Joker: A Disappointment

Photo Illustration by Tanner Bass

One of the biggest films of 2019 is Joker. Shrouded in controversy of its alleged condoning of violence, it still has received a lot of praise from fans of the comics and some critics with it receiving an 8-minute standing ovation in its premiere at tiff. Pardon the pun, but Its success is no joke with its record-breaking 93.5 million dollar opening weekend and kicking off some major Oscar buzz for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. Now the question is, is the hype justified for this now highest-grossing R-rated film of all time?

With this being the fifth major adaptation of the character I think it is unfair to compare each one with each other. Each role isn’t pulling the same from the exact version of the character and are different interpretations of that different source material. To compare Joaquin Phoenix and Heath Ledger would be to compare Mark Hamil’s Luke Skywalker to Daisy Ridley’s Rey. Now onto Phoenix’s performance, it’s ok. I don’t think he could get a sense of when to stay mellow and stay at a 0, and when to go crazy at a 100. He just felt awkward, not understanding what he thinks his character is; just giving different responses that seemed to be disturbing, rather than fit into the tone of his character.

The writing doesn’t help either, a lot of lines just not giving off the right idea. It felt unnatural and just used to drive the plot and message forward. It’s fine to do so, but it’s spoon-fed to the audience and presented as complex and thought-provoking. It’s pretentious and treats the audience like they can’t handle a complex narrative.

The cinematography is nice for the most part. Matching the tone of the film, it’s color is blue and mellow and a lot of the shots feel cramped and restrictive. While when it’s a wide shot, it’s a wide shot. Because of the fuller 1.85:1 aspect ratio, it took up the entire theatre screen frame which can be a nice change of pace from most films 2.39:1 aspect ratio. This benefitted from the wide city shots, which in my opinion were the best-looking in the film. This didn’t help my biggest complaint with the film.

With a film packed with as much talent as movies like Avengers: Endgame, they make no use of it. Robert De Niro, who was the lead in this film’s biggest inspiration Taxi Driver, is wasted. He took a paycheck, did his job, and called it a day with nothing memorable from his character happening. He just drives the plot forward and does the Joaquin Phoenix special of 0 to 100 with no reason being whatsoever. The biggest misuse of talent is Zazie Beetz. She has been one of my favorite up-in-coming actors to watch over the past couple years with her amazing roles in Deadpool 2 and the TV show Atlanta, and director Todd Phillips just forgets about that. She is restricted to a limited amount of scenes that don’t even get across what he’s going for. She doesn’t feel compelled to like Phoenix’s character, but rather just does, which could be seen as purposeful, but even so, it’s just weird rather than offputting. 

This is Phillip’s first “serious” movie directing films like War Dogs and The Hangover trilogy prior. It’s an applaudable attempt, but he was just blinded by his message and story that he forgets that his overwhelmingly good talent is a tool to drive this across. He went for style and tone in the editing when a lot of it could’ve been accomplished by the actor’s performances. The score of the film is ok but again takes away from the actor’s performances, relying on an off-putting cello to give a tense feel, rather than allowing the natural tension of the situation drive the scene. The film even includes one of the most baffling song choices I’ve ever seen. Even though the film is set in the 80s, it relies on classic 60s feeling music, but for one of the very few licensed tracks they opted for, Rock ‘n’ Roll (part 2), or also known as the Hey Song. It genuinely caught me off guard and ruined what should’ve been the best scene in the film. It would’ve made more sense in the feel of the scene to keep the 60s feel but rather he just uses a football hype song played by most marching bands. It seems that when this movie has something good going for it, they just make an enigmatic decision to ruin the scene.

The ending is a great example of this. Without spoilers any spoilers, the ending was nearly perfect. It’s weird to say that I almost liked the ending of a film that I didn’t enjoy, but I almost did. It builds to this climax in the end that gave me one of the biggest sense of anxiety I’ve felt in a movie sense A Quiet Place last year. I sat there I awe and horror as Joaquin shines and I truly felt like his performance was great…. and they ruined it. They tacked on some comic book fanservice that made no sense in the entire message of the film. My sense of anxiety was lost in an almost 10-second scene that was the cheesiest thing of the film. Then the ending just went on, tacking on this last scene that wasn’t terrible, but wasn’t needed either. I wanted a more ambiguous ending rather than set in stone one. 

I think that is the one thing that holds the movie back, its need to appeal to comic book fans. Whether the audience likes it or not, this was a film tailored to appeal more to DC comic book fans and the average audience. It’s a blockbuster, which isn’t a bad thing, it just restricted this movie so it gives the audience predictable “clever” moments that tie back into the comics. This more drags the film back into being simplistic rather than the “complex, oscar worthy narrative that critiques society.” People hold it to a higher standard than most superhero films because films like Endgame value action and fan-service over story in an attempt to entertain its audience, yet this film nearly does the same thing when valuing it’s attempt to please comic book fans rather than what it claims to be, which is a film that critiques society.

Joker is disappointing, to say the least. It had the tools to become something great, but it dilutes itself into DC source material that doesn’t fit inside the world the film built. It holds back its talent and thrusts Phoenix’s unfinished character into the spotlight. Attempting to be complex with its simple message and thinking it’s more than what it is. It’s an entertaining, mediocre ride that a lot of people will love, and some will hate. 5.4/10