Joker Wins Venice Film Festival Golden Lion Award

Is Joker a brilliant prestige picture worthy of Oscar or a poison pill waiting for film culture to swallow it? Probably, yes.

Todd Phillips’ riff starring Joaquin Phoenix as Batman’s BFF is a Trojan horse that sneaks an audacious character study into the studio system by slapping make-up and name recognition on its face. There’s something compelling about the sparse title. Even without knowing it’s about the Joker, we know it’s about the Joker because that’s the Joker that we know. A towering pop culture figure. The most well known fictional psychopath. The crown prince of crime who has been adapted at a Shakespearean rate.

And here he is again, the scion of the downtrodden and aggrieved – like Taxi Driver with grease paint and a good tailor – ready to rip up a grimy rainbow-colored Gotham. This time he appears as a stark reminder of the freedom that not connecting your characters to a singular universe can deliver.

Here are 6 movies to watch with Joker if you’re game for a double feature.

Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

Most everyone knows that Conrad Veidt’s look in The Man Who Laughs inspired The Joker’s unsettling smile, but there’s really nothing tying the characters together thematically. The Man Who Laughs is essentially like a happy Hunchback of Notre Dame with romance and whimsy and a horrifying-looking dude you’re supposed to root for.

What you want is William Castle’s gimmick-sold Mr. Sardonicus who, like Veidt’s Gwynplaine, suffers from a rictus grin (a real medical condition called Risus sardonicus) which he receives after trying to steal a winning lottery ticket from his father’s grave. Pretty relatable.

He devolves into a mad scientist figure with an outrageous smile literally glued to his jaw, willing to go to violent lengths to restore his face.

Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)

One of the best Batman movies, Under the Red Hood is also the inverse of Joker – a revelation of a madman’s actions without centering him in the story. Both are meditations on revenge and the limits of justice within Batman’s natural moral framework. Both give us insights into the laughing supervillain that other movies were largely uninterested in.

In the Red Hood, Batman has found an equal. The villain slices through Gotham by taking over the drug trade and leading Batman on a merry chase through the past, all while the spectre of The Joker looms large as subtext for every action. It’s a hell of a movie that uses joy as its final, bleak cudgel.

Fight Club (1999)

I don’t like to talk about it.

It’s not always easy to define an era by its movies, but 1999 was an especially magical year for bland white guys breaking bad. Office SpaceAmerican BeautyEyes Wide Shut, and David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Pahlaniuk’s extreme satire about one man’s accidental societal revolution.

Coincidentally, Tyler Durden may be as uninterested as Arthur Fleck is about the upheaval he brings about. Even behind the technical prowess and slick plotting, not enough people realized that Durden was the bad guy or that you can’t actually fertilize your lawn with old motor oil. Like Gone Girl (another incredibly prestigious movie that felt culturally poisonous), Fincher has a knack for using exaggeration as a sweet spot and trusting audiences to catch up.

Falling Down (1993)

Speaking of unimpressive dudes absolutely losing their shit, Joel Schumacher (Hello, Batfans!) got an early up on things, compressing the sentiments behind several 1970s dramas into something uncomfortably recognizable to the suburban set of the early 1990s. The DNA strands of King of ComedyNetwork, and Taxi Driver all run through this film where Michael Douglas drops his briefcase for a bag of weapons.

Maybe it’s the haircut, maybe it’s the short sleeve dress shirt, maybe it’s his annoying attitude, but William Foster is clearly the asshole of the movie. Of this subgenre, no protagonist is so obviously the worst, even if you too have occasionally been stuck in bad traffic. It’s an exercise in how to make your unlikable main character unmistakably unlikable.

Young Adult (2011)

Women rarely get to lose it, but that novelty isn’t the only reason the story of Mavis Gary returning nervously to her hometown is a winner. Like The Joker, Mavis is simultaneously the hero and victim of her own internal story; she’s a narcissist with a deep pond of neuroses that leave her juuuuuuuuuuuust barely coping at all times.

Jason Reitman’s movie is also controversial and transgressive, particularly because it goes dark by aiming for comedy and hitting the mark too hard. It doesn’t use laughter to bring the audience together. It uses laughter as the only mental escape valve left. It’s also funny! Genuinely funny. And so depressing it’ll leave all the muscles in your face slack. Naturally, all of it is lifted by Charlize Theron’s committed performance that combines daring physicality with the drive and ability to purposefully go too far.

Bruiser (2000)

What if Bruce from Bruce Almighty had his face removed instead of getting God’s powers? You’d get something like Bruiser, George Romero’s social commentary that starts off like Network and bleeds into Nightmare on Elm Street.

Despite its flaws (the sheen of Nu Metal on everything, for starters), the thing that Bruiser does better than any other movie of its type is to create a Batman-esque vigilante hero, right down to the mask, by building a despicable origin story. Bruiser is basically Joker ending with Arthur Fleck becoming the caped crusader instead of a wild-eyed mass murderer. It’s aces for confusing, weaponized sympathy.

joker review

The Mix

Come to think of it, Bruce Almighty makes a great double feature with Joker.

It’s possible to overwhelm the system with all the put-upon-dudes-going-berserk movies floating around in the cultural ether. Men of every genre blow up their entire lives – and sometimes buildings – in the pursuit of filling some hole that otherwise society, or they personally, fail to fill. Naturally, this creates fertile ground for shocking stories.

Fortunately, there are movies that do more than shock. They treat subversion with respect and fragility. They push boundaries with purpose. Once in a while, these movies put us into the brain pan of someone dangerous without trapping us there.

Anyway, Bruce Almighty and Joker are the same movie.

What are you double featuring?

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