Yes, that includes JoJo Rabbit. Even the cringey and self-congratulatory Nazi slapstick of Taika Waititi’s quasi-Wes Anderson anachronism-riddled World War II satire — which might have worked nicely if compressed into a 5-minute short — ultimately had something to offer, even if it was simply the not-quite-groundbreaking message that Nazis are bad.
Not so Joker.
A lethally dull and spiritually deadening exercise whose strained black humor and self-importance makes even the profundities of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy feel meaningful by comparison, Joker deserves inclusion on a list of the year’s emptiest and most derivative movies. Ultimately just another of many spinoffs from the wellspring of mid-20th century comic-book heroes and anti-heroes that continues to keep Hollywood profitable, it awkwardly masquerades like its hero in cheap greasepaint as something to be taken seriously.
Much of the ooh and aah around the blockbuster has circled around Joaquin Phoenix’s bracingly unhinged turn as a sad-sack momma’s boy would-be comedian who spirals into homicidal madness after the world fails to appreciate his sense of humor. The only criticism one might make of his anchoring performance is that it is too showy, which would be akin to carping that Daniel Day-Lewis’s Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York was just a little much. Overkill is part of the equation.
That being said, when an actor on Phoenix’s level is going full-tilt in a movie that does not have the dramatic or artistic weight to back him up, the effort can feel like more of a strain. Does he hurl himself into the role with a nerve-rattling effort, rending his body and expressions to embody this delusional and ultimately murderous sad-sack? Absolutely. Is any of it edifying or in the least unpredictable? Not particularly.
To witness Phoenix’s reservoir of talent used in the interest of a high-impact story, see what he does in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. A brutally violent and chillingly abstracted noir about a mercenary fixer who gets in over his head cleaning up problems for the rich and powerful, its portrayal of corrupted morality in an alienated urban environment has far greater impact than anything seen in Joker.
The makers of Joker have suggested that they were not so much making a comic-book character’s origin story but rather trying to smuggle a dark character study about the lack of empathy in the modern world into a mainstream vehicle. That could well have been true in the beginning. And filmmakers have had to compromise with the studio system since its beginning to trade off commercial considerations in order to get their story told. But Phillips is not exactly some untrusted artiste; the first Hangover alone made nearly a half-billion worldwide. If the interest was really to craft an adult story, why not leverage his clout to greater effect and produce a more original piece of work?
For Joker, Phillips drops his homicidal trickster into an urban hellhole drawn straight from Taxi Driver (or at least a visual idea of Scorsese’s movie). Only since this is Gotham and not actually New York, it’s a CGI simulacrum of ungentrified grit, with oh-so-carefully applied graffiti and glib references to everything from from the 1977 blackout riots to the 1984 Bernhard Goetz subway shootings — there’s even a confusingly and cynically tossed-in callout to Occupy Wall Street. But since it is all in service of pushing the Joker toward his preordained role as giggly psychopath anti-hero, everything that precedes that moment of evolution has about as much impact as everything in Rogue One that turned out just to be nothing more than setup for Darth Vader’s grand appearance.
Now, with a billion-dollar box office and 11 Oscar nominations — especially galling in another year in which women were shoved to the side, given that the self-inflating and destructive nihilism of Phoenix’s Joker is essentially an apex 21st century toxic male only in analog form — Phillips has provided the industry an off-ramp for grinding yet more filthy lucre out of increasingly strained comic-book properties. DC and Marvel may potentially see the road open to an entire sideline of fall release R-rated prestige pictures running in parallel to their PG-13 summer tentpoles.
Studios can now follow the Joker model of decanting comic heroes and villains into purportedly more serious vehicles by attaching an indisputably great actor and placing them inside a simulacrum of an acknowledged classic of the past. Spider-man (Timothee Chalamet) cleans up the Red Hook docks ala On the Waterfront. Infuriated by injustice, Superman (John David Washington) goes to law school and turns Atticus Finch.
So many possibilities.