WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Joker.
In a season of many hotly anticipated movies and the fever of awards talk in the air, there may be no film as loudly debated as Joker. DC's one-off reimagining of the origin story for Batman's most iconic villain was announced amid a flurry of skepticism in 2017, with Todd Phillips attached to direct and Martin Scorsese's name floated as a possible producer. Even the most ardent fans of DC Comics were somewhat confused by the announcement. How do you make an origin story for a character who is defined in his narratives by his lack of identifiable background?
Even as expectations for Joker increased, particularly after three-time Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix was cast in the main role, there was a strange aura surrounding the project that many found hard to shake. Things only got weirder when it was announced that the film would be playing several of the major fall film festivals, an honor that's typically associated with Oscar season and a level of prestige not usually awarded to superhero-based fare. Its world premiere took place last month at the Venice Film Festival, where it garnered rave reviews. That would have been successful enough for the movie, but then something even weirder happened: It won the Golden Lion, the biggest award the festival has to offer, and it did so over directors like Noah Baumbach, Steven Soderbergh, and Roman Polanski (ergh, he's still a thing). Now, all of a sudden, Joker is a legitimate Oscar contender, something none of us could have predicted even a few weeks ago.
Of course, with such highs come great lows, and Joker has not been without its fair share of negative reviews or controversy. Some critics worried that the film's depiction of violence and vigilantism could inspire copycats, and that the story of a loner white dude who gets famous for shooting a bunch of people may not be a good fit for our current era and its issues with fetishizing gun violence. For as many reviews as there have been proclaiming Joker to be a masterpiece, there have been those who hated it and feared its potentially insidious nature. All of this weighed heavily on me when I saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it had its North American premiere. In a full screening, I saw a sizable chunk of the audience applaud and cheer as the movie ended. I didn't do the same, but I wasn't as furious about what I'd watched as some of my colleagues were.
Let's get this out of the way: In my opinion, Joker is not incel bait, nor do I think it is encouraging anyone to commit and celebrate violent deeds. I didn't hate the movie. Actually, I think it's kind of great in many ways, but the things it does badly are tough to ignore. The entire thing deserves deeper consideration than to be shoved into the corner of unblemished masterpiece or dangerous screed, as is so often the case with movies steeped in exhausting hype.
Joker is not exactly an origin story for the DC villain. Rather, it is an independent narrative that imagines what it would take for one man to become an instantly recognizable and definable figure of chaos. Would it really take just one bad day, as Alan Moore's The Killing Joke posited, or does it require a lifetime of pain to get there? For Arthur Fleck, as played by Joaquin Phoenix, it's more the latter than the former. A lifelong depressive taking multiple medications for an array of unknown ailments, Arthur lives with his sick mother (Frances Conroy) and works as an oft-abused clown-for-hire. He dreams of stand-up success but is embarrassingly unfunny, as well as plagued by a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably. Suffice to say, things soon get even worse from there for Arthur.
There are wonderful elements of Joker that deserve praise: The score, by Icelandic cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir, is beautifully haunting and such a refreshing change from the frequently derivative music heard in comic book movies; Lawrence Sher's cinematography and the production design by Mark Friedberg add striking dimensions to this familiar Scorsese-esque setting, paying homage to the films of that era while remaining fully layered and textured independently of such comparisons; and Joaquin Phoenix is, of course, stunning in a role that gives him plenty to work with. He can do this sort of performance in his sleep at this point in his career, but it's still a thrill to see his pretzel-like physicality, skills at evoking emotional anguish, and penchant for bleak humor get their time to shine. It's no wonder the Oscar talk has been so prevalent for Phoenix this year. Even the most damning critics of Joker can at least agree that he's kind of amazing in it.
The faults of Joker lie heavily on the script level. It's a movie that wears its influences on its sleeve, from Scorsese's '70s fare to Network to a touch of the horror video nasties (indeed, the movie is at its best when it leans more into horror than Taxi Driver). The downside of these homages is that Joker often doesn't feel like its own entity, as it takes its cues from a well-worn guide. A proudly nihilistic movie — which is no surprise coming from the man who made The Hangover trilogy — Joker's misanthropy is understandable and often deeply unnerving in fascinating ways, yet I as a viewer who knew all these references couldn't help but feel like the film was oddly timid. For a movie that's been called a potential incitement to violence, I found Joker to be surprisingly tame. This gentler approach to what could have been dangerous material is both a positive and a negative against Joker. These decisions were understandable (this is still a major studio movie intended for wider audiences, after all) but if you're aiming for controversy, why not just commit?
