'Joker' Spoiler Review: Joaquin Phoenix Elevates A Disturbing, Incendiary Portrait Of The Villain As Antihero

Reading around online, it would be easy to go into into Joker with a list of talking points in your head before you had even seen the movie. Since its unprecedented win last month of the Venice Film Festival's top prize, the latest comic book tentpole from Warner Bros. and DC Films has become highly politicized—to the point where the idea of it and what it represents is almost a separate thing from the movie itself. Film festival premieres take place in an online vacuum where larger cultural forces have not yet swept in to surround a movie and define it. On the other side of them comes the escalation (of movie opinions) that Commissioner Gordon warned about at the end of Batman Begins.

Whether it's a case of critics comparing notes and/or the film telegraphing specific concepts, reviews of Joker have frequently invoked the same buzzwords, such as "incel" and "income inequality." There's a lot of hand-wringing, in negative reviews, about the movie's lack of a clear message. Comparisons abound, across the boards, to the films of Martin Scorsese, while in the background, the shadow of the 2012 Aurora, Colorado shooting hangs over everything.

To be clear, it's not without good reason that some of these talking points are out there, but now Joker is in theaters and general audiences have had a chance to square their own cinema experience against the pre-release media chatter. Members of the insane clown posse that is the Internet should probably brace themselves for the backlash to the backlash. However, until such time as a #ReleaseThePhillipsCut petition materializes, let's not forget that there's an actual movie with Joker's name on it to be discussed.

Phoenix and Fleck Rising

The first thing that needs to be said about Joker is that Joaquin Phoenix absolutely holds the screen, from start to finish. Director Todd Phillips has made a feel-bad movie that somehow manages to be gorgeously shot and scuzzy, all at the same time. Handsome panoramas of the cityscape help establish a Gotham without Batman, where a garbage strike has left trash piling up on the streets. Down in the gutters, dwells a man named Arthur Fleck.

Arthur is repellant at times but you can't look away from him because Phoenix is a veritable junkyard magnet. His performance is riveting and the early Oscar buzz for it is well-deserved. If anyone could secure an awards nomination for playing the Joker after Heath Ledger, it would be Phoenix.

Ironically, the latest awards-friendly actor to inherit the Joker mantle was once in a place where his career itself had become something of a joke. After his seeming implosion on Late Night with David Letterman in February 2009, Phoenix became the punchline of a Ben Stiller gag at the 81st Academy Awards. On Letterman, he had announced that he was retiring from acting, crossing over, as actors sometimes do, into bearded hip-hop. If you tuned in on Oscar night, as people often don't, you would have seen him laughed at by an audience of his peers.

As it turned out, his cringeworthy reinvention as a rapper was part of an Andy-Kaufman-esque, life-as-performance-art stunt for the mockumentary I'm Still Here. Then came his remarkable, animalistic turn in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which revived his credibility and helped usher in a new heavyweight phase in his acting career. I say "heavyweight," but of course, Phoenix had lost a lot of weight for the role of Freddie Quell, just as he has for Arthur Fleck. Maybe a better superlative would be "powerhouse."

Now, ten years after his faux Letterman meltdown, we're here in 2019. Phoenix, yes, is still here. He's still got the goods, and just in case you forgot that line from his rap parody — "I don't even fear fucking fear" — he's not afraid to physically flaunt them: protruding his shoulder blades and rib cage like some demon-possessed person in a horror movie. His character, Arthur, exists miles underground from the penthouse where the Jack Napier of Jokers past could stand in front of a mirror and brush off compliments from beautiful blonde models ("You look fine,") with a vain, "I didn't ask."

A different kind of narcissism festers within Arthur. In his daydreams and delusions, the world still revolves around him, but at one point, he confesses to his social worker, "All I have are negative thoughts." He's a sign-twirler who is terrorized by street kids and who loses his job after a gun comes spilling out of his clown costume at a children's hospital. When he stands in his boss's office and the camera lingers uncomfortably on his face, you can see his eyes light up with a spark of malevolence.

