For months, Joker has been an object of heated speculation and debate. Its early marketing suggested the clown prince from Batman comics had been reborn as a rampaging incel. Its world premiere at the prestigious Venice Film Festival won wild praise along with the Golden Lion for Best Film. The response from the Toronto International Film Festival was less glowing. Critics, who panned the film, have received death threats from Joker fans. Then, the press cycle soured as Joker’s star Joaquin Phoenix stormed out of an interview over a pretty expected question, and director Todd Phillips doled out uncharming anecdotes, flawed fingerpointing, and cringe-inducing philosophizing on how wokeness has killed comedy. Now, there are reports of police officers going undercover to the movie’s opening weekend screenings over fear of mass shooters. All of this has become context for Joker, informing how we think of it before we see a single frame. In a sick way, all this controversy might be a boon for Joker, because the movie itself is painfully mediocre and politically dunderheaded.
Joker is written by Phillips (The Hangover Trilogy) and Scott Silver (8 Mile), though it steals so much from The King of Comedy that Martin Scorsese and Paul D. Zimmerman should at least get a “story by” credit. Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a creep who dreams of being a famous stand-up comedian, slips into fantasy sequences of that imagined success, and looks to his favorite late-night talk show for inspiration. Robert De Niro, who headlined The King of Comedy, takes on the Jerry Lewis role here, playing swaggering talk show host Murray Franklin. Meanwhile, Deadpool 2 standout Zazie Beetz plays the friendly Black woman who exists solely for the anti-hero to romantically fixate on, as Dianne Abbott did in the 1982 film. To give his film borrowed grit, Phillips makes his Gotham look like the crusty streets of Scorsese’s 1970s New York City, where Crown Victoria cabs crawl past mountains of trash and subway cars are plastered in crude graffiti.
Onto all this, Phillips also mashes in elements of Gotham’s real-life inspiration, folding in the garbage strike of 1968 and the 1981 horrors of subway vigilante Bernie Goetz. But this time, instead of a fed-up white man shooting teenagers, a fed-up white Joker shoots three menacing Wall Street bros, who work for wealthy mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). This sparks an “anti-rich” rebellion in the streets of Gotham that mimics Occupy Wall Street and the Resistance. Protesters take to the streets in clown masks with signs that read “Kill the Rich,” “Wayne = Fascism,” and “Resist.” Phillips will soon conflate protesters with rioters and violent vigilantes who seem a smirking nod at Antifa hysteria. All the while, Joker himself will insist he has no politics and believes in nothing while he dances around a Gotham descending into mayhem.
It’s not until the third act that the red-suited, green-haired Joker from the posters and trailers emerges and actually gives the film some spark. Before that, it’s a miserable slog through an emaciated Phoenix twisting his body and face in unsettling contortions as he awkwardly chortles and speaks in a tremulous whisper of a voice. There’s an inarguable intensity to his performance as he hurls his body into jaunty dances, stoops his shoulders into meek retreats, and sprawls into violence inflicted and endured. Yet for all of Phoenix’s theatrics and all the scenes of his torment, Joker is hollow in its exploration of its central figure.
Joker cannot be accused of glorifying its mass shooter, but it does make plenty of excuses for him. Behold Arthur’s bruises from the beating taken by a gang of children. Behold his loneliness and social awkwardness so intense he must stalk the friendly single mother from down the hall. Behold his uncaring social service worker who medicates but does not mend his mental illness! Behold how he has been abused by his own mother and a society that treats him “like trash!” All this gives narrative reason to Arthur’s breaking point, where he turns to a pistol for salvation and feels empowered by violence, but it blames others for all of Arthur’s problems, excusing his own damning sense of entitlement.
Arthur believes he is destined for comedy stardom, despite being repeatedly told he’s not funny. He believes he is owed love from his crush, praise from his role model, and respect from a powerful stranger. He believes his every desire deserves validation. And when he doesn’t get it, he responds with violence. Joker seems shockingly unaware of—or at least uninterested in—its anti-hero’s toxic masculinity. It even aims to shield him by keeping two or three of his most shocking murders offscreen. Instead, Phillips fixes his criticism on society. His focus is so broad, though, that it feels like a wild, juvenile swing.
Societal decay is visually presented through mountains of trash and “super rats,” which are the size of lapdogs. Then, Phillips employs the language of rebellion with little understanding of its meaning. Protesters use the talking points of liberals, while they hold up a vicious folk hero who expounds conservative catchphrases, complaining about a lack of civility, and a culture where morals and even comedy is up for ongoing debate. In a particularly cringe-worthy monologue, Joker espouses thoughts on comedy that seem plucked from Phillips’ latest interviews. So when the movie tries to suggest this was a “good guy” driven mad by society, it feels personal, like the maker of movies like The Hangover and Old School is furious that his shtick isn’t working anymore, so he’s turned to violence to get the attention that he’s convinced he deserves.
If I had watched Joker in a vacuum, spared all the preamble and controversy and terrible soundbites from its makers, I suspect I’d have found it a mediocre movie striving to be more with eye-roll-worthy edginess alongside requisite Batman origin iconography. With all the hullabaloo around the film, this is still how I feel more or less, but with the added aggravation that this mediocre movie— that mistakes shock value with something to say— will be debated for months to come when there are much more daring, insightful, and exciting films we could be talking about.
Joker debuted at a Special Event screening at the New York Film Festival ahead of its theatrical release on October 4.