In an interview with The Wrap, Todd Phillips said the following:
“I literally described to Joaquin [Phoenix] at one point in those three months as like, ‘Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film.’ It wasn’t, ‘We want to glorify this behavior.’ It was literally like, ‘Let’s make a real movie with a real budget and we’ll call it [expletive] Joker’. That’s what it was.”
Joker is certainly a movie. A grossly misguided and irresponsible one that co-opts a beloved character, turning him into a vile martyr for a dangerous revolution. Don’t get me wrong, I am vocal in my defence of comic book movies; the argument that they are not ‘cinema’ is simply narrow-minded (if a film moves you then it is cinema). But this film is not about the Joker, the campy Gotham City crime boss who oozes charisma and showmanship. This is a film about a mentally ill man who does terrible things because he wants to be ‘seen’, and Todd Phillips validates and celebrates him every second of it, turning this villain into a hero.
The way that Joker seeks to remove itself from comic book lore in some self-congratulatory way – in Phillips’ own words, this is a “real movie under the guise of a comic book film” (okay sure) – is part of the reason it fails. Co-written with Scott Silver, the pair invent their own origin for the Clown Prince of Crime. They pen the lonely figure that is Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a rent-a-clown who cares for his ageing mother in a run-down flat, and who is constantly trodden on by society. Phillips’ Gotham is realised well enough, seedy and grim, featuring Thomas Wayne running for mayor with a not-so-subtle anti-poor agenda. But every attempt to condemn mental health service cuts, capitalism, loss of civility and empathy, feels messy and forced. It is so far removed from its supposed origins that it’s just an empty imitation.
The awkward, cringe-inducing humour of Joker relies on punchlines of ableism and misogyny, and you may find yourself, as I did, trying to justify it. It’s set in the 80s, it was ‘okay’ back then – then you wonder what reason it had to be set in the 80s at all, other than perhaps an excuse for its crude, distasteful script. Phoenix does his best, straining for a graceful performance of operatic levels. He has once again transformed his body, and his maniacal laugh (brought on at inconvenient times due to a medical condition) is convincing and jarring. Yet even he can’t save this film from its self-importance.
Joker isn’t a work of genius, it’s not radical, bold, nor right-wing propaganda. It’s just a movie, and a bad one. It’s not fun, but impossible to take seriously. Phillips thinks he has made comic book movies appeal to the ‘elite’ cinephiles – but instead he’s made a shallow shit show that pats itself on the back for two hours and two minutes. If you’re after an engaging take on a Joker origin story that takes place in a vivid and vibrant criminal underworld, just watch Gotham on Netflix.
by Millicent Thomas
Millicent Thomas is a proud Mancunian studying Film & Publishing in Bath. She has written freelance for Little White Lies, Much Ado About Cinema, Reel Honey, and more. Her favourite films include Logan, Columbus, and Spy-Kids. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Letterboxd at @millicentonfilm