'Joker' Review Round-Up: Comic Book Movies Will Never Be The Same

The anticipation for the standalone comic book movie Joker has been high. Following the recent final trailer for the origin story of Batman's arch nemesis, the excitement has been even higher. And now we finally have the first official reviews and reactions to the movie following the film's premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Has director Todd Phillips crafted something that will satisfy longtime fans and general audiences alike? Does Joaquin Phoenix deliver an Oscar-worthy performance? Find out what the critics are saying in the first Joker reviews below.

Our own Peter Sciretta caught the movie and posted his thoughts to Twitter:

Before we get to the full reviews, here are some other brief reactions from social media

Dan Casey at Nerdist wrote:

"Despite all my cynicism and trepidation, I am pleased to report that this movie is really, really good.

Set in the fictional Gotham City in the late '70s/early '80s, Joker is a slick, heady pastiche of The King of Comedy, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and 80 years of DC Comics stories distilled into a supremely stylish and affecting package. While I had my doubts about the movie after whatever it was Jared Leto did in Suicide Squad, Joker is a compelling character study that is propelled to greatness on the lithe, bony shoulders of Joaquin Phoenix, who delivers a powerhouse performance as the perpetually browbeaten wannabe comedian Arthur Fleck. (The fact that his name can be shortened to A. Fleck is just a hilarious bonus.)

What I did not expect was for Joker to be a shockingly relevant (oftentimes on-the-nose) rumination on privilege, wealth disparity, and mental health stigmatization that also gives a fresh twist one of the most unreliable narrators in modern fiction."

Jim Vejvoda at IGN says:

"Joker isn't just an awesome comic book movie, it's an awesome movie, period. It offers no easy answers to the unsettling questions it raises about a cruel society in decline. Joaquin Phoenix's fully committed performance and Todd Phillips' masterful albeit loose reinvention of the DC source material make Joker a film that should leave comic book fans and non-fans alike disturbed and moved in all the right ways."

Germain Lussier at io9 found the movie hard to pin down, but perhaps that's the point:

"Joker is a comic book origin story with very little comic book in it. The whole thing very purposefully feels like a love letter to cinema of the late '70s, early '80s rather than other dark DC superhero movies like Tim Burton's Batman or Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Using that gritty aesthetic, Phillips is much more interested in dissecting what makes a comic book character real than making a real comic book character and, in that aim, he's successful. Arthur is a fascinating and endlessly compelling person. He's also terrifying and, for most of the film, sympathetic.

Historically, the Joker character has been impossible to pin down. So it's oddly fitting that his movie is too. Is the movie powerful and provocative? Yes. A little frustrating and unclear? Also yes. Are all of those things appropriate to the character? Absolutely. Maybe making Joker feel so unlike our usual comic book films, so potentially polarizing, so gutturally shocking, is exactly the right way to make a Joker movie. It's just like him. Confused, misunderstood, but probably very clear from his own warped point of view."

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David Ehrlich at IndieWire found the film to be bold but worrisome:

"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.

"Joker" is the human-sized and adult-oriented comic book movie that Marvel critics have been clamoring for — there's no action, no spandex, no obvious visual effects, and the whole thing is so gritty and serious that DCEU fanboys will feel as if they've died and seen the Snyder Cut — but it's also the worst-case scenario for the rest of the film world, as it points towards a grim future in which the inmates have taken over the asylum, and even the most repulsive of mid-budget character studies can be massive hits (and Oscar contenders) so long as they're at least tangentially related to some popular intellectual property. The next "Lost in Translation" will be about Black Widow and Howard Stark spending a weekend together at a Sokovia hotel; the next "Carol" will be an achingly beautiful period drama about young Valkyrie falling in love with a blonde woman she meets in an Asgardian department store.

By the time "The End" comes in its cute, old-timey font, "Joker" is neither a game-changer nor just "another day in Chuckletown." It's both. It's good enough to be dangerous, and bad enough to demand better. It's going to turn the world upside down and make us all hysterical in the process. For better or worse, it's exactly the movie the Joker would want."

