Todd Phillips' Joker movie is great in a lot of ways, but its biggest problem is similar to Game of Thrones season 8. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, the man who becomes the Clown Prince of Crime in Gotham City, Joker is unlike any other comic book movie before it, sharing more DNA with the works of Martin Scorsese than it does DC Comics.
Phoenix is rightly being hailed for his performance, which isn't only one of the best versions of the Joker committed to screen, but is also likely to land him an Oscar nomination. It's a transformative turn from Phoenix, but he's matched by what the rest of the film is doing. The cinematography from Lawrence Sher perfectly captures the sort of grimy, run-down New York City of the late-70s/early-80s that this version of Gotham is going for, and Hildur Guðnadóttir's string-heavy score builds the movie's dread and gives us a real sense of Arthur's worsening mental state. Across the board - costumes, make-up, production design, editing and so on - Joker really excels, but there is one big issue.
The problem with Joker is the writing, which all of those elements compensate for and elevate, but can't fully hide the weaknesses of. If that sounds like a familiar problem, it's because it's the same one that plagued Game of Thrones season 8 earlier this year, where there was some series-best work in terms of acting, cinematography, and music, to name but a few areas where Game of Thrones season 8 excelled, but it was let down by the writing from David Benioff & D.B. Weiss. Joker doesn't share the same logic issues with regards to things like the passage of time, but like Game of Thrones, it does feature a big character transformation that the script doesn't fully earn. For Game of Thrones, this was Daenerys becoming the Mad Queen; in Joker, it's Arthur Fleck becoming the titular character.
In both cases, the performances from Emilia Clarke and Joaquin Phoenix respectively are brilliant, but both are lacking when it comes to setup and execution from a writing point-of-view. Both Joker and Game of Thrones have these character transformations built around a loosely defined idea of "madness", which for the latter is a hereditary condition supposedly decided by the Gods, while in the case of the former it's rooted in real-world mental health issues. Joker and Game of Thrones both put a lot on the performances here, which deliver on both counts, but there's not enough underpinning it from the writing. Game of Thrones somewhat gets away with this by what we've seen over previous seasons, but it's nonetheless a valid criticism of the controversial eighth season. For Joker, Arthur already has a mental illness when we meet him, and is then descends from there, and it's a failing of the movie that its script never dives into mental health beyond surface-level stuff.
It makes comments about it that aren't explored beyond offering up a quote destined to be posted on social media as an indicator of how deep the film is, and its largely apolitical stance prevents it from really saying anything. On top of that is that it's portrayal of Arthur as a man with a mental illness who becomes violent, which is supposedly due to that illness combined with society's treatment of him, is a misjudged message to send when it comes to the idea of mental illness (research shows people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than they are commit it). It undercuts the character's journey, much like happened with Dany's descent in Game of Thrones, and on both occasions it's up to the actor in the role to elevate things (which, again, they do). Phoenix is great in Joker, but it's almost in spite of the script, not because of it.
- Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020) release date: Feb 07, 2020
- Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) release date: Jun 05, 2020
- The Batman (2021) release date: Jun 25, 2021
- The Suicide Squad (2021) release date: Aug 06, 2021
- DC Super Pets (2022) release date: May 20, 2022
- Aquaman 2 (2022) release date: Dec 16, 2022