Todd Philips directs Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Much has been written and said about how this movie is the definitive Joker performance that snatches that mantel away from Heath Ledger, who posthumously won an Oscar as supporting actor in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. There has been a lot of pre-release buzz about how this movie could trigger violence due to the incel manifesto. Is this genuinely a grim yet refreshing take on the comic-book genre or is it simply much ado about nothing?
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck a professional clown who suffers from pseudobulbar syndrome, this causes him to laugh out loud at inappropriate moments. But that is not all that makes him feel a little bit “off”. We are introduced to him at his weekly counselling sessions with a social worker, there is mention that he spent some time in the mental institution but that is not expanded upon. He gets picked on by bullies and lives with his mother. If all of this seems cliched its because it is. Philips and writer Scott Silver deploy every known trope to suggest that Fleck is nothing more than a loser. Instead of feeling sorry for the guy you are left fielding empty provocations. There are gaping plot holes which add up to nothing. His clown-league Randall played by Glen Flesher(Billions) hands him a gun and calls him “his guy” but rats him out to the boss. Joaquin Phoenix is coming hard for that Oscar – and Philips and Cinematographer Lawrence Sher keep zooming in on an emaciated Phoenix every chance they get highlighting the weight loss. Add to that the odd waltz/jazz dancing which isn’t a character trait we have been introduced to in what is supposedly an Origin story.
Gotham is always meant to be grim and crime infested but the Gotham of Joker is simply filthy, the graffiti is meant to evoke the grim and gritty underbelly of Gotham, but it fails to do so. The sense of gloom and despair is so oppressively shoved down the audiences throat that you are left essentially unmoved by the plight of the “clowns of Gotham” a Thomas Wayne reference that echoes the “basket of deplorables” from the 2016 presidential race. The Subway scene is constructed masterfully but all it does is act as an inflection point for a mass riot – the killing of 3 young wall street guys is termed to be the start of “Kill the rich” craze. There isn’t enough build up to warrant such a giant leap in the narrative.
I also found it particularly problematic how the women of colour are used as vessels for channelling Fleck’s mental illness, first it is the social worker, then the pretty neighbour and her daughter, then at the end the lady doing the mental health assessment. Some might say that it presents an unvarnished look at the mental illness and that it is revolutionary in its depiction or a guy going through a mental breakdown. That would be superficial in my opinion, the writers, the director and the actor do not delve into the psyche and only rely on the narrative crutches of economic anxiety, political unrest and societal breakdown to the point that it becomes psychosis-porn. Robert Di Nero is criminally underutilized given that Taxi Driver is a clear inspiration. Speaking of homages and Inspirations there are several including Nolan’s The Dark Knight with the joker leaving the mask in the bin and the scene where he is being taken in the back of a police car. And the scene with Di Nero harkens back to Network
Joaquin Phoenix is an amazing actor but he is done a greater disservice here that Casey Affleck did with his mockumentary I’m Still Here. The performance has some high points but is rendered empty, reductive and derivative. By attempting to do an Origin Story for what is essentially a villain and arguably batman’s nemesis the movie would have been more successful trying to make The Joker truly scary and fearsome, unstable yet unpredictable and wholly evil. Instead you are left baffled wondering how this guy is capable of raining down chaos on Gotham. Skip this and give The Dark Knight a rewatch atleast Ledger’s Joker is delightfully frightening!
Zack Snyder directs Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot and Jesse Eisenberg in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice the DC-Warner tent pole which sets up the Justice League. I haven’t been shy of my dislike of Zack Snyder as a director and with the multitude of bad reviews I didn’t have great expectations going in.
We are given a quick flashback into Bruce Wayne’s past. And a quick second into the funeral of Bruce’s parents Snyder commits hara-kiri that will have fanboys frothing at the mouth. Bruce is swarmed by the bats as he falls into a hole in the ground and the bats seemingly lift him up and that is how he assumes the identity of Batman. Ben Afflect is the middle aged Batman based on Frank Miller’s Dark Knight and he is a weary, tired middle-aged Bat very different from the Batman played by Christian Bale in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. Affleck is quickly thrust into the destruction of Metropolis as General Zod and Superman engage in a death match. All through the movie that is something off about the scale of things, Metropolis and Gotham towers over everything and dwarfs both Superman and Batman. Even the car Ben Affleck is driving through metropolis seems to be mis-proportioned – it seems too small compared to the surroundings. I don’t know if other viewers experienced this but it just made the “Heroes” look puny.
