At this point in time, either you like movies based on comic books and are still going to the theaters to view them, or you’re not. But why are we getting a standalone film about Joker? What could there possibly be left to explore or analyze about the most popular and exposed DC villain of all time?
Perhaps Todd Phillips’ Joker is a special case, with the documentarian turned comedy director branching out into drama, and the always stellar Joaquin Phoenix as the title character. There was a fair amount of potential with the combo. But did it bring anything new to this over-stuffed subgenre?
In a grim Gotham City of the late 1970s, a weirdo loner named Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) dresses as a clown professionally and lives with his elderly mother, Penny (Frances Conroy). Arthur has the idea of venturing into stand-up comedy, inspired by talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), even though he’s not particularly witty or even naturally funny. He’s also fed up with being treated as irrelevant by the wealthy and thinks the best way to deal with it is violently.
If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because Joker is not only in a very familiar DC comic universe, but also taking cues from dozens of other famous movies with cult followings. There are sequences in which we see the youth of Gotham terrorizing helpless citizens a la A Clockwork Orange (1971); the negative, psychotic thoughts that Arthur thinks will help society, as in Taxi Driver (1976); and Arthur’s delusion that he thinks will impress a girl and his favorite celebrity just like The King of Comedy (1983). The latter’s influence is clearly present in the fantasy sequence in which we see Murray grab Arthur from his show’s audience and thank him for being a fan.
So the next question now is…why? It’s hard to tell if Phillips is a legitimate fan of Batman or the Joker, as the tone and atmosphere of the film feels different, but then we get reminders of Gotham and the Wayne family.
But Phillips is really not as interesting or creative a filmmaker as Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick or any of the other directors he’s paying homage to, which is probably why his forte used to be raunchy comedies like Road Trip (2000) and Old School (2003). The overbearing score on top of the on-the-nose dialogue and editing feels amateur, plus most of the subversive attempts feel juvenile. Most jarring is a music sequence featuring the once classic, now tainted “Rock & Roll Pt. 2” by twice convicted pedophile Gary Glitter. If Phillips was trying to come across as edgy, he failed and just comes across as tone-deaf.
Phoenix is still great as usual—though to be fair, I can’t think of a time where the actor ever bothered to phone in a performance, even in crap like 8MM (1999). At the same time, you could already see a more nuanced version of this same type of role from Phoenix in the overlooked independent drama You Were Never Really Here (2017). The King of Comedy was unfairly tossed aside upon its initial release, and it’s nice to see that movie’s fan base continue to grow with time. But if I wanted to see a modern take on the film’s theme, I can stick with Nightcrawler (2014) and Ingrid Goes West (2017).
Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.