And then there are the two named female characters in the story. Joker is all but The Joaquin Phoenix Show, so the supporting cast being sidelined as they are is hardly a shock. Even Robert De Niro doesn't get much to do. So for the wonderful Frances Conroy and Zazie Beetz, their participation in the story is minimal and all centered on Arthur. Conroy plays his sickly mother, while Beetz is his neighbor, for whom he harbors a mild crush. Arthur's mother has told him his entire life that he was supposed to bring joy and happiness into the world. It is later revealed that she has suffered from lifelong delusions that led her to believe her adopted son was her biological child with her former boss, Thomas Wayne. Arthur, understandably, does not take this news well, and after his mother has a mild stroke, he suffocates her in her hospital bed.
Zazie Beetz plays Sophie, a single mother living down the hall from the Flecks. They share a short moment together in an elevator before Arthur is shown following her around Gotham. When she calls him out on this, she reacts unreasonably well, and the pair seem to hit it off. I must admit, it was at this moment in the film where I did a full-body cringe for fear that this was where Joker was going to go full incel bait, as I'd been warned. Then something interesting happens. Arthur, after his mother falls ill, stumbles into Sophie's apartment seeking solace, and she has no idea who he is. Suddenly his broken mind pieces together the truth: She was never there when he thought she was. His brain wanted a happy ending, and it fashioned together a delusion based on one elevator meeting. It's a twist I didn't see coming, but thankfully nothing bad happens to Sophie or her child. Don't panic, she is not fridged. Still, for a movie selling itself hard as a subversion of the comic book movie genre, Joker still does what decades of the medium did before it in terms of the female characters. It's a real shame, because the Batman and Gotham universe have always been populated by wonderful, deeply complex female characters, and there's part of me that's depressed to be so relieved by Joker clearing the very low bar of not killing off both women in its own narrative.
I get why this movie made so many people panic or think about the worst-case scenario. There's something about the character of the Joker that appeals to the worst in us, and even the most delicately rendered depictions of him can become bastardized by conjecture and lazy psychology. Frankly, he's too cool to dismiss a lot of the time. Phoenix's Joker isn't all that cool, however, and I do think that's worth noting in terms of the wider discussion surrounding this movie. He does some fancy dancing and admittedly looks rather dapper in the final suit, but he's also a rail-thin and greasy introvert who makes everyone around him uncomfortable. As shown through Phoenix's abrasive and unnerving performance, Arthur is anti-charisma. The revolt he inspires in Gotham happens without anyone knowing what he looks or sounds like, which feels crucial to the delusion Arthur is selling us. By the end of the movie, the audience is unsure of how much of what unfolded in the previous two hours was real. Did Arthur really inspire Gotham's residents to burn the city to the ground, or was this just another escape from his shattered mind? Does it even matter?
I can't entirely decide how I feel about Joker's ending. For a standalone story about a man so deeply broken by society and denied any sort of help to end with such ambiguity makes coherent sense with the overarching narrative, and it's probably the safest way to conclude something so inevitably controversial. And yet I kind of wanted more of the grime, of the sleaze, of the irrepressible nihilism that is promised by this proto-horror drama that has nothing good to say about humanity. Then again, this is still a film designed to sell merchandise and appeal to audiences younger than the R rating would suggest, so maybe this was as dark as they could go. Todd Phillips and Warner Bros. are threading a very fine needle with Joker, and it shows. Whatever way they went, the conversations surrounding the film would be the same, and, frankly, I'm already exhausted by the discourse. Falling smack bang in the middle with my opinion of the film leaves me in a strange liminal space for said discussions.
Joker is good. Not great, but certainly not a world-ending disaster. I don't think it's incel-ready, and I doubt it's going to inspire mass riots in the streets, although some better care in developing its central themes wouldn't have gone amiss. As it is, Joker has got everyone talking, for better or worse, and that's all Todd Phillips and Warner Bros. wanted.
Joker made its North American premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and will open wide on October 4.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.