And for some in the audience, that’s just fine.
Since his first appearance in 1940, the Joker as a comic book villain (and later TV/Film/Video Game villain) has been an ever-evolving enigma, much like his darkly heroic counterpart. So it makes perfect sense for the films to continuously reinvent a character like the Joker, who serves a litany of important functions as an antagonistic presence.
In some cases, Joker has been a psychopath (see Jared Leto), in others he’s been a devil (Mark Hamill), perhaps a blend of many distinct parts (Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger), and yes, we will always have Cesar Romero as the goofball clown prince of crime. Each iteration of the Joker has borrowed from the ones before it—usually for the better—while also re-spinning certain details to suit the performer and the given story. This is what makes Todd Phillips’s new take on the character played by Joaquin Phoenix an even more striking variation from what we’ve seen before.
This isn’t inherently a bad thing, to be clear. For a character to be returned to this often, most audiences (I’m assuming) will welcome a change to the formula with open arms. But when you reintroduce a character to weary moviegoers, even the most strident fans, the crucial mission is to get the “soul” of the character correct if you want to appease the highest number of watchers. The “why” for this might be obvious: audiences who already know the character want something different, but not too different.
They want repackaged familiarity that justifies its existence. This is why Christian Bale’s take on Batman is largely well-received despite several other actors taking on the character just a decade prior. The same goes for Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, who participated in a reboot of the character seen just two years before with Andrew Garfield.
I’d argue in both these cases, the writing and performances led to a success in achieving the “soul” of their respective mythologies, despite the never-ending challenge of making the long-term fans happy. If everyone knew how to effectively capture the soul of a well-worn intellectual property, we’d see far more attempts than we already do.
Capturing the soul of a villain like the Joker in a standalone film is perhaps even harder to pull off, mainly because Joker himself has so many frayed identities. In Joker, the character is given a fairly straightforward origin story with an enticing aesthetic for the setting that is one part 80s-noir Gotham and the other a blending of Scorsese’s grimiest affairs, complete with direct recalls to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy (and not solely because Robert De Niro actually shows up in the film).
It’s not unusual to see a new take on the Joker borrowing from previous work, and the first appearance of the character actually lifts heavily from “The Man Who Laughs.” For 2019’s Joker, Joaquin Phoenix plays a combination of several Scorsese protagonists alluded above, and make no mistake: he plays the character with gravitas, flair, and compelling vision. Few could call this film a half-hearted attempt at achieving brilliance within the context of comic book movies and their ongoing legacy.
Rather than cling closely to any source material, Joker admirably reads like an off-shoot graphic novel—an extension of one person’s variant take on who the character is, why this is the case, and how they got to these conclusions. This quasi-graphic-novel approach has led to some terrific comic book films with a high level of craft and purpose over the years. Unfortunately, I walked away from Joker experiencing neither.
To be fair, the craft is on a high enough level, at least when it comes to its sense of location and clarity. It’s perfectly thrilling to watch a film this devoted to grounding larger than life personalities in hyper-realized settings worth sinking your teeth into. And for all the conversation around Joker being a film too challenging or provocative for fans and critics to fully appreciate, its true sin is a sin of incompetence in its dramatic storytelling. The one thing it doesn’t really get right is, in fact, Joker himself, and the source of what has made him so compelling and enduring for this long.
A proper description of this “soul” is certainly debatable, because it’s a “I know it when I see it” situation. That said, the character writ large is entertaining precisely because of his unpredictability and agency. We watch even the most harmless iterations of the villain (Zack Galifianakis in Lego Batman comes to mind alongside Romero) perform daring acts of criminality with energy and mind-bending flair. We watch Ledger’s Joker unwrap masterminded schemes of morality that make us question our own worldviews. Hamill’s Joker is a more psychological and at times empathetic take on the sometimes charming-yet-off-putting madman. Even Leto’s Joker seems intent on bending others to his will at every turn. Take your pick, the Jokers of cinema’s past have at least been hard to predict or wrap your head around, which has led to some deeply engaging storytelling in most cases.
Phoenix’s Joker is an entirely new creation in the vein of “what makes him tick,” and for some, this over-explanation might be a feature instead of a bug. The real issue, however, is that in Joker, the man known as Arthur Fleck is almost wholly reactionary. Society has inflicted this persona onto him. His “vat of chemicals” is the failure of the system and Gotham at large. The difference is that as Joker, Arthur Fleck is a haphazard outcome of circumstance instead of a force of nature, and the film continuously, overtly points this out. His acts of villainy? Incidental. His condition? A product of nurture instead of nature or something nuanced in between. His reaction to all these very bad days? He just goes with whatever comes his way as a confused opportunist, never deviating far from what the audience likely expects in full detail from the first frame of this film.
I watched a “Joker” movie with absolutely nothing interesting or important to say beyond what’s already obvious. We know he’s crazy and does bad things, so the revelation that this is a movie where a guy who is already crazy ends up doing bad things is like watching a tragic crash in slow motion. The violence is fascinating to watch in a primal sense, but it serves no other use beyond visceral placation.
I watched a “Joker” movie lacking any narrative weight, even. Merely a disturbed man slowly being poked and prodded into a villain who may be more entertaining to watch some time down the road. Phoenix goes for it, he really does. He makes this character feel real, bruised, bloody, and sometimes literally bent out of shape. But at no turn does the story seem to connect his arc to the high-minded absurdity or passion for chaos that has defined the character to date, leading me to believe this is a non-Joker film hiding inside a shell meant to sell tickets to comic book movie fans.
Presented as it is, Joker is a venting of what feels like someone else’s frustrations with a completely different paradigm of issues, removed from the character’s current impact on culture. Again, this might not be inherently problematic for some who connect with this film on that level and gladly so. But being different from what’s come before doesn’t necessarily make something good in its own right. And the challenge of adding the “Joker” brand to a movie about a budding murderer has advantages and disadvantages. Yes, it will bring people into the theater out of loyal curiosity, but it also ascribes a heavy weight of baggage to the final product.
We’ve seen plenty of “Jokers” get this right, and a few have gotten it wrong. Joker doesn’t seem to be interested in even trying. Like its protagonist, it is merely mimicking better movies, faking it until it just might make it as a film to take seriously. Its punchline is on the nose, easy to see coming, and ultimately unsatisfying because in the end, the only surprise to be had is how unsurprising it truly is.