Superman is deified as a god after he saved Earth from General Zod and his alien army. When he is not saving children from burning building or stranded women from tops of flooded towns Superman spends his time rescuing his girlfriend Lois Lane, either while she is being held hostage in the African Desert or while she is pushed from atop LexCorp. The film’s villainous mastermind is played by Jesse Eisenberg. Reprising his Mark Zuckerberg performance Eisenberg plays Lex Luthor, an evil genius with enormous wealth at his disposal. His sociopathic behaviour verges on psychotic. He pits Batman against Superman but like General Zod in Man of Steel here too his motivation is unresolved and his hatred of both the superheroes seems misplaced. He also tries to convince the senate to give him permission to bring the Kryptonite found in the indian ocean into the US so that he can weaponize it. Snyder, Chris Terrio and David S Goyer seem to be juggling too many balls with the story telling and each of them more unresolved than the other. In anticipation of the forthcoming Justice League movie we are introduced to The Flash, Aquaman and Wonder Woman. The latter plays a bigger part in the movie than Lois Lane does.
There are many flaws in this movie and they primarily concern Snyder’s lack of ability as a director. He makes poor choices both story wise and visually. Story wise there is no coherent reason for Batman to so pissed with Superman. The Superman’s misplaced sense of justice when he accuses Batman of abuse of power is akin to a pot calling a kettle black. The DC warner universe setup the batman character nicely at the end of Nolan’s trilogy. There were a few canons set which seem to not matter to Snyder. The Nolan Batman specifically said “No Guns” but Snyder’s batman is more violent than the criminals he seems to be rounding up. Basing this on Miller’s dark knight where batman comes out of retirement more brutal and more unstable there seems to be no explanation given to the retirement part. Also Jeremy Irons as Alfred is a hard sell. He seems to be Alfred and Lucius Fox both rolled into one and I prefer the grandfatherly Michael Caine over Irons. Visually Snyder focuses on the wrong points of interest. He is more keen on product placement than a coherent story telling. How else would you explain the Olay Shampoo bottle that gets a zoom in when Lois is taking a bath after being rescued from the African ambush? Eisenberg’s whiney lunatic approach to playing Lex Luthor is a poor decision from both the actor and the director. All his manipulations of events that bring Batman and Superman face to face seem a bit too farfetched. Also the final face off between Batman and Superman and Batman’s bulky suit seem to be a pretty odd choice. It makes an already bulky Affleck look even chunkier also we are never really in the clear if his suit is actually kryptonite infused or not. Also the conclusion of the Batman Vs Superman fight to finish had me snorting – like seriously that is why they stop fighting? Because both their moms are called Martha!
But then there are some bright spots in the movie too. Gal Gadot as Diana Prince is smoking hot. In the hands of a good director the Wonder Woman origin story should be interesting. Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman is perfection. The man maketh the suit look good. The knightmare scene while confusing and ultimately insignificant in the course of this movie shows promise of what the Justice League multiverse holds. Hans Zimmer’s music is great in spots and jarring and overbearing in others. He seems to not be able to find the fine balance that he did with Nolan.
Overall it is not as bad as people are making it out to be. Yes it is overlong and entirely unresolved in terms of its main villain’s motivation. Ben Affleck needs to work on his Batman persona but isn’t entirely horrible. Gal Gadot is exciting as Wonder Woman and I cannot wait to see Jason Momoa as Aquaman but I would have preferred TV’s Grant Gustin as Flash than Ezra Miller because as much as I like Miller as an actor I don’t want a moody broody millennial Barry Allen. But in my humble opinion Snyder is the wrong horse to bet on to take on Disney and Marvel’s Avenger Multiverse. Give Nolan all the money he wants and the creative freedom he needs and green light his Howard Hughes biopic and let him take on the Justice League. Snyder will keep getting in the way of the story and the franchise will suffer unless you want to place Olay Shampoo in the Aquaman origins story.