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‘Joker’ Is Getting Serious Buzz. Should You Take It Seriously?

Joaquin Phoenix does justice to the lineage of A-listers that have played the titular character. But how does Todd Phillips’s film fare?

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

There is an image of Joaquin Phoenix as the title character of Todd Phillips’s Joker voguing against a backdrop of fiery street-level violence that is so fully, luridly beautiful that it feels like a culmination of a fictional life dating back decades: It works because give or take some I-Love-the-’80s art direction, the vision of villainy is archetypal and timeless. Within the Western comic book/superhero realm, which is filled with retirements, resurrections, and repackagings, the Joker cuts a uniquely enduring figure. Even if you want to argue the relative merits of his various incarnations—to contrast Alex Ross’s on-the-page visions with Brian Bolland’s; to reconcile Cesar Romero’s painted-over mustache with Heath Ledger’s Jack-o’-lantern rictus—the fact is that he always satisfies.

It’s a truism that transcends time, social context, derivative rip-offs, and head-on satire. After seeing Suicide Squad, Comedy Bang! Bang!’s Scott Aukerman unleashed (and later deleted) one of the great deadpan tweets of all time, writing that “there’s almost something chilling about the Joker—someone who finds the thought of crime to be funny.” This parody of prosaic observation has a basic truth embedded in its overstatement; Aukerman mocks the idea of analyzing the character even as he gestures, sarcastically, toward something undeniable. In any era, Joker embodies the carnivalesque; his wide, complicitous grin is our mirror image. In the landmark 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke, Alan Moore went further than any of his predecessors (and set the bar for all followers) by trying to psychologize the character, but for all the author’s transgressive ambition, he didn’t so much elevate him as tap a particularly rich vein of potential, the same latent brilliance that’s been in place since the Joker’s first appearance in 1940 in Batman no. 1.

This same deep, insatiable appeal makes Joker a particularly difficult movie to evaluate, both in terms of overall quality and the seemingly urgent question of what its burgeoning critical consensus—topped off with a shocking vote at the prestigious Venice Film Festival that earned it a Golden Lion prize—represents as a cultural development. The box office dominance and industrial omnipresence of superhero movies is not exactly breaking news, but the idea of a high-profile film derived from a valuable IP source that doubles as a vital work of art can be taken as a bellwether for future hybridization or a death knell for non-franchise cinema as we know it. Add the fact that Phillips’s film comes heralded—not, I should say, fully incorrectly—as a self-consciously problematic exercise in rabble-rousing channeling present-tense anxieties about the glorification of male aggression and the ugliness of Trumpism, and there’s suddenly almost too much context and conflict to work through. Referring back to that fleeting, panel-perfect image of Phoenix in classic purple-red-and-green drag seems insufficient, even as it is, arguably, the point of the entire exercise. Maybe Joker has something more to offer, but truly, what more do we really need?

There’s probably no one correct answer to that question, but the growing buzz that Joker, which made its North American debut Tuesday at TIFF and will release wide in the U.S. on October 4, is some sort of major work—a throwback to the ’70s New Hollywood movies it honors and pillages—may make it look lesser in retrospect. The collective surprise that Phillips, a frat-comedy specialist with no real genre inflections in his work, was taking on a project like this in the first place has been deepened by claims that he’s pulled it off: that he’s made something dark and daring that goes where Marvel’s quality-controlled product fears to tread. The spirit is willing, perhaps, but the execution is weak, and results in a movie that’s curiously at odds with itself at all times, threatening true daring, but refusing to follow through in ways that would go beyond superficial provocation. It’s not that I necessarily want an even nastier and more upsetting version of a movie that’s already throwing its back out trying to be frightening, only that the places where it holds back are suggestive of how ultimately risk-averse its creators are—and how correspondingly minor it is compared to the films it’s chasing.

For those keeping score, those would be, most obviously, Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, and A Clockwork Orange, the first two evoked through direct homages in the plot and setting (the presence of Blow Out on a movie marquee places it in 1981) and the latter via Phoenix’s intensely gestural performance, which plays with the same tension between brutality and grace as Malcolm McDowell’s interpretation of Alex DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 classic. In A Clockwork Orange, McDowell’s lithe physicality and balletic movements made his sociopathic thug unexpectedly (and for some, unconscionably) attractive; integrating Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain choreography into his assaults conflated violence and exhilaration in a way that made even fans uncomfortable. Kubrick’s thesis, carried over from Anthony Burgess’s novel, was that Alex’s cruelty was both hardwired and, in its way, entirely natural—that if he was a product of society, it was a society ruled by those same impulses. But while Kubrick’s movie finds its shape in watching Alex be ground down into a conformist automaton, Joker is designed so that Phoenix’s pathetic, marginalized, abjectly untalented children’s entertainer Arthur Fleck becomes more and more comfortable in his scrawny, elongated body the further he gets from conventional morality.