The movie positions Arthur — some say dangerously — as a Joker for the downtrodden. On the subway, he's literally kicked while he's down. At home, he sits in front of the TV and fantasizes about being in the studio audience for the late-night talk show "Live with Murray Franklin." The nature of his fantasy life is such that the springy host, played by Robert De Niro, interrupts his monologue about super rats and super cats in Gotham City to tell Arthur, "There's something special about you."

Meanwhile, Arthur has designs on being a stand-up comedian, but since he suffers from an unspecified condition that produces fits of uncontrollable, wheezing laughter in him (it's a movie version of the pseudobulbar affect, a real-life neurological disorder), his giggles and guffaws are conspicuously out of synch with the world around him. Joker frames this most acutely in a scene at a comedy club where Arthur sits scrawling notes about another comedian's act. His notebook/joke journal is full of misspellings and incoherent observations. Late in the movie, after we've seen him contemplating suicide, he refers back to the line, "I just hope my life makes more cents than my death."

Since the pseudobulbar affect is caused by brain damage, we can read between the lines and assume that it's manifestation in Arthur is a result of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother's boyfriend. Flashback dialogue conveys the idea of him being chained to a radiator as a child. When he learns, via her old medical charts, that he's adopted and she allowed this to happen to him, it's enough to push him over the edge and get him to smother his mother with a pillow in the hospital.

Eventually, despite his matricidal tendencies, Arthur's craggy face and sinewy body come into their own as the Joker with the best dance moves we've ever seen. He sees Fred Astaire dancing on television ... raise your hand if you recognized the "Slap That Bass" number from Astaire's 1937 film Shall We Dance. Arthur hears the opening lyrics: "The world is in a mess. Politics and taxes, people grinding axes. There's no happiness." It just goes to show that as much as the world has changed since 1937, there are still some things, like axe-grinding (political or otherwise), that never do change.

It's a mad, bad world, Joker seems to say. Shall We Dance is also a germane movie title because, in all the wrong ways, Arthur's sadsack life becomes a kinetic answer to that rhetorical dance proposition. At times, there's an almost balletic grace to his movements. It an interesting affectation on the part of Phoenix's Joker, one that belies the neighbor-stalking, coworker-stabbing wreck that is the rest of Arthur's life. Is it a surprise when Arthur's supportive girlfriend, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), turns out to be imaginary? Not really. The real Sophie lives down the hall from him, but their relationship, as shown, is wholly imaginary and that feels of a piece with his predicament.

I'll confess to something: before Joker, I was ignorant of the very existence of an "involuntary celibate" subculture. I'm an American expat who lives in a country where mass shootings aren't at all a thing. English isn't the first language here, so I'm sometimes late to encounter new words that have entered the cultural lexicon. When I was reading advance reviews of Joker, it was suddenly incel this, incel that, and I had to research what they were talking about, because the reviews just took for granted that everyone knew what an incel was.

Affixing the incel label to Arthur Fleck in Joker might be reductive, insofar as it limits the thematic scope of the film to North America (where most shootings attributed to incels have occurred) and presupposes that angry Caucasians are the only lonely, sick males on planet Earth. I watched Joker with a Japanese audience and I doubt if many of the squirming heads in that audience were thinking about incels. They were probably thinking that Arthur seemed like the kind of guy who would carry out a knife attack at their local bus stop. Or the kind of guy who would set fire to an anime studio, killing three dozen people in one of the deadliest massacres in Japan's post-war history. Entitlement, rage, mental illness ... any of these might be better labels to apply to the case of Arthur Fleck.

The Clown of Wall Street

An important distinction to make with Arthur is that he starts out the movie, not as a sympathetic character, but a piteous one. There's a difference. Joker takes us through the looking glass and shows us the dark inverse of The Wolf of the Wall Street. In the realm of Scorsese comparisons, that film, to me, is almost a more relevant touchstone vis-a-vis Joker.

