Review: Is controversial 'Joker' a great movie or just an outlandish one?

Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Films/Niko Tavernise

Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Films/Niko Tavernise

It’s rare that a movie gets pre-release buzz as loud and varied as that of Joker.

Military warnings about potential mass shootings. Heightened social media bickering. The Venice Film Festival’s highest award. All stirred up, the ultimate villain’s origin story has been elevated to a broader cultural moment. The question is, does that make Joker a good movie or just an outlandish one?

Drawing from Martin Scorsese, ’70s New York City, and timeless alienation, Joker presents a different kind of DC movie. There are no epic superhero battles. No unstoppable galactic threats. Instead of Justice League schlock, we get Taxi Driver mixed with The King of Comedy. Joker follows a mentally ill guy named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) who lives with his mom, works as a clown, dreams of being a comedian, and slowly descends into violent madness. Take out Gotham and the Wayne family and this movie reads more like a dark indie drama than a comic book blockbuster.

DC has always had the best villains, but they haven’t capitalized on it in any meaningful way since Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. By digging into character rather than bombastic special effects, Joker pulls off a difficult magic trick: It forces you to empathize with Gotham’s greatest monster. That may not seem significant given the slew of relatable baddies the Marvel movies have pumped out; but the difference is, unlike Michael Fassbender’s Magneto or Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, there’s absolutely nothing cool about Arthur Fleck. His life is terrible. His instability is disturbing. And ultimately, there’s no meaning behind his madness.

That’s where some of the real-world commotion comes into play. Most of us know that Grand Theft Auto isn’t responsible for mass shootings and that Dee Snider won’t turn your kid into a sex maniac (or whatever Tipper Gore was going on about). But it’s hard not to feel conflicted when a movie with added theater security ultimately glorifies a pushed-too-far loner on a senseless killing bender.

Do I think this movie will be responsible for widespread pandemonium? Of course not. Still, Phillips is playing with some pretty radical ideas without offering much in the way of a coherent viewpoint. Joker as a character can operate without an ethos, but it does feel weird when a movie like this dodges a unified message. It doesn't ruin the movie, but I do find myself wondering what exactly Phillips is trying to say. In technical terms, however, I can’t deny his effectiveness.

And Joker is effective on a number of levels. This movie brings comic mythology into a new and long overdue visual context, which makes me—as both a movie nerd and Batman fanatic—pretty happy. I’ve been critical of DC’s output over the last decade, but grounding the characters in reality and treating Joker as a (cleans monocle) film first and a comic book adaptation second positions this things leagues ahead of Aquaman, Suicide Squad, and the like. To nobody’s surprise, Phoenix is phenomenal/terrifying and an easy Best Actor pick. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography is gorgeous despite its ratty subjects. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s soundtrack bolsters Fleck’s maniacal spiral. Even the costume design stands out as a new spin on an old classic.

So Joker does warrant some of the chatter, both positive and negative. It isn’t aiming to please everybody, but for once that’s DC’s goal instead of a sad outcome. That said, this movie is neither the massive affront to morality or revolutionary think-piece some are making it out to be. It’s just a great, complicated movie. 

Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
Rated: R
Theater: Now playing, area theaters