Warner Bros. Joker, directed by Todd Phillips (who co-wrote with Scott Silver) and starring Joaquin Phoenix, has arrived in theaters and scored the best October opening weekend of all time. Did all the controversy help boost those numbers? Perhaps. The movie also divided critics despite the early and near universal acclaim for Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck, who eventually devolves (for lack of a better word because the guy does grow repeatedly homicidal and follows through on those urges) into an early incarnation of the Clown Prince of Crime. Well, it’s time to discuss some of the things that couldn’t be mentioned in our two reviews of the movie.
IN CASE THAT WASN’T WARNING ENOUGH, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.
Did Todd Phillips Give The Middle-Finger To Comic Book Movies?
The first big obvious joke about Joker is that it’s helmed by the director of Old School and The Hangover trilogy. It’s been a hell of a year for The Hangover filmmakers, given that Craig Mazin won a writing Emmy, long after he penned multiple madcap adventures for Bradley Cooper (who’s producing on Joker) and pals. These guys are really stepping out, doing their thing, and in Phillips’ case, Joker functions as many things. First and foremost, it’s his twisted love-letter to Martin Scorsese, who recently described Marvel Studios movies as “not cinema” and like “theme parks.” Fortunately for Phillips, this is not a Marvel film but a Warner Bros. one, and a stripped-down one at that. Joker is gritty but in a Taxi Driver-esque, not a Zack Snyder, way. The movie is also, as Phillips suggested, pretty much a “heist” movie — in the sense that he nabbed a relatively small $55 million budget (by comic book movie standards) from Warner Bros., so that he and Phoenix could “do whatever the hell we want.”
Did Phillips actually make a comic book movie, though? Yes and no. Joker doesn’t rely upon special effects or the wildly enormous ensemble casts so popular today with both Marvel and D.C. Instead, this is a character-driven movie and a tale that (successfully) aspires to be examined for its nuance. At different points, it’s both self-loathing and gleefully nihilistic and strives to not fall into comic-book movie conventions. Phillips even bragged about how the movie “didn’t follow anything from the comic books, which people are gonna be mad about.” Yes, Joker contains an original plot that’s not based on any D.C. comic in particular, and Phillips wanted to tell an origin story not about Joker but how Arthur Fleck became Joker, who — as we all know — then went on to become the greatest supervillain of Gotham.
The general air that Phillips presented was that this movie was the story of some guy and what transpired to turn him into the Joker (without any mention of subsequent toxic waste from the Killing Joke comic). And that’s alright as a goal. Something strange happened along the way, though. This movie ends up being not only a Joker origin story but — surprise — a Batman origin story. And that’s where things start to feel strange: Joker sits outside the DCEU (at least, according to remarks made by Phillips at TIFF). So it’s not meant to be canon, and by design, we may never know what happens next with Fleck. It could be a one-off movie from Phillips and Phoenix, and that’s also okay. However, the Batman aspect of the third act feels inconsistent to what Phillips described as a non-connected (to the DCEU) standalone flick. It was narratively compelling to see what happened to the Waynes, but, arguably, the Batman origin-story aspect ran contrary to Phillips’ stated purpose and those two-hours invested in Fleck.
How About Those Joker-Incel Worries?
There’s plenty of criticism that holds water against this movie, including the ickiness of watching a man dance to a Gary Glitter tune (also frequently used for celebratory reasons during various other films and sporting events) after going off his meds and committing a few homicides that can’t be justified as self-defense. That dance further hyped him up to kill Murray Franklin, and part of the big worry over Joker was that it would incite violence, which is a weak argument, considering that the U.S. already suffers from regular high-profile mass shootings. Joker probably won’t inspire more violent acts in a culture that’s already plagued by them, although it’s understandable that theaters (including the one in Aurora, CO, where filmgoers were slaughtered during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight) took precautionary measures.