The King of Comedy was once a lesser-known Scorsese film, but for the young and uninitiated, its connection to a high-profile comic book movie has increased its visibility around the watercooler as of late. It's a good movie so that's not a bad thing, but it shouldn't be news to most cinephiles that Scorsese is a better filmmaker than Phillips. Joker wears its Scorsese influence on its sleeve and few, if any, filmmakers rise to Scorsese's level, so comparing Phillips unfavorably to him is a pointless exercise. Now that the movie is in theaters, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to note the similarities between Arthur Fleck and Rupert Pupkin (or, for that matter, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, who also talks to himself and poses with guns in his apartment, albeit without the bumbling tendency to shoot holes in his wall like Arthur).

Thirteen months ago on /Film, I myself delved into The King of Comedy and how it and the graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke could inform the upcoming Joker origin movie. So when I sat down to watch Joker in the theater, the connection there with that old Scorsese film was old news to me. For this and other reasons intrinsic to the film, I found myself keying in more on The Wolf of Wall Street as a point of comparison with Joker.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a film that asks us to bask (for three hours, no less) in the presence of the cheerfully corrupt Jordan Belfort. It's one of those movies that makes you realize a protagonist doesn't always have to be likable to be watchable. The film begins with Belafort launching a dwarf at the screen. Joker, it should be noted, employs some humor at the expense of a bullied dwarf named Gary (Leigh Gill, who played Tyrion's stage double on Game of Thrones). Gary is less fetishized than Joker's dwarf henchmen in The Killing Joke, and after driving a pair of scissors into his other co-worker's neck and eye, Arthur winds up letting him live. Gary, it turns out, was the only person who was nice to the budding maniac at work.

More to the point, The Wolf of Wall Street doesn't provide the audience with a strong moral counterpoint for Belfort. The closest we get to that is an FBI agent played by Kyle Chandler. At the end of the movie, this character is shown riding home on the subway (like Arthur), looking around at the plebeians aboard public transportation with him. This happens right after he's seen Belfort's lawyer feather a sweet deal for him in court. Thirty-six months in federal prison: Belfort weasels away with a light sentence, because that's the way of the world.

Joker is another film where the central figure is an unabashed villain. That he begins the movie in the guise of a pathetic antihero doesn't make him any less of a villain by the time the closing credits roll. The dilemma for some viewers, therefore, becomes whether they really want to sit through a two-hour villain's celebration.

Remember Satan's Circus, the headquarters of Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York? That's the place where Jordan Belafort and Arthur Fleck live, too. It's a place where Hollywood filmmakers are free to humanize and glamorize villains because, well, that's entertainment. Transgressive art is nothing new and neither is the notion that it could provide unhealthy wish fulfillment for psychotics.

It's not as though Joker is completely lacking in moral counterpoints. While Arthur is in the guest chair — talking about werewolf-ing out because "Everybody is awful these days," and, "Nobody thinks what it's like to be the other guy" — Murray Franklin does call him out on his self-pitying B.S. Franklin's audience is none too enamored of the clown-faced talk show guest, either. (There's a separate layer to this scene that recalls the demolition-set awkwardness of Phoenix's aforementioned Letterman appearance.)

This being Joker's movie, Arthur gets the last laugh when he shoots the host in the head. It's meant to be a shocking act, but did anyone really think Arthur would turn the gun on himself? He's too obsessed with himself to allow that to happen. Really, that's all he cares about: himself. It's one of the things that makes attempts at politicizing Joker, a story that only cares about itself, all the more futile, perhaps.

At the very beginning of the movie, Phoenix arches his eyebrow when he delivers the line, "Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?" As a feature-length riff on this idea and others, Joker demonstrates that it does have a brain (this, despite its star patterning his dance steps after the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.) What could have been a mercenary commercial endeavor turns out to be a film with some real artistic intent. Whether it not it achieves that intent is in the eye of the beholder, but you can't refute it being there, colored in crayon strokes so broad that even us clowns in the blogosphere can read it.

