Todd Philip’s Joker is an absolute monster hit. The somewhat incongruous creation, the development announcements of which at times felt like a series of movie industry mad libs—‘Todd Phillips!’ ‘With Joaquin Phoenix!’ ‘Martin Scorsese as maybe producer!’ ‘The Joker but NOT a comic book movie!’—has steamrolled its way to becoming the highest-rated R movie of all time.
To be fair, that isn’t that surprising. Joker combined the money magnet aura of a comic book movie—because, yes, despite its creator’s pretences, the movie very easily conforms to that template in many ways—with an endless, self-perpetuating (and exhausting) online discourse which served as an incredibly effective organic marketing tool. To wit: I had no interest in seeing Joker. Comic book movies and their ilk have a minimal appeal for me these days, and I was frankly worn out by the torrent of discussion that preceded the film’s release, but even I ended up seeing it.
I thought it was nothing special. Certainly not anything deserving of all that attention and the central place that it had found itself at in the story of 2019. Creatively, the film seemed more of a miss than a hit. It felt like a movie cobbled together by someone who had access to a lot of money and could bring a number of very talented individuals under his umbrella—cinematographer Lawrence Sher, who put together quite a few striking, atmospheric, if a little bit derivative images; Joaquin Phoenix, one of the finest actors of his generation, who did the absolute best with the limited material available to him—but who ultimately lacked the unifying vision and ability to direct those individuals to create something cohesive. In other words, it felt like a movie very much less than the sum of its parts.
But more than its creative merits or demerits, it is the supposed message of Joker that has made it subject to an almost cartoonish level of scrutiny. Going into the cinema, I imagined I’d see something approximating what so many had decried the movie as being: Some sort of reprehensible and dangerous incel manifesto, with Phoenix playing a twisted folk hero to that pseudo-movement. As the credits rolled, I felt puzzled as to where people might have picked that message up from. It certainly didn’t feel like it was from the movie I just saw. More than anything else, Joker seemed like an indictment of austerity. Not a particularly competent one, mind you. A ham-fisted, superficial approximation of something better and deeper—Parasite, it emphatically ain’t—but still broadly speaking an attack against an uncaring capitalist order, and an examination of how such a system might affect those vulnerable members forced to live under it and to suffer the lack of a societal safety net. Again, not a particularly well-written examination, but that is what it felt it was trying to do.
I’ve found precious few voices online who also had this takeaway from the film. Here’s one:
Seems about right.