We’ve talked about it before, but after the woeful experience that was Justice League (ed note: I kinda liked it at the time), you can’t blame anybody for thinking all DC Films could get right was Wonder Woman these days. But then came Aquaman (a movie that was mostly well received, though less so by me) and Shazam! (which absolutely rocked), and suddenly the comics side of WB’s movie business was looking a lot brighter all of a sudden. And now around the corner is Joker, which debuted at the Venice International Film Festival this weekend and was also screened for selected critics in NY and LA, with reviews hitting the digital presses today that range the gamut from some of the industry’s top critics.
After the final trailer was released last week, it was a bit touch and go as far as how Todd Phillips’ reinvention of DC’s most popular villain might be received. I can tell you the reaction behind the scenes at Stately Beat Manor was anything but too positive, but I’ll be the first to tell you that trailers are rarely indicative of the final product, and after reports surfaced that the film received an eight-minute standing ovation at Venice (admittedly, never a rarity at these types of shindigs), I was at least curious what the final verdicts were going to be.
Let’s take a look at what some of my colleagues have to say:
JOKER is a bold, bodacious love letter to Scorsese’s #TheKingOfComedy, told through the lens of DC’s most iconic villain. Dark, disturbing, brutal & sad, it’s about an abused man who doesn’t start living until he’s dead inside. Joaquin Phoenix is so damn good#JokerMovie pic.twitter.com/WCk1Ya4FFG
— Erik Davis (@ErikDavis) August 31, 2019
I saw #Joker — and it is unlike anything before it. The movie is dark, thrilling, and chilling. An insane masterpiece.
The movie absolutely transcends being a comic book film and acts as a character study which, at times, will make audiences uncomfortable in wild ways. 10/10 pic.twitter.com/2B2mCkzbZy
— Brandon Davis (@BrandonDavisBD) August 31, 2019
Mark Hughes over at Forbes, who calls it one of the true masterpieces of the superhero cinema specifically zeroes in on Phoenix’s performance:
Joker is a phenomenal film, destined to be pitted against Ledger’s The Dark Knight performance for the title of definitive on-screen portrayal of the character. So fabulous is this version of the Joker, it is hard to imagine the upcoming Batman rebooted franchise offering yet another new version any time soon — which is why I hope Phoenix can be persuaded to reprise the role and somehow cross over into Matt Reeves’ Batman movies in the next few years.
Time Out’s Phil De Semlyen calls it the “best social horror film since Get Out” and zeroes in on something that other critics have also called attention to:
If ‘Joker’ often feels like the product of a binge of early Scorsese movies – ‘King of Comedy’ and ‘Taxi Driver’, in particular – this character isn’t just a makeup-smeared facsimile of Robert De Niro’s traumatised Vietnam veteran. He’s the product of a society that feels painfully current. He needs help, but there’s no help out there for him.
And Dorian Parks over at Geeks of Color particularly praises the ambition of the film, stating:
I believe this is one of Warner Bros. most ambitious projects thus far when it comes to their comic book-based films. In saying this, I also believe Joker could be a potential game changer for the comic book genre in general. Other examples of this would be both Deadpool and Logan. Both of these films really took risks when it came to heavier material, darker themes, and really looking into the minds of its main characters. Therefore, I believe DC has found their niche when it comes to R-rated material in Joker.
Richard Lawson at Vanity Fair, on the other hand, has deeper worries about Phillips’ effort, calling it:
Irresponsible propaganda for the very men it pathologizes…is Joker celebratory or horrified? Or is there simply no difference, the way there wasn’t in Natural Born Killers or a myriad of other “America, man” movies about the freeing allure of depravity?
Owen Gleiberman at Variety counters, stating that Joker is:
A dazzlingly disturbed psycho morality play, one that speaks to the age of incels and mass shooters and no-hope politics, of the kind of hate that emerges from crushed dreams.
And in what I think is probably the best piece of writing about the film so far, from David Ehrlich at IndieWire:
Todd Phillips’ “Joker” is unquestionably the boldest reinvention of “superhero” cinema since “The Dark Knight”; a true original that’s sure to be remembered as one of the most transgressive studio blockbusters of the 21st Century. It’s also a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels, and a hyper-familiar origin story so indebted to “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” that Martin Scorsese probably deserves an executive producer credit. 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.
So we’ve got outright raves and mixed reviews worried about the messaging of the film, what about outright pans? Well, Time’s Stephanie Zacharek has you covered there:
The movie’s cracks — and it’s practically all cracks — are stuffed with phony philosophy. Joker is dark only in a stupidly adolescent way, but it wants us to think it’s imparting subtle political or cultural wisdom. Just before one of his more violent tirades, Arthur muses, “Everybody just screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore.” Who doesn’t feel that way in our terrible modern times? But Arthur’s observation is one of those truisms that’s so true it just slides off the wall, a message that both the left and the right can get behind and use for their own aims. It means nothing.
And Roger Ebert’s Glenn Kenny calls it outright “pernicious garbage”.
In amongst “Joker’s” fire and blood and chaos and its blackest of blackhearted laughter, there is the sense of a grotesque, green-haired genie being let out of a bottle, and whether it wreaks havoc or not, we’re not going to be able to put it back in. At the press conference after the Venice press screening, Phillips asserted his belief that while movies mirror society, they do not mold it. While not usually ones to deny cinema one iota of its power, this time we just have to hope that he’s right because whatever monumentally unfunny funhouse we’re in, we’re barely hanging on in the world “Joker” reflects. I’m not sure we’d survive the one it would build.
In all, it looks like this is a film that going to stir up a lot of conversation, for better or ill. We’ll have a review over at the Beat and have our own say when I take it in a few weeks. See you in a Post-Joker world, gang!