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The Joker never needed an origin story, but especially not this one

Joker aims to give the infamous supervillain a shocking stand-alone backstory. It’s not nearly as edgy as it thinks.

Joaquin Phoenix applying face paint in the movie “Joker.”
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
Courtesy of TIFF
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Batman’s nemesis, the Joker, is uniquely chilling among supervillains for one very specific reason: He’s never had a definitive origin story. Since his creation in 1940, the Joker has simply been the personification of evil, reinterpreted by various writers to fit the story they want to tell on the page or screen.

The Joker’s seeming randomness, his refusal to be limited by any moral code or any whiff of history, is scary as hell. He’s what humans have always feared and fought: evidence of an uncaring universe, one that strikes at random. And personifications of inexplicable, snickering evil have shown up throughout human history, from folklore and legend all the way to characters like No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh, who stalks around with a captive bolt stunner randomly killing people based on the flip of a coin.

Like his brethren, the Joker can and will strike without warning, and for him it’s just a game, a bit. He doesn’t believe in anything. He doesn’t want anything more than to watch people suffer. He wants to burn the world and dance in the ruins.

So to give the Joker a motivation, a backstory, is to ascribe logic to evil and play with fire. And to do so in a world where the Joker’s own motivations for what he does manifest every day through “jokes” — like trolling to spread hateful ideologies and shit-posting mimicked in mass-shooter manifestoes — is a way to explain the world we live in.

Which brings us to Joker, a gritty reimagining of the Joker’s early days directed and co-written by Todd Phillips, who’s spent his career bringing a particular breed of pleasure-obsessed American masculinity to the big screen with successful, unforgettable side-splitters like Old School and the Hangover trilogy. Joker is no comedy. But it’s on a continuum with Phillips’s themes, and it shows his directorial chops; it’s a well-crafted movie.

Meanwhile, the film has courted controversy even before its release, touting its “hard-R rating” (even though there’s no such thing) relative to the average superhero film. An early version of the script “leaked,” followed by stories about it being continuously rewritten during production, perhaps a sign that it was too edgy for the studio. Early reviews from its Venice Film Festival premiere worried that it was a “toxic rallying cry for incels”; it won the festival’s top prize.

The impression it was trying to make was clear: This is not your older sibling’s Joker movie. It’s not even the brooding, frightening Dark Knight, with Heath Ledger’s iconic performance as a truly random Joker. Joker was designed to be darker, even meaner, than Christopher Nolan’s Batman classic, a turbocharged supervillain story where there’s no hero to save anyone. Supposedly it would be shocking, foul-mouthed, not for the faint of heart. It would be — as the film was introduced at its North American premiere in Toronto — “bonkers.”

Turns out that was all smoke and mirrors. Joker is a well-made movie, with a killer performance from Joaquin Phoenix, who seems born to play the role. But there’s nothing “bonkers” about it. It has nothing to say about the Joker himself or what he represents, or even about the world in which his brand of evil exists. Go ahead and crack open the movie. It’s hollow to the core.

Joker is about a man on the verge of an explosive nervous breakdown

Joker most strongly evokes two Scorsese films, both about unhinged men and both starring Robert De Niro: Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983). Like much of Scorsese’s work, those two films indelibly imprinted cinema with a particular image of New York City: dirty, dangerous, with a very thin veneer of civilization that’s ready to crack at any moment. Phillips apes that look competently and suffuses it in garish fluorescent lights and eerie greenish glows.

Joker is roughly set right between those two films, in a Gotham City modeled on New York around 1981, judging from movie posters that appear in the background. There’s a sanitation strike on, and the sidewalks are piling high with garbage (and if you’ve ever been in New York on particular pungent nights, you can practically smell them). Rats and super-rats are taking over. Tensions are running high.

In the middle of this world lives Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), who works as a clown and suffers from a neurological condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably when he doesn’t want to be laughing at all. He lives with his ailing mother Penny (Frances Conroy) in a dimly lit apartment building where the elevator doesn’t work, meets regularly with his social worker, and takes a lot of medication.

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
Niko Tavernise / Courtesy of TIFF

Arthur and Penny spend their nights watching a late-night comedy hour hosted by an old-school comedian, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). It’s the most obvious Scorsese quote in Joker, made explicit by De Niro’s casting. In The King of Comedy, De Niro plays an aspiring but untalented stand-up comedian named Rupert Pupkin who idolizes a late-night TV host, scheming and dreaming of being put on his show, and eventually kidnaps him in order to make it happen. Joker flips the script, with De Niro playing the comedian whom Arthur, an aspiring stand-up, idolizes. Arthur pretends to be on Franklin’s show in his living room.

