The trailer did its work, flashing images of anomie and fury perfectly pitched for these unstable times of precarious working conditions, grievance and institutional indifference. For these same reasons, Joker, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix as the protagonist, has attracted pre-release criticisms like few other recent films. Does it deserve its awards or its condemnations as a rallying cry for the incel movement?
For myself, I wanted to love this film the way I did The Dark Knight (2008), that Joker-dominated vehicle crammed with one-liners, a sublime score and fantastic cast, and an antagonist without a backstory who simply was. Here in 2019 was the backstory, not necessarily the one we needed, but the one we deserved.
It has its moments. Joker isn't just an action film of sequences and end-results. Those oft-trailered images of the protagonist in full garb, swaying to the symphony in his mind, evoking some demonic tai chi, captures moments of emotion – in these scenes it is all about the mood as we get to enter the protagonist's mind-set. The soundtrack's recurring string pieces, similar in effect to The Favourite, further indicate his mental health. Later, the storyline reveals dark causes for his current condition: he has suffered terrifyingly, this much is evident. What is less clear is the social aspect. If film-goers feared an incel-storyline of how feminism has ruined the world, it can breathe relatively easily; like The Dark Knight's poorly-conceived sequel, Dark Knight Rises, we have potential social commentaries that, if they were ever really there, never go anywhere. We get nothing, for example, about the cause of financial cuts to the health services the protagonist relies on, while the apparently insincere politician Thomas Wayne is so superficial and marginal a character that they could switch the actor halfway through without much alteration. Not so with Joaquin Phoenix, whose magnetic physicality provides the limited moments of character development, from the hunched-over weariness to a stentorian swagger – suddenly, in his clown make-up, there is something alluring.
Unfortunately, there are too few of these kinds of transformative moments. The final scenes at the end, Phoenix's Joker trading a tense, uneasy dialogue with Robert De Niro's TV talk-show host, hint at what's been missing, a suitable antagonist to challenge and bring form to the Joker's vague and nebulous persona. 'Is it me or is it getting crazy out there?' asks the Joker's alter-ego Arthur Fleck earlier in the film; this is fine to hang a trailer on, but not a movie.
To conclude, Joker is a film betrayed by its lack of sweeping vision, and without a memorable protagonist-antagonist dynamic to diversify the central character. One erratic murder scene apart, when the Joker brings selective retribution to a former colleague and his likeable companion, there is little to lift things from the funeral-dirge climate in which everything takes place. Neither meriting its awards nor its incel associations, Joker is thoughtful by the standards of the genre. Yet this is surely less a reflection of the film's qualities than an indictment of the dominant but generally facile nature of superhero/supervillain movies in cinema today.