The Joker is one of those cornerstone characters of American comics. Created in the 1940s as a large clown figure designed to keep wartime orphans amused, the character has grown darker in recent decades. He beats kids to death, he cuts off his own face and then he gets Heath Ledger killed. What’s a Clown Prince of Crime to do? If you said dare to open a movie in this climate, well you would be right.
The film doesn’t even appear until late Thursday and audiences are already torn between I WONDER WHERE BATMAN IS and WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF MY FEELINGS, that anyone else is left in the cold. Having known a few details of the film in advance, I kinda had an idea of what to expect. Still, it wasn’t that movie. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s not the movie that many of you are dreaming it to be this weekend.
Comic fans have tried to paint this movie as a Vertigo or Black Label take on Joker. That’s not terribly far off from the truth. But, it’s just a surface read of what’s going on. By now, the loudest elements of Film Twitter will have had their day to sink venomous fangs deep into the cultural perception of this film. It’s going to incite X, Y or Z. Then, we get their various hot takes on the film that will never be allowed rebuttals. All the while, the average person on the street just wonders when Batman is going to show up.
Somewhere between Phoenix’s mental break and the bloody third act, something dawned on me. When the Joker premiered in the 1940s, DC had to play the character in the broadest of strokes. Golden Age audiences were kids, teenagers and soldiers that treated the books as disposable material barely worth a dime. Playing up a Clown Prince of Crime that fought with giant props and postured like a Mirror Universe Danny Kaye was something that anyone could understand. But, why change it up?
The purpose of art is to challenge. The purpose of entertainment is to distract. When you intermix the two lines of thought, you get something that makes audiences think is demanding more than it might be doing. Normally, I’d insert a slam on the Nolan movies here, but I can’t be bothered. Every director has a right to tell their story. Even if they don’t understand Robin and shoot Batman like Michael Mann going through a leather daddy phase.
So many hardened minds and fresh eyes will be seeing this movie side by side. Not too fresh, people. Your kids don’t belong at an R-rated film. Get that through your head. But, who belongs at this film? A film about a 75 year old character that keeps getting reinterpreted every 6 years or so. An ever-demanding effort to try to find a new way to make audiences care about the dime book villain that most only know from other media.
Ultimately, Joker is one of pop culture’s cave tests. You bring in only what you take with you. Deep in that dark theater cave, you’ll see what you expect and approach to attack, defend or observe. What I found was a slightly interesting movie that wavered in defining itself as anything in particular. Throughout 90% of the film, Joaquin Phoenix does more heavy lifting than the Hulk pushing his way through the destroyed Avengers HQ in Endgame.
If you’re a DC Comics fan expecting some sort of connection to the Snyder movies or something true to the comics, you’re out of luck. For those that think this movie is Incel bait, you’re going to be disappointed. The truth lies down a different avenue. It’s an acting porn disguised as a Scorsese homage but dressed up in the fashion of what appease the pop culture mainstream. While Phoenix is amazing, this isn’t a film that should be sticking in your brain for that long.
The worst thing about this Joker is…that he made you miss the energy of Jared Leto. Yeah, I went there.