Going into Joker, a film so draped in controversy that seemingly everyone has an opinion on it despite having not seen it, it seemed like it would be difficult to judge the film simply on its own merits. Fortunately, any notion of Joker being some kind of refreshing departure from the inundation of comic book movies is stripped away almost immediately, and replaced with an attempt at complex storytelling so inept it makes Zack Snyder’s godawful work with the DCEU look like cinematic mastery by comparison.
It’s honestly unclear if co-writer/director Todd Phillips, known almost exclusively for sub-sophomoric bro-comedies and cameo lines like “I’m here for the gang bang,” actually thinks Joker has something meaningful to say. Styled after vintage-era Martin Scorsese flicks and set in some era-appropriate Gotham City, it certainly brings up a whole host of issues that are relevant to contemporary life in non-fictional cities. It just has no idea what to actually say about any of them.
Taking on the role of Arthur Fleck, the man who’ll become the Clown Prince of Crime, Joaquin Phoenix follows in the footsteps of (some of) his predecessors by swallowing the character whole. Looking gaunt and shiftless, he contorts his frequently shirtless torso into stark, angular patterns while intermittently laughing maniacally — explained here as a medical condition he suffers from. But despite Phoenix’s ferocious commitment, he’s still stuck playing a character with no depth in a story with no real sense of direction. In that regard, it’s a fascinating watch. But only in that regard.
The rest of the time, Joker attempts poignancy by bringing up everything from mental health to child abuse to white radicalization to a rising wealth gap with all the nuance you’d expect from the guy who made The Hangover 3. As they’re all hastily funneled through Fleck, he’s meant to be seen as the sad-sack victim of an indifferent system and a suffocating urban landscape populated solely with the unkind.
It isn’t long before Fleck, the victim becomes Joker, the hero. As he becomes an anonymous, revered champion to Gotham’s oppressed and poverty-stricken, the film treats him with the same kind of wide-eyed valor. He’s not just the hero of his own story, he’s the hero of the film. Right down to the slow-motion hero walk to kick off the chaotic third act. Set to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Part 2,” of all fucking songs.
Seriously. Gary fucking Glitter.
Granted, while Joker does suffer from a glaring lack of substance, and some of the criticism it’s been facing isn’t entirely unwarranted, the most baffling aspect is how it chooses to tie itself into Batman mythology.
When the project was first announced, it was going to be one of the first films to take the DCEU in a new direction, adapting smaller-scale, stand-alone stories that were free from the binds of an inter-connected universe. Phillips also stated he’d be ignoring any and all comic book canon. All of which sounded like a great idea, honestly.
Although, in creating a Batman-free story, free from the bounds of any and all continuity, Phillips still manages to artlessly shoehorn his film into the very heart of Batman’s mythology. It’s a baffling choice, which really just negates the whole novelty behind creating a true stand-alone film like this. The worst part, honestly, is that it does so in a way that’s neither original nor clever. Much like Joker itself.
Joker is now playing in theaters everywhere.