‘Joker’ Is Getting Serious Buzz. Should You Take It Seriously?
There is an image of Joaquin Phoenix as the title character of Todd Phillips’s Joker voguing against a backdrop of fiery street-level violence that is so fully, luridly beautiful that it feels like a culmination of a fictional life dating back decades: It works because give or take some I-Love-the-’80s art direction, the vision of villainy is archetypal and timeless. Within the Western comic-book/superhero realm, which is filled with retirements, resurrections, and repackagings, the Joker cuts a uniquely enduring figure. Even if you want to argue the relative merits of his various incarnations—to contrast Alex Ross’s on-the-page visions with Brian Bolland’s; to reconcile Cesar Romero’s painted-over-mustache with Heath Ledger’s Jack-o’-lantern rictus—the fact is that he always satisfies.
It’s a truism that transcends time, social context, derivative rip-offs, and head-on satire. After seeing Suicide Squad, Comedy Bang! Bang!’s Scott Aukerman unleashed (and later deleted) one of the great deadpan tweets of all time, writing that “there’s almost something chilling about the Joker—someone who finds the thought of crime to be funny.” This parody of prosaic observation has a basic truth embedded in its overstatement; Aukerman mocks the idea of analyzing the character even as he gestures, sarcastically, towards something undeniable. In any era, Joker embodies the carnivalesque; his wide, complicitous grin is our mirror image. In the landmark 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke, Alan Moore went further than any of his predecessors (and set the bar for all followers) by trying to psychologize the character, but for all the author’s transgressive ambition, he didn’t so much elevate him as tap a particularly rich vein of potential, the same latent brilliance that’s been in place since the Joker’s first appearance in 1940 in Batman no. 1.
This same deep, insatiable appeal makes Joker a particularly difficult movie to evaluate, both in terms of overall quality and the seemingly urgent question of what its burgeoning critical consensus—topped off with a shocking vote at the prestigious Venice Film Festival that earned it a Golden Lion prize—represents as a cultural development. The box-office dominance and industrial omnipresence of superhero movies is not exactly breaking news, but the idea of a high-profile film derived from a valuable IP source that doubles as a vital work of art can be taken as a bellwether for future hybridization or a death knell for non-franchise cinema as we know it. Add the fact that Phillips’s film comes heralded—not, I should say, fully incorrectly—as a self-consciously problematic exercise in rabble-rousing channelling present-tense anxieties about the glorification of male aggression and the ugliness of Trumpism, and there’s suddenly almost too much context and conflict to work through. Referring back to that fleeting, panel-perfect image of Phoenix in classic purple-red-and-green drag seems insufficient, even as it is, arguably, the point of the entire exercise. Maybe Joker has something more to offer, but truly, what more do we really need?
There’s probably no one correct answer to that question, but the growing buzz that Joker, which made its North American debut Tuesday at TIFF and will release wide in the U.S. on October 4, is some sort of major work—a throwback to the ’70s New Hollywood movies it honors and pillages—may make it look lesser in retrospect. The collective surprise that Phillips, a frat-comedy specialist with no real genre inflections in his work, was taking on a project like this in the first place has been deepened by claims that he’s pulled it ...
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