This idea of a physical transformation was also central in Taxi Driver, which depicted Robert De Niro’s extreme makeover as a kind of externalized psychosis: Once Travis Bickle decides to become a political assassin, he has no choice but to start dressing the part. In The King of Comedy, the mutation is more a case of mimicry. De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin tries to copy—or maybe invade, body-snatcher style—the persona of his late-night hero, Jerry Langford. The difference is that while these films built their antiheroes from the ground up, Joker can simply plug its namesake and all of his associations into a set of situations that are made instantly more compelling for a mass audience by his presence. The effort expended here to get from Point A to Point B—for Arthur to shed his skin as an anonymous, reclusive loner and adopt the vestments of the Joker—is considerable, and yet weirdly beside the point, since the details (most of which are grotesque, although apparently toned down from the script draft that floated around online earlier this year) don’t make the finished product qualitatively more entertaining than he would have been in a non-origin story.

The thing about A Clockwork Orange and Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy—and while we’re at it, about Fight Club, a movie whose vision of under-the-radar radicalization obviously informed Phillips’s and Scott Silver’s screenplay—is that they’re genuinely rich and contradictory works that try to pull the rug out from under the viewer, whereas Joker, built on ancient and rock-solid pop-cultural foundations, doesn’t really do much more than lean into them. It’s not just that the movie cultivates a sense of sympathy for somebody who is, in essence, a fledgling serial killer, or that it connects mental illness to violence in ways that could easily be seen as reductive and insulting. There are other, subtler problems as well. I’m treading very carefully to avoid spoilers, but it’s interesting to note that while Phillips provocatively surrounds the pasty, whiter-than-white Arthur with African American authority figures and even a potential love interest (Zazie Beetz, underused with what turns out to be unfortunately good reason), he doesn’t try to extract any subtext of racialized aggression from the material (as Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader did in Taxi Driver).

Meanwhile, Arthur’s difficult relationship with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), looks like it’s laying the groundwork for some truly harrowing gender politics, but again the film holds back. There is startling, gory violence here. The conflation of Arthur’s anger at a world that’s humiliated him at every turn—along with an anti-capitalist invective aimed at Gotham’s reigning billionaire titan Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen)—has a political dimension. But because said violence is, without exception, wielded against characters who are shown to be either more repulsive and bullying than Arthur or whose representation as sacrificial victims won’t truly complicate viewer responses (i.e., rich white guys), it doesn’t have as much sting as it should. If this restraint is Phillips being responsible, fair enough. The very last thing Joker would claim to sell, though, is a sense of decorum, and so its observation of these boundaries has an undermining effect.

On a scene-to-scene, shot-to-shot, beat-by-beat level, Joker is intermittently impressive but mostly a mess, riddled with some almost impossibly awful dialogue and on-the-nose music cues (send in “Send in the Clowns”). It’s held together by the pulpy propulsion of its story, which interlaces aspects of Gotham mythology with clever finesse, and also by the sheer force of Phoenix’s performance. And yet Phillips does his best work as a director by focusing so closely on his star—and trusting his instincts. There is no working actor more magnetic to watch thinking and moving than Phoenix, and even if some of his histrionics as Arthur are excessive, they’re fully inhabited in a way that lesser-gifted but similarly show-offy actors can’t manage. The exquisite vocal control Phoenix uses to convey Arthur’s mysterious neurological condition, in which he responds to discomfort with harsh, unstaunchable, cackling laughter, is the stuff that legends—and, inevitably, Oscar nominations—are made of. The idea that the Joker represents, for better or for worse, a test case for the apex abilities of A-list actors is easy to laugh off, but it’s no small feat to (temporarily) paralyze our appreciation of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger (and the other guy, what’s his name, has a band called 30 Seconds to Mars) while simultaneously connecting so deeply to a rich, collective comic book memory. I can’t say that I liked Joker, but I loved its Joker, and that paradox is interestingly rich: enough that I can’t quite throw the movie onto the pile reserved for empty hype.