After a triumphant film festival run that included rave reviews and a Golden Lion win at Venice Film Festival, Todd Phillips' Joker divided critics as it moved into general release. The film is an origin story for Batman's greatest nemesis, starring Joaquin Phoenix as a man called Arthur Fleck, who struggles with the weight of his mental illness and a miserable existence - until eventually, having been pushed too far, he transforms himself into the Joker.
Joker's first screenings were met with a wave of five-star reviews, but after it reached a wider pool of critics, opinions on the movie were split. The film tenuously held on to a "Certified Fresh" badge on Rotten Tomatoes, with a score of 69% and an average rating of 7.31, so while the majority of critics did rate Joker positively, there are also a lot of dissenters. Even before it screened for the majority of critics, Joker was dogged by controversy: first because of concerns that it could inspire a mass shooting, and later because Phillips made comments about how "woke culture" made it impossible for him to continue making comedies, and that Joker is a "real movie [made] under the guise of a comic book film" - which many saw as being disparaging towards comic book movies.
Of course, it's true that Joker wasn't designed to be a traditional comic book movie, and the differing reactions are to be expected since the movie doesn't exactly play things safe. For most critics it's a gamble that paid off, with particular praise directed at Phoenix's performance and Joker's impressive cinematography. However, here's what some of the reviewers who weren't so impressed had to say.
Phoenix, alternately brooding and exulting, dancing extravagantly in his underwear or in a resplendent costume or seething with rage, cringing with horror, or camping it up with an affected accent, isn’t so much unhinged as unmotivated and, to all appearances, undirected. What he delivers is less a performance than a display of his bag of actorly tricks—and they’re pretty wonderful, but they adorn a character who’s an empty framework, and, to all appearances, empty by design, for fear of alienating the target audience.
Joker is a bad movie, yes: It’s predictable, clichéd, deeply derivative of other, better movies, and overwritten to the point of self-parody... The experience of sitting through it is highly unpleasant, but that unpleasantness has less to do with graphic violence—there are only one or two scenes that go hard, gore-wise—than with claustrophobia and boredom.
Joker... is a calculatedly combustible concoction, designed, like its chaos-creating character, to cause a stir. To provoke and distort. I wish it was as radical as it thinks it is. Instead, Joker is a mesmerizing, misjudged attempt to marry the madness of a disturbed individual to today’s violent and clownish times. It’s a shallow, under-examined movie that renders the dark descent of a troubled man with an operatic fervor.
It’s possessed by the kind of provocative spirit that’s seldom found in any sort of mainstream entertainment, but also directed by a glorified edgelord who lacks the discipline or nuance to responsibly handle such hazardous material, and who reliably takes the coward’s way out of the narrative’s most critical moments.
Interestingly, most of the more negative reviews (and some of the positive reviews as well) don't call out Joker for being dangerous or potentially aspirational viewing for mass killers, but rather not being bold or interesting enough to warrant all the fuss that's been made over it. The most common criticisms are that Phillips' work is simply too derivative of Martin Scorsese's films (The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, in particular) to carve out an identity of its own, and that it lacks depth, with its notions of mental illness, society and class left vague and improperly explored. That being said, Joker has of course received plenty of rave reviews. Here's what the critics who loved it had to say.
In Joker, Joaquin Phoenix digs into the title role, kicks out the jams, and stamps the character with a danger all his own. “Phenomenal” is a puny word to describe his gut-punch performance... As entertainment and provocation, Joker is simply stupendous.
Many have asked, and with good reason: Do we need another Joker movie? Yet what we do need — badly — are comic-book films that have a verité gravitas, that unfold in the real world, so that there’s something more dramatic at stake than whether the film in question is going to rack up a billion-and-a-half dollars worldwide. Joker manages the nimble feat of telling the Joker’s origin story as if it were unprecedented.
Built around a credible spiral from lonely outsider to deranged killer, it's as much a neo-noir psychological character study grounded in urban alienation and styled after Taxi Driver as a rise-of-the-supervillain portrait. It's arguably the best Batman-adjacent movie since The Dark Knight... The must-see factor of Phoenix's riveting performance alone — it's both unsettling and weirdly affecting — will be significant.
In short, Joker's reviews are definitely a mixed bag - but that's not necessarily a bad thing. A movie being divisive among critics is all the more reason to go and see it for yourself. You might find yourself agreeing with the reviewers who were disappointed by Joker but, on the other hand, you just might discover your favorite movie of the year.