After months and months of build-up, the wide release of Joker came and went. An opening weekend of $90+ million, making it the biggest October release ever. After its premiere at the Venice Film festival where it took home the prestigious Golden Lion award, Joker was the talk of the film world. Controversy and social implications led the conversations about the depiction of a troubled man becoming radicalized by his environment.
The commentary has even brought on decisions to bulk up security at its various opening releases after a letter written by the victims of the Aurora Shooting to Warner Bros called for more awareness by the corporation on gun control. That, plus the loud voices everywhere have taken this film into the mainstream of any entertainment publication. Joker certainly drew its attention, but was it honestly earned?
“Joker” Deserves Praise; Not Admiration
Comic book movies are an interesting topic in 2019. We’ve seen the largest box office in Avengers: Endgame, a definitive moment for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its parent company Disney. That movie and it’s following Spider-Man: Far From Home marked the end of the 23 film saga that began more than 10 years ago.
With Joker, however, there’s no evident endgame to create some universe or intertwine with the existing DC Comics world. No, this is a standalone film that presents the audience with an intense look at one of the most popular villains in comic book history.
The DC Universe is in need of something. There’s not really an answer that anyone has to fix the mess that Warner Brothers created, but Joker certainly provides them a distraction. After failing to create the Justice League in two movies, it seems like the plan is to continue making the solo movies and then reconvene with the upcoming The Batman movie, led by Robert Pattinson.
Joker plays just enough in the seedy Gotham City to appease the longstanding comics fans but also entertains the movie fans with bouts of violence and their favorite villain. The film deserves its box office records and even an eventual nomination for Phoenix, but it certainly isn’t in the same conversation as Taxi Driver. It may owe some homage to the work of Martin Scorsese, but to be included as an equal, not a chance.
How Does Phoenix’s Joker Stack Up?
Joker is without a doubt a piece of the culture. Whether you see it or not, it’s affecting you. The moviegoer is interested in being entertained. How that is accomplished is of course up to the individual, but the bottom line is don’t bore the audience. Joker is entertainment. Joaquin Phoenix portrays Arthur Fleck, who becomes the titular Joker, delivers a layered performance that is honest in its homage to the likes of Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy, which is interesting since Robert De Niro also has a role in this film.
Phoenix lays it out on the line much like previous roles of his where his characters are subject to moments of hallucination or daydreaming as well as severe childhood trauma. It’s obvious that Todd Phillips bet the house on Phoenix because this film has no other side plot to venture to. The entire runtime features Arthur Fleck and his day to day transformation into a violently unstable domestic terrorist.
As a standalone film, Joker touches on the cornerstones set by the Batman universe and uses them to vault into new territory. The story is set in Gotham, pre-Batman, and even features the prominent Thomas Wayne as he attempts to clean up Gotham. This may be the first version of Thomas Wayne that might actually be a “politician” we’re used to seeing. Hollow statements directed at the poor people and rhetorical questions about why the impoverished are violent are some of the main points raised by the patriarchal Wayne.
This seems to lead to the commonly referenced dark underworld of Gotham where the daily environment is hellish. Talks of giant sewer rats, murders occurring on the regular, and small people like Arthur Fleck being taken advantage of every day.
Regardless of how anyone person interprets this movie or any conversation on a larger scale, one thing is irrefutable, Joker is not as groundbreaking as the conversation would have you believe. It’s good, bordering on a great movie with outstanding performances. But it’s not in line for a Best Picture nomination. It may very well end up in the category, but there’s not going to be a lasting effect due to the movie itself.
A firm argument against this is likely going to be made by members of the #ReleasetheSnydercut movement. This band of DC fans loves the dark and brooding tones of these films and there’s no shame in that. The issue isn’t that the films are dark and gritty, but they are loudly asking “Do you see how DARK and GRITTY I am? Batman killed a guy!” We simply don’t need that.
Phoenix’s Portrayal of Joker
Joaquin Phoenix sure loves to portray damaged men. His work in You Were Never Really Here is still chilling to think about. In comparison to this film, Phoenix really should have earned the praise then instead of now. Yes, Joker is a much bigger movie and carries the weight around, but as a work of art, it’s a lesser outing.
Arthur Fleck is beaten, taken advantage of, and lied to throughout this story until the day he realizes he can take the power into his own hands. One of those hands holds a gun, but the point stands. His whole life hinges on the idea that he thinks he’s navigating this terrible world and seems to always be in the way. However, he figures out that being in the way was his decision all alone and creates empowerment for him.
His true power culminates in the exact moment where he becomes aware of the joke made at his expense by his idol, Murray Franklin (De Niro) and changes his plan on the dime. The plot and movie may fall short in a few or many areas but there’s definitely one area that it can lean on, and that’s Phoenix. His lead actor win may very well be within his grasp this awards season.
Will It Stand the Test of Time?
A true test of great movies is how will they be looked at in five to fifteen years. Think about the prestigious films from those years and how they resonate today. Too many times the conversation gets caught up in existing in the right now, the true question is will we be talking like this later? Controversial movies especially.
Joker is dark and disturbing, a real depiction of how an isolated narcissist can be led down the path of unimaginable violence. America in 2019 is finally coming to grips with this reality, which created the controversy for this film. Are the creators laying out the groundwork for one of these isolated and radicalized people to see a different message and then act upon it? Or is this just a movie.
In our time of highly politicized everything, this movie is well-timed. Joker lends a hand to the ongoing screaming match between “incels” and “woke culture.” Fleck is a stereotype of a radicalized American terrorist who feels as if more people should be paying attention to him. He should get the girl, he should be the funniest in the room, and his persona should be cool and measured at all times.
But this is his imagination, its a farce. The world as he sees it doesn’t even truly exist. Fleck even claims at one point, “I thought I didn’t even exist.” But it’s not him that doesn’t exist, it’s the world he created that doesn’t.
People like Arthur Fleck believe they are owed something, and when they reach a breaking point, they lash out. Violently. Once they take the power back, it becomes a different subject. How do they keep the power? Joker shows this happening and even boldly attempts to give the audience an inside look at how these people act prior to their master plan.
As far as the movie though, this is owed again to Phoenix. The directing isn’t responsible for this confusingly outstanding movie. Praise Joker. Praise a comic book movie that can build characters and let them develop on screen. Praise good casting that puts talented actors in the comic book movie. Praise Logan, which did this all much better. Praise Joker, but leave your admiration with other films.
Embed from Getty Images