What is left to say about Joker, Todd Phillips’s R-rated, grimy origin story for the endlessly rebooted Batman baddie that hasn’t already been said (or tweeted) in the six months before its release this weekend? Is it provocative? Is it haunting? Is it the most realistic comic-book story ever put to screen?
Citizens of Gotham: it is none of those things. Instead, Joker is a fairly predictable slog that wants to be taken seriously because it does away with caped crusaders and larger-than-life villains in favor of the bleak tale of young man who’s been done wrong and wants to get even. Oh, it’s plenty violent and nihilistic, but as badly as it demands we sympathize with Arthur Fleck — as the future Clown Prince of Crime is called here — neither Phillips, the director and cowriter, or Joaquin Phoenix ever earn it.
For his part, Phoenix has turned in a feat of capital-A Acting. His body gangly and emaciated — but still impressively lithe — Phoenix is convincing in showing just how deeply broken this Joker is. And it’s a sorry origin, indeed. Raised in squalor by a mentally ill mother (Francis Conroy) and suffering from his own condition that makes him cackle involuntarily, Arthur has little in his life other than part-time gigs as a party clown for hire.
And for a little while — maybe the first 10 minutes — it’s almost the foundation of a good origin story. Arthur is bullied and beaten. He’s cut off from psychiatric care when his social worker loses funding from a Gotham City in deep economic decline. People on the bus shun him for his ghostly appearance and behavioral tics.
Yet the events that set Arthur on his path are not entirely beyond his control, either. He’s got goals of pivoting from clowning to stand-up comedy, and takes an interest in the young woman (Zazie Beetz) who lives in the apartment down the hall. But rather than try to improve himself or seek out a lifeline, any step forward Arthur might take is imagined, as if his world will get better on its own.
It’s only when Arthur comes into possession of a gun that he begins to change. It’s also the moment in which Joker reveals itself as a cold and cruel imitation of better films, and maybe one with an axe to grind against what Phillips — in a recent Vanity Fair article — decried as “far left” and “woke culture.”
When Arthur takes his first step from sad clown to titular Joker and murders three boorish bankers hassling him on the subway, we’re meant to think he had no other choice. It also sets off a popular uprising among Gotham’s other disaffected — and mostly white — young men. When Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), treated here as a cruel billionaire rather than a generous philanthropist, calls the protesters “clowns,” it’s hard not to think that Phillips is creating his own, personal basket of deplorables.
The protests turn into riots, and the clown masks become as recognizable in Gotham as MAGA caps. Meanwhile, Arthur races even further into his growing mania, stalking his neighbor or obsessing over a late-night host (Robert De Niro) who he thinks will give him the comedy career he’s always sought. But every time one of those fantasies is upended by reality, Arthur’s only response is more victimhood that can only be addressed through violence.
By this point, you’ve probably also heard Phillips, formerly of the Hangover series, tried to be a close study of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. But even with Phoenix doing his most (though certainly not best), he’s no Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin, who at least showed some interiority as they unraveled, and whose stories judged them harshly instead of purely celebrating their statuses as proto-edgelords.
Not so for Arthur Fleck. For him, there’s always someone else to blame — a rich person, a poor person, a person of color — and the movie agrees, which makes it simultaneously dull and insulting.
It’s after Arthur’s made his full transformation — and yes, there’s a Batman origin story crammed in — when Phillips offers his movie’s guiding principle, which might flick at the dread with which it’s been greeted: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a system that abandons him and treats him like trash?” Joker asks one of his victims. “I’ll tell you what you get. You get what you fucking deserve.”
It’s a lazy, blame-seeking retort, and one that’ll probably be quoted in the dregs of the internet for years to come.