The most tragic thing about Joker is that eventually people had to see it. What torturous fun it’s been, discoursing about whether the film will serve as an incel rallying cry, require in-theater security, run the table at the Oscars, set up a future confrontation with Robert Pattinson, merit justified comparisons to Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy, enhance or destroy Joaquin Phoenix’s reputation as a serious actor, subvert the hype, live up to the hype, etc. The buildup to the film’s release has represented everything to everybody, which makes the endpoint so dull: Joker is merely a bad movie, gesturing meekly at contemporarily relevant ideas through a dumb guy’s (director/writer Todd Phillips) view of what a prestige film is supposed to look like, and dissolving entirely underneath just a bit of critical scrutiny. Once again, a comic-book movie advertised to the public as “serious” turns out to be not very serious at all, except for people who have read one whole book in their life. Sorry.
I’m not even being a huge cinephiliac snob here. Just about every mainstream publication and writer I can think of has in recent history detailed their exhaustion with comic-book movies, trying their best to avoid outright condescension — A.O. Scott in The New York Times carefully described the Marvel movies as “streamlined and carefully blunted corporate product.” On the other side are diehards so lost in the sauce they gleefully champion the corporate merger of Disney and Fox — who now control 35 percent of the film market — just because it increases the odds this superhero can team up with that superhero, and shudder in keyboard-crazed rage whenever one of their “carefully blunted corporate products” isn’t fully validated by critics.
Unlike the protagonists of other recent and aspirationally mature superhero films such as Logan and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker does not have superpowers, and thus it was much easier for Phillips to dispense with the more fantastic elements of the genre — as in, a character whose fists contain metal claws — that will always evoke disbelief from thinking audiences told “no, really, this is the serious one” by the insistent marketing. Joker is the story of Arthur Fleck, a would-be stand-up comedian with a pathological laughing disorder whose profound alienation from society leads him to commit crimes while dressed like a clown. These crimes are then emulated in a series of progressively intense riots by a Gotham City citizenry frustrated with the excesses and provocations of the rich, most notably represented by local businessman Thomas Wayne, father of the future Batman and one percenter candidate for mayor.
In the comics the Joker is merely a clown who does crime who has never received an official origin story, and whose aggressions are rarely motivated by anything deeper than “let’s fuck with Batman.” But Phillips is pursuing emotional authenticity: He must invent a reason for why the Joker, like the disaffected mass shooters he allegedly inspires and whose motivations are sympathetically deconstructed by the media, will one day murder dozens. “We wanted to look at everything through as real and authentic a lens as possible,” Phillips told The Los Angeles Times. “I don’t believe that in the real world if you fell into a vat of acid you would turn white and have a smile and be green. So you start backwards-engineering these things and it becomes really interesting.” The phrase “character study” was invoked a couple hundred times, as well. Phoenix told Variety that he did not draw influence from previous screen iterations of the Joker, such as Heath Ledger’s haunting portrayal in the 2008 film version of The Dark Knight (more on that later); instead, he read a book about political assassinations “to get a sense of such killers and their motivations.” (He did not name the book.)
Compared to his other superhero brethren, many of who are ridiculous as a billionaire who dresses like a bat to fight crime, Batman has repeatedly served as source material for darker stories. In 1986, the writer/artist Frank Miller published The Dark Knight Returns, a DC Comics miniseries envisioning an aged Batman coming out of retirement lay down the law in a crime-choked Gotham City, eventually facing off against a psychopathic Joker and the U.S. government itself. The Dark Knight Returns was a publishing mega-event, and became canonized as the Batman comic and the serious superhero comic. When Christopher Nolan revived the moribund Batman franchise in 2005, he repeatedly pilfered both visually and narratively from The Dark Knight Returns as well as Miller’s Year One miniseries, which similarly presented a more “realistic” spin on Batman’s early crime-fighting days. (Screenwriter David Goyer acknowledged Year One as a principal influence.) The high point of this effort, 2008’s The Dark Knight — which featured the bedraggled, incantatory Ledger — was so rapidly canonized by comic book fans that the Academy Awards rewrote its rules to allow movies like it to more easily sneak into the Best Picture nominations.
While The Dark Knight Returns remains a fascinating text, it has a more dubious legacy as the go-to reference point for sheepish readers trying to convince someone else to take their comics seriously. Because nerd shit — be it comics, D&D, video games, or whatever — was so eminently mockable for so long, generations of fans reacted defensively when asked, by a parent, prospective lover, or childhood bully, “Comic books… aren’t those for kids?” (I speak from experience here.) With its strident moral calculus and hardcore violence. The Dark Knight Returns (and The Dark Knight 22 years after it) was an easy way of saying no, they’re not — not just as proof that comic books could be mature, but that their avid consumers were also mature.