Alex Billington at FirstShowing.net is over the moon for this movie:

"It is GNARLY. It is audacious. It doesn't hold back. It's subversive, provocative, dark, demented, twisted, and terrifying. Joker will likely end up being one of the most divisive movies of the decade, with some people hating it with a passion, others heralding it as a bold masterpiece.

It must be said, without a doubt, that this Joker movie will flip the "comic book movie" genre on its head. It is the most impressive, most brutal villain origin story we have ever seen. No comic book movie, even those introducing villains (e.g. Venom), have ever been as dark and brutal as this. This is an origin story, but it's an artistic, psychological, slow burn origin story about how one lonely, forgotten, mentally-ll man is treated like trash by society and becomes the evil genius known as Joker. We have seen plenty of villains in comic book movies, but to go this far, to go this deep, this dark, and to make an R-rated movie that doesn't hold back, is unprecedented. And it's not a perfect movie, but then again, what is? There's an undeniably amount of artistry in this movie – the lead performance, the cinematography, the world building, the psychological brutality. We can argue about whether it's all good or bad, but we can't really argue about the artistry here."

Mark Hughes at Forbes calls Joker "one of the best films of 2019" and has endless praise for Joaquin Phoenix:

"Joaquin Phoenix gives a tour de force performance, fearless and stunning in its emotional depth and physicality. It's impossible to talk about this without referencing Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning performance from The Dark Knight, widely considered the definitive live-action portrayal of the Joker, so let's talk about it. The fact is, everyone is going to be stunned by what Phoenix accomplishes, because it's what many thought impossible — a portrayal that matches and potentially exceeds that of The Dark Knight's Clown Prince of Crime.

Some will consider me a heretic for saying such a thing, but it's simply the truth. Phoenix channels something otherworldly here, a man aware that a psychotic monster is violently clawing its way out of him and he struggles to contain it because he thinks that's what he has to do — until he decides he doesn't, because the monster within him is just him. And he likes it.

Twisting and contorting himself like a broken marionette — and sometimes like a crab or strange insect crawling from a cocoon — Phoenix lets the inner derangement manifest in every movement, every glance. There is malevolence seeping from his very pours. At first it is a bit harder to detect, because Phoenix so masterfully depicts the ways in which the Joker wrestles with himself to disguise his demented tendencies. But gradually, painfully, he allows us to see more and more of it. And as we witness it, we realize it's not a transformation but rather a revelation of what was always barely contained beneath the surface. And we recall earlier moments, and we realize the evil was there too, but it scared him the way it scares us, so he concealed it."

R-Rated Joker Movie

Owen Gleiberman at Variety said:

"Phoenix's performance is astonishing. He appears to have lost weight for the role, so that his ribs and shoulder blades protrude, and the leanness burns his face down to its expressive essence: black eyebrows, sallow cheeks sunk in gloom, a mouth so rubbery it seems to be snarking at the very notion of expression, all set off by a greasy mop of hair. Phoenix is playing a geek with an unhinged mind, yet he's so controlled that he's mesmerizing. He stays true to the desperate logic of Arthur's unhappiness.

You're always aware of how much the mood and design of "Joker" owe to "Taxi Driver" and "The King of Comedy." For a filmmaker gifted enough to stand on his own, Phillips is too beholden to his idols. Yet within that scheme, he creates 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."

David Rooney at The Hollywood Reporter says it's the best Batman-adjacent movie since The Dark Knight:

"The clown prince of crime is alive and mentally unwell in Gotham City in Todd Phillips' grippingly atmospheric supervillain origin story, Joker. While a never-better Joaquin Phoenix paints on the famed maniacal smile with his own blood at one memorable climactic moment of messianic rebirth, what's most noteworthy about this gritty entry in the DC canon and the lead actor's sensational performance is the pathos he brings to a pathetically disenfranchised character — just like countless others in a metropolis in which the social chasm separating the haves from the have-nots has become a pit of incendiary rage.

