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Joker’ As Wannabe Scorsese Movie

New standalone DC film reinvents iconic villain in origin story

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Joaquin Phoenix is Arthur Fleck in the DC origin film "Joker."

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"Joker" arrives in theaters after nabbing the Golden Lion for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival. This standalone DC origin film stars Joaquin Phoenix as the iconic villain.

Aired: October 4, 2019 | Transcript

The Joker in Film and TV

"Batman" (1966, Cesar Romero)

"Batman" (1989, Jack Nicholson)

"Batman: The Animated Series" (1992, voiced by Mark Hamill)

"The Dark Knight" (2008, Heath Ledger)

"Gotham" (2014, Cameron Monaghan)

"Suicide Squad" (2016, Jared Leto)

"Joker" arrives in theaters after nabbing the Golden Lion for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival. This standalone DC origin film stars Joaquin Phoenix as the iconic villain.

If “Joker” was not packaged as a DC film I might have liked it better. One of the main problems I have with the film is its inability to decide what it wants to be and I think if it was not tied to the Batman comics world — even though the connection is only tenuous and the Wayne estate should seriously consider suing for slander — it would be freer to pursue a darker and more interesting story.

As it stands, the film contradicts a lot of what some fans have grown up with as canon yet it doesn’t forcefully create something new to satisfyingly take its place. It occupies an odd limbo of not really being part of the current DC cinematic universe yet not creating something new that you can imagine future stories building on.

DC has been far less successful launching a current film franchise off its famous comics than Marvel has. DC’s Christopher Reeve “Superman” film was perfection for its time and Christopher Nolan hit pay dirt with “The Dark Knight” thanks mostly to Heath Ledger’s stunning incarnation of the Joker. But recent DC films — “Wonder Woman” being the exception — just seem to be all over the place in terms of tone, style, and quality and mostly they seem humorous and weighed down by big budgets.

New Joker origin story

“Joker” is at least taking a more inspired risk with its standalone effort. But the fact that it is yet again an origin story reveals a lack of confidence on DC’s part. I mean how many times do we have to see Bruce Wayne’s parents killed. There are plenty of Joker storylines both old and new that have yet to be tapped for the big screen but studios just want to play it safe and recycle already used ideas than venture out into completely new territory.

This “Joker” gives us Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, who works minimally as a clown at whatever gig he can get while he dreams of a career as a stand-up comic. He gets tormented on the street by kids, assaulted on the subway by Wall Street bullies, and picked on by co-workers. He still lives with his ailing mother and makes visits to a social worker so he can stay on his meds. But as he tells her when she asks if he is still having negative thoughts, that’s all he has are negative thoughts. Let’s face it, his life sucks.

“Joker” comes close to painting an interesting and disturbing portrait of what goes into creating a white male mass shooter but shies away from committing fully to that realism or going that dark. (The film is also careful to make the victims mostly white males.) But it effectively lays out the things that can make a person feel so alienated and hopeless that he would write in a journal, “I just hope my death makes more cents than my life,” (sic).

What's the point?

But the problem I have with the film is what’s its point? Are we meant to sympathize with Arthur? Feel his pain but just reject his choice of violence later in the film? Or agree with him that the world is so crazy that we all need to throw our hands up and embrace the violence and the chaos?

“Joker” opens in San Diego at the same time as Takashi Miike’s “First Love” and it’s interesting to see how two films both present excessive violence but how Miike’s tight control of the chaos he depicts makes his film clearer in its intent. Miike’s excess is meant to be absurd and not of the real world. But Phillips’ direction comes across as less certain. He delivers some nasty violence and the brutality is effective in rooting it in the real world. Yet it’s unclear what his point is in doing this. Arthur is our protagonist yet he is no hero and not even an anti-hero. But there is no one who represents any contrast to him.

Thomas Wayne is presenting like a kind of Trump in training — rich, out of touch with people, pretending to care about the poor while mocking their plight, and blind to the kind of bullies that work for him. On a certain level, I feel like we are meant to applaud the “kill the rich” rallying cry of the film.

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Robert DeNiro plays comedian and talk show host Murray Franklin in "Joker."

A wannabe Scorsese film

A film that does not have a likable protagonist or a clear moral compass is not necessarily problematic for me. That dynamic is something Martin Scorsese excels at in films such as “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy,” a pair of films that are both heavily referenced here by Phillips. “Joker” even casts the star of those films, Robert DeNiro, in a role ripped right out of “King of Comedy” (DeNiro essentially plays a character much like the Jerry Lewis comedian). But Scorsese, like Miike, is a meticulous director and while you can debate some of his themes or methods his intent feels clear. “Taxi Driver” is chilling because the explosive violence of Travis Bickle is ironically interpreted as an act of heroism, and “King of Comedy” explores the dangerous side of obsessive fandom and the modern hunger for fifteen minutes of fame.

This raises another problem I have with the film, Arthur Fleck and Joker. To me, the Joker has always represented chaos be it the silly mayhem of Cesar Romero’s Joker in the old “Batman” TV show or Jack Nicholson’s comic anarchy in Tim Burton’s “Batman” or Heath Ledger’s scary nihilism in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.” But Phoenix’s Fleck/Joker is just a pathetic, dim-witted child-man who accidentally causes chaos and half-heartedly thinks it’s kind of cool. It is hard to imagine this Joker ever finding the motivation to commit the kind of crimes that could make him Batman’s nemesis. He seems barely able to rise out of bed and acts as if he doesn’t have two brain cells to rub against each other to spark an idea.

There are occasional moments when he bursts out of his apathy for a sudden gust of violence but for the most part, he just floats in a haze. Perhaps my frustration is that there is enough good stuff in the film to make me see what it could have been but that’s coupled with so many missed opportunities and pretension that the ultimate feeling I left with was frustration and dissatisfaction.

Phoenix is also a problematic actor for me. He’s like that little girl in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem — “when she was good she was very, very good but when she was bad she was horrid.” So he’s been brilliant in films such as “You Were Never Really Here” and “Inherent Vice” but horrid in “I’m Still Here” where he seems to channel the worst of Marlon Brando’s self-conscious "Acting" with a capital A pretension. Phoenix seems dedicated to playing the part and losing weight to look particularly creepy but Phillips gives him so much needless screen time to dance and preen and suffer that the film grows tiresome and boring.

There was never a moment when I felt I was watching Arthur Fleck on screen, I was always aware that I was watching Phoenix craft a performance of a character called Arthur Fleck and that always kept me outside the film.

“Joker” is likely to upset those who have an affection for the Batman of the past or for those looking to find a film to point a finger at for excessive violence but it is likely to please audiences who may have no strong connection to the original Joker and the hardcore DC fanboys and girls who like everything DC puts out. It is also likely to score at the box office with nothing to really challenge it this weekend.

I’m not sorry I saw the film but I’m not likely to ever seek it out again. It definitely starts to find its way in the second half but it seems too little too late. And it does make me want to cue up “The Dark Knight” and savor Ledger’s riveting performance.

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