Back in 2008, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight rocked audiences across the globe. Not just because it was an excellent film, but because it struck a raw nerve in the cultural zeitgeist. We were in the dying days of George W. Bush’s War on Terror, and just about everyone in America had enough. It’s no coincidence Obama won the election that same year. And in the midst of this dire political situation, here comes a summer blockbuster packed to the brim with our anxieties. While it’s not a direct allegory, it is emphatically a product of the War on Terror, with provocative imagery and themes that rubbed on our terrorism-fueled nerves. A large reason why that film was so effective, is because it felt so real. This is the same approach Joker takes. In our modern hellscape of wealth inequality, mass shooters, incels, and a failing healthcare system, America does feel a bit like Gotham City. Where is Batman when you need him?
For this reason, Joker has attracted a fair bit of controversy. Ever since the trailer dropped, people have worried that the film would be interpreted as a white male shooter’s manifesto. These are fair concerns, but if we’re going to accept that this film is socially unacceptable, then we need to reconsider our nation’s obsession with violence at large. But no… that’s an article for another time. The real question is: is the movie any good? I’m proud to say, yes, I was very impressed. Joker is hands down the darkest DC movie since Watchmen, and more of an homage to late 70s crime thrillers than a comic book film. But if you’re willing to accept that, there’s a lot to love here. It’s no secret the film is a love letter to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy (Robert De Niro even gets to play the talk show host here, which would make Rupert Pupkin proud). And while the influence is undeniable, the film still feels like its own animal. It’s ultimately no more of a Taxi Driver copy than, say, Observe & Report or You Were Never Really Here.
One thing that really works about the film is its presentation. The whole picture is from the point of view of Arthur Fleck, who becomes Joker by the end. And much like the Scorsese films I’ve mentioned, we’re never certain how much is really happening. This is less the real Gotham City, and more the heightened reality Arthur has in his mind. As the film progresses, we learn some aspects of the story are entirely untrue, and are products of his own narcissism. He definitely sees himself as the hero, but we’re expected to know he’s full of it. But we can’t entirely hate him, either, because he is a product of a failing society. When we live in a world where this much can go wrong, the monsters we get are the ones we deserve.
I also really enjoyed Arthur/Joker’s character, as the film develops him in a manner that feels seamless. In the beginning, he’s a well-intentioned creep, and by the end, he’s the Clown Prince of Crime we all know. As he finally lets it go, he’s comfortable in his own skin for the first time. He’s dances are smoother, his smiles are wider, and even his jokes are funnier. Yeah, despite how dark and disturbing much of the film is, there’s some great bursts of black comedy that come at random, fitting in with the Joker’s spontaneity. And of course, this is Joaquin Phoenix’s show through and through. He’s one of the best modern actors, and this could be the one we all remember him for. Will he finally get that Oscar? We’ll see this February. The main point of comparison is bound to be Heath Ledger, and while that’s understandable it’s also pointless. Ledger will never be topped, so Phoenix doesn’t even try. This is a brand new interpretation of the character, that does not remind us much of Ledger, Nicholson, Hamill, Romero, and so on. For that reason, he definitely earns a new place in Mr. J’s legacy.
Another very impressive aspect is the direction. Todd Phillips should be a joke, failing miserably to separate himself from his frat-boy comedies like The Hangover and Road Trip. But no, he miraculously pulled it off. Joker is an absolutely gorgeous film, with gritty cinematography and a screeching score that really got under my skin. Many comic book films feel visually bland and homogenous, but this one has technical prowess to spare. Right from the beginning, with the fake-out opening credits sequence, I knew there was a fascinating vision behind this flick. Many of the musical cues and scene transitions are interesting. Even the Joker’s redesign is kind of brilliant, I never thought I’d see him with a red suit and mime makeup. Boy, I’m glad I did.
Is Joker a perfect movie? That’s a hard no. When I read the leaked script a few months ago, I was very unimpressed. Thankfully much of the issues were fixed in rewrites, but the second half is still a bit overstuffed. For one, there’s a lot of bit characters, and some of them feel like missed opportunities. Brian Tyree Henry and Marc Maron are both great performers, but their appearances are essentially cameos without much to offer. There’s also a Thomas Wayne related subplot through much of the second half, and while much of it works, there’s about one twist too many and it becomes a bit muddled. And like I’ve said, the film is controversial and divisive, I can think of fair reasons to heavily dislike it. But the fact there’s even this much to think about in a comic book film should be impressive. Typically we unanimously agree it’s fine and move on, but Joker is leaving impressions most of the MCU never could.
So what does this mean for the future of DC? Well, it’s hard to say, because they’re really trying everything. After deciding Zack Snyder’s method didn’t work, their output has been diverse and very entertaining. Earlier this year they released Shazam, which is as far away from Joker as you could get. Next year also seems promising, with Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman 1984 giving us more of what we loved about Margot Robbie and Gal Gadot respectively. There’s currently no plans for a Joker follow up, as it is a very self contained and satisfying story, but I can see potential for at least one more. We know how Joker came to be, so where does he go from here? Todd Phillips is also pushing for more films in this same vein. Movies based on a comic book property, but have modest budgets and a lot of directorial freedom. Honestly I’d love to see a Catwoman or Scarecrow film in this style. And besides, if DC wants to compete with Marvel, they’ve got to do what they won’t. Especially after the disasterous Disney-Fox merger, it’s important for other studios to be ambitious and push the envelope in ways the MCU won’t. Deadpool did it, Logan did it, Into the Spider-Verse did it, and now thankfully Joker follows suit. Let’s keep it up.