In Phillips We Distrust

As far as Joker not having a message goes, that whole moralizing line of argument is one that strikes me as slightly disingenuous. Since when did making a grand statement become a prerequisite for every film that reminds us of the real world? Joker's detractors have taken up the refrain that the movie raises serious issues, but that it has nothing worthwhile to contribute about those issues, either because it lacks the maturity and intelligence to do so, or because it's too cynical and overreaching—enamored of the greats without actually understanding them.

When a Cream song kicks in as Arthur is riding through the city in a police car, it brings to mind moments from Goodfellas and The Dark Knight. Yet the joke is, this musical cue just seems there to imply, in an on-the-nose fashion, that Arthur is already in his "white room" in Arkham State Hospital, experiencing the delusion that his murderous actions have set the world on fire.

It's a fair point to say that Joker is derivative of other, better movies. It might also be a valid criticism to say that it's irresponsible in some of its provocations. Amid the button-pushing (did we really need a song from convicted pedophile Gary Glitter on the soundtrack?), this is a film where the title character states emphatically, "I don't believe in anything." He furthermore tells us, "There is no punchline."

Hearing these declarations come from his painted mouth outwardly reduces Arthur's struggles and the film itself to what Shakespeare would call "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." It might be a mistake, however, to attribute Arthur's philosophy, or lack thereof, to the filmmakers lensing him. Just because he affects a nihilistic view doesn't mean the names in the credits bringing his story to life are incapable of infusing that story with meaning. At the same time, they are storytellers, not essayists, so they're not bound by a code of thesis statements, either.

For what it's worth, the summer The Dark Knight Rises hit theaters, Christopher Nolan gave interviews stressing that it wasn't a political movie, even though it seemed to play on real-world issues with its Bane-led uprising of the 99% against the 1% in Gotham City. Speaking with Rolling Stone, Nolan said:

"We throw a lot of things against the wall to see if it sticks. We put a lot of interesting questions in the air, but that's simply a backdrop for the story. What we're really trying to do is show the cracks of society. ... We're going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it's not doing any of those things. It's just telling a story. If you're saying, 'Have you made a film that's supposed to be criticizing the Occupy Wall Street movement?' – well, obviously, that's not true."

Maybe that sounds like a cop-out on Nolan's part, or maybe he has a point. Joker follows the same model of throwing a lot of things at the wall and showing us the cracks of society. It dips us deep down in the icky perspective of a man who has slipped through those cracks. "My whole life," Arthur says, "I didn't know if I even really existed. But I do. And people are starting to notice."

These words take on a terrifying context in light of the real-world Arthurs, deeply disturbed individuals who have made movie theaters and other public places feel unsafe. That's undeniable, but objectively, I don't think Joker is any more or less empty-headed than The Dark Knight Rises. That might sound like a back-handed compliment, but one gets the feeling that if you switched the names out on that Nolan quote, and attributed it to Todd Phillips in 2019, he would be met with more criticism. It's the kind of thing where you can literally find articles, now, with the same fill-in-the-name headlines ("Director Says His Movie Isn't Political") as the ones they were running back when Nolan was doing press for The Dark Knight Rises.

Back in 2012, Nolan could perhaps get away with being noncommittal toward his film's political imagery, because he was the quintessential filmmaker of the 2000s and his reputation preceded him. Phillips, on the other hand, is the guy who directed Old School and The Hangover. The old rallying cry of Nolanites — "In Nolan we trust" — has a new sentiment prevailing over it: "In Phillips we distrust."

The truth is, Phillips doesn't inspire the same critical respect or fan loyalty and he doesn't have the same pedigree as a dramatist that Nolan does. In fact, he's publicly admitted that he turned to projects like Joker as a way to repackage the irreverence from his bro comedies, because they were a dying brand in the current "woke culture." Unfortunately, with comments like these, he's just supplying the ammunition against his own movie, stirring up the very Twitter mob that he sorta-kinda blames for killing his career as a comedy director. He's thinking of a joke, you see, but you wouldn't get it. "Some people get their kicks stomping on a dream."

