Last Updated: December 29, 2019
After a triumphant film festival run that included rave reviews and a Golden Lion win at Venice Film Festival, Todd Phillips’ Joker divided critics as it moved into general release. The film is an origin story for Batman’s greatest nemesis, starring Joaquin Phoenix as a man called Arthur Fleck, who struggles with the weight of his mental illness and a miserable existence – until eventually, having been pushed too far, he transforms himself into the Joker.
Joker’s first screenings were met with a wave of five-star reviews, but after it reached a wider pool of critics, opinions on the movie were split. The film tenuously held on to a “Certified Fresh” badge on Rotten Tomatoes, with a score of 69% and an average rating of 7.31, so while the majority of critics did rate Joker positively, there are also a lot of dissenters. Even before it screened for the majority of critics, Joker was dogged by controversy: first because of concerns that it could inspire a mass shooting, and later because Phillips made comments about how “woke culture” made it impossible for him to continue making comedies, and that Joker is a “real movie [made] under the guise of a comic book film” – which many saw as being disparaging towards comic book movies.
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Of course, it’s true that Joker wasn’t designed to be a traditional comic book movie, and the differing reactions are to be expected since the movie doesn’t exactly play things safe. For most critics it’s a gamble that paid off, with particular praise directed at Phoenix’s performance and Joker’s impressive cinematography. However, here’s what some of the reviewers who weren’t so impressed had to say.
Phoenix, alternately brooding and exulting, dancing extravagantly in his underwear or in a resplendent costume or seething with rage, cringing with horror, or camping it up with an affected accent, isn’t so much unhinged as unmotivated and, to all appearances, undirected. What he delivers is less a performance than a display of his bag of actorly tricks—and they’re pretty wonderful, but they adorn a character who’s an empty framework, and, to all appearances, empty by design, for fear of alienating the target audience.
Joker is a bad movie, yes: It’s predictable, clichéd, deeply derivative of other, better movies, and overwritten to the point of self-parody… The experience of sitting through it is highly unpleasant, but that unpleasantness has less to do with graphic violence—there are only one or two scenes that go hard, gore-wise—than with claustrophobia and boredom.
Joker… is a calculatedly combustible concoction, designed, like its chaos-creating character, to cause a stir. To provoke and distort. I wish it was as radical as it thinks it is. Instead, Joker is a mesmerizing, misjudged attempt to marry the madness of a disturbed individual to today’s violent and clownish times. It’s a shallow, under-examined movie that renders the dark descent of a troubled man with an operatic fervor.
It’s possessed by the kind of provocative spirit that’s seldom found in any sort of mainstream entertainment, but also directed by a glorified edgelord who lacks the discipline or nuance to responsibly handle such hazardous material, and who reliably takes the coward’s way out of the narrative’s most critical moments.
As many have noted, Arthur’s a classic incel candidate, an involuntary celibate steeped in resentments and dreams of the good life, with a beautiful woman by his side and a more civil and just society. In his aggrieved urban-white-male rage, he can sit at the same poker table as the guy from “Falling Down,” next to Travis Bickle from the genuinely, profoundly ambiguous and unsettling “Taxi Driver.” Early on Arthur incel-stalks his neighbor (Zazie Beetz, playing a symbol of what Arthur cannot have, rather than a human being). Later, at the social service agency office about to close up for good, the weary social service worker (Sharon Washington) lays it out for him, in a typical sledgehammer line: “They don’t give a —t about people like you, Arthur.”
Maybe he only sincerely means to capture and reflect the times; a mirror held up to the anger and alienation and class disparities that have shaped the world we find ourselves living in. The rules of the movie’s moral universe, though, don’t point toward some greater good as much as they just seem to celebrate – or at least tacitly approve – chaos as a cure for hopelessness, or merely for its own destabilizing sake.
Interestingly, most of the more negative reviews (and some of the positive reviews as well) don’t call out Joker for being dangerous or potentially aspirational viewing for mass killers, but rather not being bold or interesting enough to warrant all the fuss that’s been made over it. The most common criticisms are that Phillips’ work is simply too derivative of Martin Scorsese’s films (The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, in particular) to carve out an identity of its own, and that it lacks depth, with its notions of mental illness, society and class left vague and improperly explored. That being said, Joker has of course received plenty of rave reviews. Here’s what the critics who loved it had to say.
In Joker, Joaquin Phoenix digs into the title role, kicks out the jams, and stamps the character with a danger all his own. “Phenomenal” is a puny word to describe his gut-punch performance… As entertainment and provocation, Joker is simply stupendous.
Many have asked, and with good reason: Do we need another Joker movie? Yet what we do need — badly — are comic-book films that have a verité gravitas, that unfold in the real world, so that there’s something more dramatic at stake than whether the film in question is going to rack up a billion-and-a-half dollars worldwide. Joker manages the nimble feat of telling the Joker’s origin story as if it were unprecedented.
Built around a credible spiral from lonely outsider to deranged killer, it’s as much a neo-noir psychological character study grounded in urban alienation and styled after Taxi Driver as a rise-of-the-supervillain portrait. It’s arguably the best Batman-adjacent movie since The Dark Knight… The must-see factor of Phoenix’s riveting performance alone – it’s both unsettling and weirdly affecting – will be significant.
The movie allows these rich ideas and associations to swirl around Phoenix, who just keeps laughing and seething and dancing and laughing and falling apart and laughing some more. Phillips holds the camera tight on his star, sometimes following him down long hallways from behind and often shooting him in slow-motion, while a cellist saws away mournfully in the background. He lets us feel the physicality of Phoenix’s performance, the way his rib bones seem to protrude like daggers from his emaciated frame (the actor shed 52 pounds for the role). He makes sure we note the incremental shifts in the Joker’s clown makeup, complete with blue tear streaks and blood-red rictus grin.
It’s heady, incendiary stuff, and it’s surprising how far “Joker” goes, and how much it’s able to get away with. One sequence in particular plays like a horror move, more stomach churning and uncomfortable than anything in the “Saw” movies. But it’s not because it’s graphic or gory. The horror of the situation is all in the viewer’s mind, and Phillips plays it perfectly.
Phillips and Phoenix deserve credit for reimagining what a comic book movie can be. One that isn’t encumbered with setting up multi-movie plot lines and one that can go to places other films in this genre can’t.
Joker’s Audience Reactions Ended Up Much More Positive Overall
While the reviews heading into Joker‘s wide theatrical release were decidedly mixed, as seen above, overall audience reaction to the film was considerably tilted more toward the positive side. Joker holds an 88% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, and an 8.7 rating on IMDB. Positive word of mouth helped the DC origin story have legs at the box office too, ultimately leading to a worldwide gross of over $1 billion on a budget of only $55 million, making Joker one of the most profitable films in history.
In short, Joker‘s reviews were definitely a mixed bag – but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. A movie being divisive among critics is all the more reason to go and see it for oneself, and judging by the box office, most moviegoers decided to do just that. Some surely found themselves agreeing with the reviewers who were disappointed by Joker but, on the other hand, many discovered their favorite movie of the year. For all the hand-wringing and controversy that went into Joker’s release, the DC film proved to be just that, a film, a piece of popular entertainment, not an incitement toward violence.
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