routine!

Gruttadaro: I have this working theory that everything that happens after Arthur Fleck shuts himself inside his refrigerator—the call from Murray Franklin, Arthur murdering his former coworker, the subway chase, the killing on The Murray Franklin Show, and the subsequent riots—is a near-death hallucination. And no, I will not be seeing this movie again to search for any holes in that theory.