But where The King of Comedy was about how TV turns its most devoted viewers into delusional seekers of the spotlight — and in the end, Pupkin’s buoyancy worked out for him — Joker has darker designs for Arthur. For most of its two-hour runtime, Joker is a parade of humiliation for him. He is beaten up several times by packs of roving punks. His uncontrollable laughter makes him a figure of scorn and disgust. The other guys at work make fun of him. His social worker can barely conceal her distaste for him, which doesn’t much matter anyway since the department is being eliminated by the beleaguered city. He bombs exquisitely at stand-up, then finds himself the nationwide object of ridicule.

The only person who doesn’t despise Arthur is his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz). But what counts as kindness to Arthur is a few words of small talk in an elevator and a smile. No wonder, Joker suggests, that he eventually cracks.

Joker is not nearly as edgy or interesting as it thinks it is

Following the film’s North American premiere in Toronto, Phillips said he wrote Joker for Phoenix even before the two knew each other, which seems obvious from the start. Bony, lanky, with a cavernous mouth that releases roars of laughter as his eyes telegraph humiliation and defeat, Phoenix imbues Arthur with a sense of menace even when he’s at his most helpless. His performance is reason enough to see the movie.

And yet. The notion that Arthur’s villainy essentially stems from his untended mental illness is troubling enough; evil (and mass shootings) having often been ascribed to pathologies. But what’s even more disconcerting is what Joker’s story suggests about the society into which the movie debuts.

Joker rewrites the backstory of one of comics’ most infamous villains to be one of humiliation and scorn; essentially, the movie says, he is bullied into mass murder, beset by a merciless society that he must eventually rally against.

And there’s a larger context for that, in Gotham City. As Arthur struggles with his demons, an uprising is fomenting, with a revolt seemingly inevitable. For most of the movie, we only hear about it in news reports — an “anti-wealthy” movement, one that eventually takes Arthur as its figurehead and Thomas Wayne, the wealthy mogul whose son will one day be the Joker’s arch-nemesis, as the face of its enemy.

Yet it’s not Arthur they idealize, nor his true self they seek to emulate. Actually, everyone hates Arthur. He’s beaten up by a street gang and a trio of Wall Street scum bros, taunted by talk show hosts and random bystanders. That he’s co-opted by a band of people who want to rally around his likeness without knowing who their leader even is seems like a perfect final mixture of triumph and indignity. He’s only good to them for what he represents.

And the movie doesn’t seem gutsy enough to try to draw out that tension. Instead, once Joker starts barreling toward its conclusion, Arthur snaps, turning into an angry guy with a gun and violent disregard for everyone. The world is against him, and by extension his would-be followers. The world deserves what they’re about to get, whether at his hands or the hands of all the other angry, rioting downtrodden in Gotham City.

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
Niko Tavernise / Courtesy of TIFF

Which turns a supervillain into a kind of folk hero. The personification of evil, in Joker, is now just the flip side of the same morality coin. Certainly, Batman and the Joker have always been presented as yin and yang, order and chaos, protector and predator. But the terror of the Joker is curiously defanged in the film. It doesn’t seem convinced those categories of good and evil, order and chaos exist. Like the Joker himself, it believes in nothing.

Though Joker boasts Phoenix’s finely layered performance, it contains nothing as quote-unquote “bonkers” as, say, Sandra Bernhard’s absolutely deranged performance in The King of Comedy. There is nothing unpredictable about Joker, nothing we haven’t seen before, no revelations that shift how we see the world or the story. For a movie that clearly prides itself on its edginess, it is weirdly inert and stolid.

I think the Joker — and the legions of readers, audiences, and fans who have found him so spine-chilling from the start — deserved for this stand-alone origin story to have a bigger imagination and a more instinctive sense of what makes him an icon of evil. You can find much scarier, more shocking stuff by casually surfing websites or reading the news. Joker is a tightly directed mood piece with an unforgettable performance at its center, but it’s not much more than a mask, with nothing but banality behind.

Joker premiered at the Venice Film Festival and played at the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. It opens in theaters on October 4.

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