I’ve always had qualms with making super villains the main characters of a movie. While it is natural for popular and established villains like Venom to get their own movie in an age when superheroes are the name of the game, the entertainment of these maniacal, psychotic characters has been the relationship between them and the hero they’re always out to prove wrong. Venom is nothing without Spider-Man to antagonize. Lex Luthor would just be a corrupt, greedy businessman/politician if he didn’t have Superman around. And the Joker is just an insane, murderous clown without Batman to challenge him and his ethical dilemma of taking even one life to save thousands. Having a villain without a hero around defeats the purpose of being a villain.
What’s worse is that Todd Phillips “Joker” takes a strange stance on this aspect, where its titular murdering clown is put in the spotlight like he’s supposed to be a hero. Maybe that’s where the controversy comes from – the love and admiration for what the Joker does. Even if his crimes don’t go unpunished, the society that this film creates makes this mentally-disturbed man seem like he’s helping rid of the world of an injustice, when he’s really just murdering anyone he wants. Which goes hand-in-hand with the other reason I’m against villains as the main character – this isn’t fun to watch. It is a slow descent into madness that can only end in a bloody mess. The fact that the world sees this crazed lunatic as a symbol of the lower class is depressing and asinine.
Of course, “Joker” isn’t without its merits. Joaquin Phoenix, as always, gives a William Shatner-esque performance, a mix of scenery chewing insanity and unbridled joy in the chaos he brings to the screen. This is Phoenix’s most cinematic performance, putting everything he has on the screen as his psychotic rage fuels every scene. The film is well-shot, with some of the best uses of color and motion we’ve seen all year, and really sells just how much of a hell hole Gotham is becoming. These things keep the film engaging, even if the tone and crude storytelling become grating.
“Joker” is what would happen if the real Joker made a film about himself – sympathy towards appalling behavior, overly oppressive, lacking any sort of empathy towards a world that is trying to improve, and any sort of subtlety is gone. Every emotional moment or act of violence is beaten into the audience with a crow bar, symbolism is overbearing and ham-fisted, as if the filmmakers think the audience can’t put anything together on their own. To top that off, “Joker” is ultimately derivative of so many other tragic or misunderstood character pieces, especially “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” The fact that Robert De Niro now plays the idol instead of the idol worshipper is infuriatingly over-the-top.
It’s as if I were to tell the film that it is dark for darkness’ sake and doesn’t give the audience room to think, that the film would speak back to me and say “That’s the joke! Why don’t you get it?”
I do get it. And it wasn’t a good joke. I’ve heard it before and Martin Scorsese told it better.
Final Grade: C