Contending with the Clown Mob

In Joker, it's not hard to see the clown mob as a more three-dimensional, action-oriented, cinematic stand-in for the Twitter mob. Yet in the spirit of Nolan's quote, I found myself focusing less on the mob's sociopolitical implications and more on its simple viability as a plot element.

I didn't really buy it that a single incident on the subway, this triple murder of stockbrokers, would immediately trigger such a huge "groundswell of anti-rich sentiment," as the movie calls it. That, to me, was the one of the weaker elements of Joker's plot. It would be like if the "copybat" vigilantes in hockey pads from The Dark Knight started showing up in Batman Begins, not long after the one-hour mark, when Batman made his first public appearance in costume and busted up Falcone's drug shipment on the docks.

The accidental Joker of the subway just doesn't resonate as enough of a larger-than-life symbol yet for him to realistically inspire this whole clown-masked movement to rise up and eat the rich. If the angry protests and riots in Gotham had started after he emerged on TV, that might have made more sense. There's already a rich history in the Batman mythos of Joker hijacking the television airwaves, making threats and inciting Gothamites to action. Putting him in front of the cameras, letting him rail against the world and then shoot a famous talk show host on live national TV, might have been a more believable catalyst to start a sweeping social movement among the disaffected of Gotham.

The clown mob serves its function within the movie, of course. It just feels like a forced subplot, at first. That said, the scene where Joker eludes a pair of detectives on a train full of protesters is one of the movie's best. The way he taunts the cops, that little jig he dances when he escapes from them on the train platform, registers as a classic Joker move, even though Arthur is very much a non-traditional Joker, one who doesn't conform to the usual princely patterns of clown crime.

While we're nitpicking here, one other wee aspect of Joker's plot that doesn't quite work is the anachronous insertion of a viral video into a late-night talk show host's opening monologue during the early 1980s. Sincere question: did Johnny Carson, the real-life Murray Franklin, ever once take time to comment on a video like that in one of his monologues? Is there any historical precedent for something like that happening on Carson's Tonight Show? It seems more likely that this is just another convenient plot device that the movie uses to expedite Arthur's rise to fame.

Given the precedent for fantasy sequences in the movie, it's alternatively possible that it could all just be another one of Arthur's delusions. By the end of the movie, whether it's a delusion or not, it's easier to swallow the sight of Gotham burning at the hands of anonymous rioters. They don't require Guy Fawkes masks. This isn't V for Vendetta. It's less principled than that.

Though he intersects with it at key points, Arthur's story mostly runs tangential to that of the clown mob. Maybe that's the point: shitstorms take on a life of their own, and the original shit-stirrer need not be present or invested in what's happening while they're away. We didn't necessarily need Phillips to lob a hand grenade in the room and teach us that, but it never hurts to have a little reminder.

It makes me wonder how invested Phillips and Phoenix are in the online reaction to their movie, or if they've already moved on to bigger and better things. Another thing Arthur says in Joker is, "You don't listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week." So who among us is really listening and who among us is merely biding their time till they can throw the next rotten tomato?

There are a lot of threads woven into the fabric of Joker's bright-colored suit, but are any of them worth pulling on if it means unraveling the entire thing? Or is there actually a good movie under there, a grimy '70s throwback that managed to don a theater usher's disguise and smuggle itself into the superhero multiplex on the strength of a villain's brand-name recognition?

Before Phoenix signed onto Joker, Phillips reportedly sold him on the project by quipping that it was a heist movie where they were going to "take $55 million from Warner Bros. and do whatever the hell [they] wanted." Speaking with The Wrap, he recounted how he told Phoenix: "Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film."

Performative opinion-havers from all corners of the Internet (myself included) play right into Joker's hands, perhaps, by attributing all sorts of meaning or meaninglessness to this comic book film. How are we any different from the cheering clown mob that hails Arthur Fleck as a hero, or the jeering studio audience that views him as a monster? Maybe the joke's on us, and Joker has already hijacked the culture and won ... for now. Come next week (or next month, if it's lucky enough to draw it out that long), it's moment in the spotlight will have ended. Then, we'll be talking about the next big thing. How's that new Batman movie coming along these days?