This is very much tethered to the superhero universe and intersects in ways both familiar and not with canonical Batman lore. But Joker could also be a film for audiences who don't much care about the usual Hollywood comic-strip assembly line. The smart screenplay by Phillips and Scott Silver anchors the story in a fiercely divided city with echoes of a contemporary, morally bankrupt America, albeit in the dire economic straits of a decade ago, or the next crisis that's just around the corner, depending on which financial forecasts you believe.

Built around a credible spiral from lonely outsider to deranged killer, it's as much a neo-noir psychological character study grounded in urban alienation and styled after Taxi Driver as a rise-of-the-supervillain portrait. It's arguably the best Batman-adjacent movie since The Dark Knight and Warner should see mighty box office numbers to reflect that. The must-see factor of Phoenix's riveting performance alone — it's both unsettling and weirdly affecting — will be significant."

Pete Hammond at Deadline continued the comparisons to King of Comedy and Taxi Driver:

"In some ways this is a movie that is uncomfortable to watch, and though other films from comic book origins have gone to deep places that reflect the time in which they were made while staying true to their own origins, this one dealing with a very dark and unforgiving Gotham City in the 1980s could have been set in the present as it dives into a world of madness in the character of Arthur Fleck as he eventually morphs into Joker. In cinematic terms, he might be something of a cross between Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin, the roles played by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy.

But director Todd Phillips (The Hangover) and co-writer Scott Silver have more on their mind, and along the way — with Phoenix's extraordinary performance — say much about how a killer is born. And though Joker becomes a vicious one, it is clear just what created him, and that includes a society that simply does not care about people like him. Like no recent film I can recall, this one says much about our treatment of the mentally ill, a condition blamed by many of our current leaders as the reason a loner with a gun goes on a shooting rampage."

Jessica Kiang at The Playlist thinks the movie may lean too heavily on its influences, but it resonates in a new, scary way:

"The '70s/'80s cues notwithstanding, the hatred of the 1%, the street protests, and anti-authoritarian sentiment, and the far-too-central role that media and celebrity play in our perceptions of social success, all feel horrifyingly present-tense. And here is what is even more frightening than Phoenix' hacking cackle, or the moments of gruesome bloodiness, or the portrait of a society teetering on the brink of breakdown: "Joker," based on recognizable IP, and now given the seal of critical and possible awards-consideration approval too, is so aesthetically impressive, effective, and persuasive of its own reality that you see clearly how easily it could be (mis)interpreted and co-opted by the very 4Chan/Incel/"mentally ill loner" element it purports to darkly satirize."

Stephanie Zacharek at TIME has more concerns about the film's philosophy and themes:

"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.

Meanwhile, the movie lionizes and glamorizes Arthur even as it shakes its head, faux-sorrowfully, over his violent behavior. There's an aimless subplot involving a neighbor in Arthur's apartment building, played by Zazie Beetz, in an underdeveloped role. (Beetz also appears in another movie here at the festival, Benedict Andrews's Seberg, where she's given much more to do.) Arthur has a crush on her, and though he does her no harm, there's still something creepily entitled about his attentiveness to her. He could easily be adopted as the patron saint of incels."


There's so much comparison to The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver that it's clear Todd Phillips knows exactly what he was doing when it comes to capturing a certain tone and vibe from cinema's past. However, there seems to be a lack of a consensus on how the movie presents this disturbing story of a madman without drawing a clear line with what it wants the audience to take away, almost to the point that the movie might be irresponsible by not condemning the characters actions in a defined manner. Sure, some of the best movies don't need to coddle audiences with its themes, but when it comes to something as provocative as this movie's subject matter, maybe Joker should have.

Regardless, it's clear that critics think Joaquin Phoenix has delivered a performance that will be a key player during awards season. Furthermore, this will have critics and audiences looking at comic book movies in a whole new way.