Premiering in competition in Venice and slated to screen as a gala presentation in Toronto and as a special event in New York, Todd Phillips’s Joker is probably seeing the most prestigious launch ever given to a comic book movie. Some early reviewers are gleefully predicting that what the Guardian’s Xan Brooks describes as “a gloriously daring and explosive” film “bulging with ideas and pitching towards anarchy” will be a massive hit when it opens in theaters on October 4. Others are warning us to brace ourselves. According to the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, the first screenings in Venice this past Saturday left critics trying “to work out if the film was a sly critique of meathead fascism or a feature-length recruiting advert for it. To be clear, I don’t believe for a second that Phillips and his star, Joaquin Phoenix, actually think that their version of the classic Batman bad guy is in fact a hero to be glorified and emulated. But I worry that someone out there will.”
Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a clown scuffling from one cheap gig to the next and dreaming of breaking big as a stand-up comic. About that name: Some have suggested that it may be a nod to Arthur Bremer, a real-life janitor who planned to assassinate Richard Nixon and actually did shoot Alabama governor George Wallace, severely wounding him. Bremer kept a diary that inspired Paul Schrader to create Travis Bickle, the troubled loner played by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), a film referenced over and again in Joker. De Niro, in fact, plays a talk show host in Joker that Arthur obsesses over in much the same way that De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin did over Jerry Lewis’s Johnny Carson-like host in Scorsese’s King of Comedy (1983). Variety’s Owen Gleiberman also finds “elements lifted from Death Wish, Network, V for Vendetta, The Empire Strikes Back, The Shining, and The Purge.” Fleck, by the way, is German for “stain.”
In Joker, the year is 1981, there’s a garbage strike on, “super rats” run rampant through the streets of Gotham City at night, and while Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson) is still just a sprout, his father, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), a Trump-like billionaire, is running for mayor. Arthur lives in a run-down apartment with his mom (Frances Conroy), who calls him Happy because he’s been afflicted all his life with a condition that has him breaking out into laughter any time he’s stressed out—which is pretty much all the time. “Arthur inhabits a realm of broken dreams, deep-seated traumas, and increasingly warped, violent fantasies,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “Which is another way of saying that he is the latest troubled soul to be played by Phoenix, who delivers the kind of meticulously detailed psychotic breakdown that he does better than just about any American actor now working.”
Phoenix is said to have dropped fifty-two pounds to play Arthur, who becomes a folk hero when he guns down three Wall Street hotshots. As IndieWire’s David Ehrlich puts it, this is “a movie that sees personal revenge as a viable spark for political revolution.” Phillips, best known for directing all three Hangovers, “may want us to think he’s giving us a movie all about the emptiness of our culture, but really, he’s just offering a prime example of it,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “Joker—which was written by Phillips and Scott Silver—doesn’t have a plot; it’s more like a bunch of reaction GIFs strung together.” Little White Lies’ David Jenkins argues that Joker “shoots for the moon in its attempt to deliver a lapel-shaking statement on the malign tenor of Our Times, yet ends up settling for feeble posturing, asinine pop psychology, and political analysis charged with all the cynicism of a mollycoddled teen dropout in fake Oakleys and a home customized Linkin Park tee.” For Glenn Kenny at RogerEbert.com, as “social commentary, Joker is pernicious garbage.”
Pop culture is lousy with garbage, of course, and most of it relatively harmless. But for Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, “here is what is even more frightening than Phoenix’s hacking cackle, or the moments of gruesome bloodiness, or the portrait of a society teetering on the brink of breakdown: Joker, based on recognizable IP, and now given the seal of critical and possible awards-consideration approval, too, is so aesthetically impressive, effective, and persuasive of its own reality that you see clearly how easily it could be (mis)interpreted and co-opted by the very 4Chan/Incel/‘mentally ill loner’ element it purports to darkly satirize.” In the Notebook, Leonardo Goi points out that because he’s cast “his uber-villain against a society that’s problematically reduced to a mass of heartless and raging animals, Philipps is in a position to peddle the suspicion that Arthur may well be the only sane person in a world gone crazy.” Ultimately, adds Goi, “the moral compass Joker embraces feels just as deranged and troubled as its eponymous villain.”
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