The DC Cinematic Multiverse

Let's end by discussing some of Joker's DC window dressing. It's arguably the least essential facet of the plot, which is why I've saved this section for last. Feel free to check out now, if you want, unless you're like me and were one of those fanboy fanatics who dressed up as Joker back in the day. (Review bias, betrayed?)

When you have a hero as mythic as Batman, cinematic retellings of that hero's origin are par for the course. In the DC Cinematic Multiverse (my preferred nomenclature for the growing web of every DC movie ever released), we've seen pieces of Batman's origin approximately umpteen times. However, someone really needs to call a moratorium on filming another version of the Wayne killings for at least a decade. It was only three years ago that we saw Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan of The Walking Dead portray Thomas and Martha Wayne in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. At this point, seeing the Waynes exit a theater with a Zorro movie on the marquee (in Joker, it's the 1981 comedy Zorro, The Gay Blade) can only elicit an eye-roll of, "Here we go again, down Crime Alley. Martha, with the pearls."

We've seen the pearls go spilling from Martha's neck enough times that they can afford to give that part of the origin retelling a rest for a while. If Spider-Man can move beyond Uncle Ben's death on film, Batman should be able to move beyond Thomas and Martha's. As it is, the twist in Joker — whereby a clown-masked rando guns down the Waynes during a riot — initially struck me as asinine, but it's understandable from the perspective of this as a big-screen Elseworlds tale. Were Joker a graphic novel published by DC Comics under a revived Elseworlds imprint, you can bet they might have something like that in there, winking at how this world was different from the main DC Universe continuity.

Having the Waynes become victims of the clown mob serves the larger theme of reckless individuals whipping up forces beyond their control. Yet seeing Joker shape Muppet Baby Bruce's history might have been more impactful, for DC fans, had we not already seen Bat-villains emerging ahead of Batman's existence on the TV series Gotham.

Before Thomas and Martha do bite the bullet, Joker plays with our expectations that it might be Arthur Fleck who orphans young Bruce. There's a precedent for the Jack Napier Joker creating Batman this way in Tim Burton's genre-heralding 1989 film; and Arthur would certainly have plenty of motive to do the deed, given his relationship with Batman's dad in this movie. The Thomas Wayne connection is actually one tie-in with the Batman mythos that feels fresh in Joker.

For a while, it seems like the movie is going the route of Blofield and Bond in Spectre: setting up a new character dynamic wherein the two classic archenemies, Joker and Batman, become long lost brothers. This, in and of itself, is a bad idea, but on paper, positioning Arthur as the illegitimate son of a face-punching, plutocratic Thomas Wayne is an inspired choice for a movie told from the Joker's perspective. It feels like the sort of psychological reframing that a Joker who had figured out Batman's secret identity might sit around and do in his padded cell while he was hallucinating.

In the movie, we see Arthur acting like a child predator with Bruce outside the gates of Wayne Manor. Up till that moment, Arthur has appeared in a not-unforgivable light. It's all well and good when he's playing Death Wish with bullies on the subway, but when you see him stick his fingers in a kid's mouth and force a gummy smile onto the boy's face, that's when he starts to look creepy and potentially monstrous in an unredeemable way.

Thankfully, Alfred the butler is there to swoop in and save Bruce, and also inform Arthur of his mother's delusional history. Seeing Arthur manhandle Alfred through the bars of the gate only further diminishes him in our sight. Alfred is one of the good guys. There aren't enough of those in the movie or in the real world.

Joker plugs itself into our corroded culture and asks us to follow along as a little man with a gun spirals out of control. It's a movie that might make some viewers want to climb in their fridges to await the nuking of them. All I can say is, it and the broader cultural conversation surrounding it gave me, personally, a lot to digest (as you can probably tell from the sheer novelistic length of this review). See you in the funny pages.