In talking about Joker, realism and authenticity aren’t just creative guide poles for Phillips to swear by. To the diehards, it says this is one not even the snobby critics can avoid; to the snobby critics, it says that their patience for suffering through dozens (literally, dozens) of badly spandexed punchlines and anodyne CGI action sequences might finally be rewarded with something they can write thoughtfully about without feeling like they’re wasting their time. Now, whenever some asshole like me accuses the genre of being fundamentally juvenile, a naysayer can say “nuh-uh” and point to the trophies (the movie won the top prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival) as proof. And then Marvel will decide it wants its own gritty character study (imagine 2022’s Magneto, starring Daniel Day-Lewis), and just as the success of one superhero movie can greenlight the production of a dozen more, so the terrain will be freely mined until the formula is displaced by some other giant gimmick.
Then again, the movies must first be good, and critics have responded tepidly, turned off by how turgid and self-consciously adult Joker attempts to be without achieving any emotional cohesion or thrust. Just about every narrative and directorial beat is designed to provoke an obvious reaction: the long shots of Phoenix’s grotesquely bruised and emaciated body (he suffers); the tormented confessions like “I just hope my death makes more cents [sic] than my life” he scribbles in his notebook (he suffers); the intense close-ups of Fleck’s exhaustingly deranged facial expressions (he suffers!!!); the ripped-from-the-news ideas about political correctness (Fleck: “I’m not political, I just want to make people laugh”) and class warfare (a newspaper headline reads “Kill the Rich: A New Movement?”); the multiple hints that maybe this is all just a hallucination; and on and on. The iconic alleyway shooting of the Waynes — Batman’s own origin story — takes place during the climactic riots, and isn’t it funny how Wayne inspires Fleck to do the crimes, Fleck inspires the death of Wayne, the death of Wayne inspires the rise of Batman, and then Joker and Batman fight forevermore? “THIS IS IRONY” does not flash over the screen.
A couple weeks ago, a clip of Phillips citing the influence of the Belgian feminist filmmaker Chantal Akerman made its way around Film Twitter, a worthy inclusion into the pantheon of Hollywood filmmakers trying to sound way deeper by referencing their favorite art films. But here it serves as a limp coda for this months-long campaign to convince us that a comic-book movie is, in fact, not a comic-book movie. It’s worth mentioning, again, that the Joker has never drawn his appeal from such a heavy-handed approach, so his characterization here is entirely an invention from Phillips and Phoenix about how to legitimize comic books, a medium that’s produced decades of adult work, and also one they don’t particularly care about.
In this sense, it’s an expected byproduct of a cinematic culture that’s spent 20 years attempting to validate comic-book movies as worthwhile art when there’s been maybe six recognizable emotions across all of them, all of which are found in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies. Even if you’ve never been a cinephiliac snob this must surely be a bummer, and an ironic capitulation to the idiocy of the moment swiftly feels like a sane way of processing that this is just modern culture’s default baseline. Chapo Trap House’s Matt Christman called Joker “an amazing piece of art, but it’s mostly accidental and contextual, like a really beautiful piece of sea glass,” an opinion with which I’d fully agree if the finished product wasn’t just powerfully asinine. In some ways it’s a missed opportunity: Imagine if Phillips had managed to say something interesting about the alienation, loneliness, and violence produced by class conflict beyond “things are crazy out there” (a line that’s repeated at least twice). It would still be a movie about a clown who does crime, but it would be something.
The truth is that comic-book movies don’t need to be serious. They’re better when they’re not, and less likely to give off a putrid desperation for a trophy. Lately I've reconsidered my initial disdain for 1997’s unfortunately maligned Batman & Robin, directed by Joel Schumacher, who leaned into the character’s camp nature much to the chagrin of critics. Not that he cared; in a recent interview, Schumacher said, “Can you imagine if I’d made a Batman for David Denby?” (Denby, to his credit, disliked The Dark Knight). Probably the most delightful superhero movie I’ve seen recently is 2018’s Aquaman, directed by James Wan, which leaned into the inherent conceptual goofiness — a fish man who talks to fish — by including shit like a drum-playing octopus and this Patrick Wilson fit. The Joker himself has been interpreted more zanily: In 1989’s Tim Burton-helmed Batman, Jack Nicholson played him like a ’30s gangster in top-to-bottom bright purple, a reading that feels like a thousand years ago now that the character has become a stand-in for something much more terroristic and dumb.
I like that interpretation far more, though it’s just my personal preference. Maybe the dark stuff feels like a payoff for all the juvenile shit for some people, all the years of suffering as a comic-book nerd. It just seems like a lot of wasted energy to obscure the medium’s absurdist heart, which has flourished for decades and hopefully always will. (To quote Schumacher again: “Batman has survived since 1939 — we’re the same age. Nothing has ever stopped Batman.”) No amount of joyless hype will change that, no matter what the serious men in the room insist in their quixotic efforts to make something that ultimately exists as a totem to its own meaninglessness. This, in the end, is the Joker’s most twisted trick: forcing everyone to pay attention, when there was no point.
Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly referred to the 2008 film The Dark Knight as The Dark Knight Returns.