“Joker” came out this weekend, with controversy on its tails and an October box office record. But overall, “Joker,” like several recent DC movies, is a tone without a story.
The Joker — a character first introduced to the Batman franchise 79 years ago — quickly became a renowned symbol of chaos. The Joker is characterized by his intelligence, his manic laugh and his tendencies towards insanity. Todd Phillips’ “Joker” kept two out of three. Joker introduces us to Arthur Fleck, a depressed and failing standup comedian, who blames all of his ills on society as he tumbles into a homicidal rage. Many have praised Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the Joker for avoiding the on-screen template of the villain created by Cesar Romero in 1966, instead showing the audience a more sympathetic and subtle main character. That being said, nothing else about this movie is subtle.
Similar to “Shazam,” “Justice League” and “Suicide Squad,” Joker presents the comic-book loving audience with an exact replication of its trailer — complete with loosely connected scenes and overuse of popular songs. The one place in which “Joker” differs from the slew of subpar melodramas DC seems intent on throwing at us is in Phillips’ cutting down on the typical overabundance of characters and their back-stories (can you really name any of the three extraneous men who fight through World War 1 with Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor?). Phillips instead gives the audience time to savor the captivating performance of Joaquin Phoenix. But, as nice as it may be to see Arthur Fleck dance slowly in HD for the third time in the past two hours, the story “Joker” presents us is not good enough to warrant the incessant and self-aggrandizing exploration of his character. Additionally, the script tells us exactly how to interpret whatever limited nuances there may be, from Robert DeNiro’s line about how full of self-pity Arthur Fleck is, to the many one-liners about the unhappiness of Gotham’s proletariat, to Joker’s own debasement of society, even when he claims not five minutes earlier to be apolitical.
It is clear what Phillips is trying to do with this movie. It is so clear that it is painful, and most are happy to sit and have a pseudo-edgy take on nihilism and Marx shoved down my throat if there is enough Batman references to opiate the masses. But there really are not. Much like the rest of this movie, the few nods to the plethora of lore surrounding the classic character were unsubtle and inconsequential. Phillips not only refuses to make any dramatic political statement, he refuses to engage with the comic book universe in an engaging or surprising way. This movie fits so cookie-cutter into the DC template, that the only reason Warner Brothers decided not to include it is so they can keep Jared Leto’s Joker in their back pocket for later films.
Joaquin Phoenix may win an Oscar. There are a lot of rumors and speculation surrounding that arena and, honestly, most would not be surprised. He may even deserve it. But, if you prefer plot over greyscale, meaning over mommy issues and are tired of cavalier and half-assed political statements, then Joker is not the movie for you.