Few recent films have generated the level of controversial intrigue seen surrounding “Joker,” Warner Brothers’ latest entry into the expansive library of comic books films. The likes of Marvel and DC are accustomed to a certain level of interest when they release a new film. This is largely because most of these are contributions to an extended universe of franchise films.
What we have here is a unique situation entirely.
“Joker” truly feels like the work of an auteur filmmaker whose authorship is evident in every scene. It’s visually accomplished, tonally singular and thematically weighted. More than that, it completely gives off the impression of a unique and individual artistic vision. Even with its $60 million price tag (frugal for a comic book movie, but entirely opulent for a contemporary adult drama), the storytelling experience feels incredibly intimate and driven.
“Joker” is an arthouse film disguised as a comic book movie. Todd Phillips, the unlikely director behind the “Hangover” trilogy, helmed this standalone picture as a separate entity from the DC extended universe. Utilizing well-known intellectual property and iconic characters, he created something deeply unfamiliar to us. What appears as a straightforward origin story set in a fictional world is actually something much more down-to-earth and deeply reflective of our society.
For the most part, “Joker” follows through on those promises. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as the eponymous Batman nemesis, the film operates as a dramatic character study of Arthur Fleck, the man who would rise to terrorize Gotham City.
Here’s the first thing fans should remember before stepping foot into the theater to see this thing: this is a drama, not an action flick. Phillips is steering genre fare into a new direction with the release of this movie. He’s playing with tone and genre-bending in a way that feels loosely reminiscent of other recent divergent “superhero” movies. For instance, “Deadpool” was really just a raunchy comedy, and “Logan” felt more like a gritty western than it ever did an X-Men film.
“Joker” takes several steps further in this vein than either of these examples. As is the case with many blockbusters, viewers are immersed into a masterfully rendered world. The difference is: that world is darker and more coarse than anything they’ve likely experienced from something billed as being “based on characters from DC.” That’s because unlike its blockbuster brethren, it hits entirely too close to home.
That’s part of the intrigue of this film. It’s crafted to be something far beyond the comfort zones of mainstream audiences, but made accessible by the inclusion of a cinematic environment they know and love.
It’s a risky move on the part of Phillips and Warner Brothers, creating a film like this and selling it as a DC picture. But it’s hard to deny the results.
There’s Oscar buzz here for several of these players, and it’s not hard to see why. Joaquin Phoenix, whose inclusion in the project was our first signal that we weren’t in store for a paint-by-numbers superhero movie, gives some of the best work of his career. His turn as Arthur Fleck is truly chilling. Add to that every aspect of this film’s construction, from the sharp script to the transcendent cinematography to the set design, all of it feels high brow in an exciting way. It’s often interesting to watch because it feels as if we are witnessing something truly exceptional here from an artistic standpoint, and in a lot of ways that’s true.
More than any of that, however, “Joker” is generating the intense level of discussion that it has because it is attempting, in a very heavy-handed way, to comment on the state of our society. The ways it chooses to do this are creating severe divides among audiences, both those who have and have not seen the film. It won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, but it’s also received heavy backlash from critics, many of whom fear it promotes questionable expressions of violence.
In any case, what’s really happening here is a film attempting to say something very real about the world we live in from within the scope of a comics-based story.
Your opinion on the film’s success or failure to accomplish this task will largely define your perception of the movie. I myself am slightly torn on this point.
The film’s commentary on themes of mental illness, socioeconomic disparity, bullying and the general apathy of society are unimpeachable. Phoenix’s exploration of these truths, and furthermore his dissection of a man’s unravelling, is compelling and intense. The film builds to a hypnotic crescendo by its final act, one that is undeniable… but also, if possible, on the verge of being too overt.
While the movie excels in its tackling of timely issues, it's often a tad questionable in its approach, which is often impressively aggressive but not always entirely nuanced.
Of course, subtle isn’t exactly what we’re going for here. Phillips is clearly going for a belly laugh here rather than a soft chuckle, and maybe that’s okay— it’s what gives us the distinct impression that at the end of the day, there is nothing to joke about at all.
Rotten Tomatoes: 69%
Traveler score: B+