The ironic part about Joker is that it worked so much better before it was overtly a movie about The Joker.
As you’ve likely heard, we live in a society where a large scale character study that is seen by mass audiences probably won’t be seen unless it’s connected to a large IP. Joker in particular was at least a movie that is interesting and seems to be building to large statements about mental health and society until it remembers it is a comic book movie in its third act. This is when the subtle references to the large Batman universe become overt and take control of the plot.
Making sure it appeases its core audience, in the end, hurts this movie and tears down what started out as a thoughtful and deliberate study of a mentally ill character’s slow descent due to mistreatment. And that is really what causes the movie to be not good overall.
It keeps you in the perspective of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) as he descends into becoming The Joker, and it seems to be basking in his immoral deeds. It lacks any moral center to act as a foil for Arthur to show the audience that he is bad. Saying, “You should know he is bad because he is The Joker,” is nowhere near good enough of an indictment on the character.
To unfairly compare this to one of the greatest television shows of all time, the reason that you leave Walter White’s side in Breaking Bad is because you see in real life circumstances how his horrible actions affect the people around him. With Joker, the movie seems to be justifying his violent acts because of how his victims have treated him. It ends on a gleeful note to put a nice bow on its nihilistic and potentially problematic tone and message.
All of this criticism comes from a place of just wanting to see the great movie that’s buried somewhere beneath the surface. It paints a condemning picture of the challenges people with mental illnesses face in their everyday lives, but it just shows the picture and doesn’t truly explore the meaning or ramifications of it. In addition, its ant-rich subplot is half-hearted at best and is jarring when it becomes a major aspect of the film’s climax.
It even manages to blur the line between homage and rip-off. There are some scenes that are definitely inspired by the kinds of movies Martin Scorsese tends to make, and it’s great. It helps create an overall mood and aesthetic that acts as a through line throughout the entire movie. But it also has a score that seems almost copied from The Dark Knight at points, as well as entire sequences that seem like they were repurposed from Scorsese films.
The lone bright spot in Phoenix is even held back by a muddled script. He’s doing incredible work – as usual – and there is so much going on behind those made up eyes, yet the script doesn’t seem to ask enough from him. It focuses on his spine-chilling laugh about 20% too often so that it becomes repetitive instead of creepy and unsettling.
In the end, I just wish this movie had something much more meaningful to say. It explores themes, but exploration in and of itself is not enough when the movie is subjecting its viewers to brutal, graphic, and disturbing violence. Making the audience feel uncomfortable is an excellent thing to be able to do – but only when it is done right. Joker misses the mark there, largely at the expense of those watching.