Much of the buzz surrounding Todd Phillips’ Joker after it premiered at the prestigious Venice Film Festival (and won the Golden Lion, its top prize) was about it being an “elevated” comic-book movie, about how it tries to bring the superhero genre to new artistic heights. I initially found the suggestion dismissive. I’ve always believed that a film becomes a work of art when it takes interest in themes, and that a film becomes a good work of art when it uses craftsmanship to explore them effectively.
It might be valid to argue that many comic-book movies are more interested in functioning as entertainment than art — as are most action movies, romantic comedies, and every other genre you can think of — but to say that something cannot be art because it has characters with superpowers? Writers and illustrators have continuously returned to those characters for a reason, and the ability to find interesting themes in just about anything is what makes art so subjective in the first place. The idea that Joker needs to be distanced from its own source material to be considered a quality artwork is, in my view, totally ridiculous.
As it turns out, though, the buzz was spot on. Instead of being a way for pretentious critics to praise Joker without betraying all of cinema, as I originally suspected, “elevated comic-book movie” perfectly describes how Phillips presents his own work. Practically everything about how Joker was crafted, from the intimate camerawork and slow pacing to the booming score, implores you to take it seriously. Issues like class and mental illness are constantly invoked, while the references to Scorsese’s filmography, particularly Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, practically outnumber those to the Batman comics. These things are not bad in and of themselves, but the implication that a Joker movie wouldn’t be artistic unless it was made this way is a strong presence throughout.
That’s a risky position for Phillips to take. If you’re going to talk down to the rest of your genre, you’d better back that up by being significantly better than they are, and Joker just isn’t —it already feels overlong at just two hours, the script places too much emphasis on conversations that seem insightful but aren’t, and for all the talk of mental illness, what the film actually has to say about it is unclear.
But the most frustrating thing about Joker is that it clearly could have been. Joaquin Phoenix gives a fantastic lead performance as Arthur Fleck, the uncomfortable contorting of his body perfectly complementing his character’s twisted psyche, and Phillips was right to give him control of the narrative. So much of the first hour was engaging because the line between reality and delusion was blurred and you grow to question the camera’s access to truth, but this tension is undone by a “twist-reveal” scene of something that was already obvious. Phillips should have kept things ambiguous and left it to his audience to parse fact from fiction, but by thinking his superhero-loving viewers need things clearly laid out, he ends up revealing his film is not as smart as it thinks it is. In trying too hard to be an “elevated” comic-book movie, Joker ends up a good-not-great psychological thriller, squandering a golden opportunity in the process.