Joker’s Identity Crisis

Did you feel sympathy for Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker? I ask because there is no doubt Director/Co-Writer Todd Phillips was aiming for your heartfelt understanding as his Joker is abandoned by his father, beaten to a pulp in alleyways and subways, and inflicted with a Tourette’s-like disease of uncontrollable, gag-inducing laughter. The poor guy can’t catch a break, so he kills friends, family members, and strangers while invoking violent uprisings in his hometown of Gotham City.

Yes, this is the same Gotham City associated with Batman and the childhood wonders of superhero legend. Besides the city name and some connections to Bruce Wayne as a kid, this Joker is far less an adventurous comic book movie and more a nihilistic, psychological dismantling of an angry man who gets meaner by the hour.

Every movie has every right to claim a certain genre, trope, or hybrid, and whether it cares or not, its tonal intention determines its audience interest. In 2008, The Dark Knight fused drama, action, and a touch of film noir into one of the best movies ever made. Interestingly enough, it still followed a recognizable comic book template. Logan did the same thing nine years later. Both are considered masterpieces by movie fanatics and comic book/superhero fanatics alike.

Joker doesn’t know what it is but desperately wants the best of both worlds. Its attempt to involve the DC Comic domain comes off obligatory and second nature. Todd Phillips calls his vision a “standalone” piece, but his fellow producer, Michael Uslan, tells, “Nobody’s seen a comic-book movie like this before…it’s like watching a Martin Scorsese, lower-budget crime drama.” Regardless, the movie is entitled “Joker,” so Mr. Phillips has no doubt what audience he is targeting. Uslan’s comparison to Martin Scorsese is actually more concerning.

Does Joker really pay homage to one of the greatest American film directors of our time, or does it flat-out plagiarize? If you’ve seen Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982), you may find Phillips’ result a telling example of today’s cinematic unoriginality. Perhaps, it is truer to say that Joker celebrates Scorsese by copying him.

The majority of Joker’s story components and cinematic techniques (the ravaging of a late-night comedy host; the mock handgun to the head suicide gesture; the extended slow motion frames for dramatic albeit redundant effect; the over-voiced developments of disdain for society and looming insanity from our antihero; and, the ambiguous, “was-it-all-just-in-his-head?” ending) are straight out of Scorsese’s playbook. Whether or not these ideas are used as tributes to a much better filmmaker, they are still borrowed ideas.

And, sure, we can glorify Joaquin Phoenix’s blood vessel-popping, ribcage-convulsing portrayal of The Joker all we want. (Ironically, I found his calm, sincere smile more engaging than his devious Joker shenanigans.) But, rating this movie solely on an eccentric performance is letting it off the hook. Regardless of a comic book movie identity crisis or a so-called homage to Martin Scorsese, the only thing new we are watching here is an actor strenuously trying to stand out. Wait, this is Hollywood – how is this anything new?

I’ll ask again: Did you feel sympathy for Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker? I didn’t either, and I realize that’s the intention. So, I wonder why we are watching two agonizing hours of our focal character getting tortured and debased only to watch him do the same to others. Why are we referencing and literally seeing replicas of Martin Scorsese classics on the screen? What does Gotham City have to do with any of this?

There’s also the question of why this movie was made in the first place.

Joker (2009) *1/2 out of *****

Image Credit: Bryanzap on DeviantArt

12 thoughts on “Joker’s Identity Crisis

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    1. Agreed – it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t funny, and regardless of whether or not it received audience sympathy, Phillips and Phoenix’s creation was a ripoff of Travis Bickle and the movie he paraded in…

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  1. I’ve written a couple of posts about this on my own blog but I hated Joker for its choice to examine the nature of a person who commits these kinds of crimes in this type of film and for its failure to condemn, and possibly to even justify and glorify, his behaviour. I think it trivialises what is a real issue and is irresponsible in its handling of it. I think your take on it is spot on. Joker has stolen from Taxi Driver and King of Comedy but also seems to have fundamentally misunderstood what those movies were trying to do. Travis Bickle may be celebrated for his psychotic tendencies because he ultimately used them to rescue a young girl but we as the audience are expected to feel uncomfortable about that, not to go along with it. Joaquin Phoenix explored this himself in I Was Never Really Here but his work in Joker undermines that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. First off, thank you for reading. I look forward to continuing my perusal of your blog. I appreciate the feedback and dialogue. You nailed it – Joaquin’s work in You Were Never Really Here is the kind of empathy I believe the production of Joker was trying to go for, but the result comes off rebellious for the sake of rebelliousness, which, if you really think about it, is downright dull. Joker bored me than anything. Or, it upset me because of how unoriginal it was to people with film history pasts. Millennials (and, I apologize if you are one) without any experience with the classics think Joker is the best thing since the iPad!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I just appreciate you reading and creating a dialogue. I have seen so many movies (probably too many), and when I see Joker after seeing masterpieces like King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, I have to call foul play as I see it: Joker is downright plagiarism, dull, and insulting to moviegoers who have already seen this formula before. I look for originality and efforts to push cinema forward, not backward. Joaquin was entertaining. He gets a star and a half. The rest of the movie gets a suspension for cheating, haha 🙂

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  2. A friend of mine called me after watching it, insisting that I must go see it because it’s one of the greatest movies of all time. I was curious what your thoughts would be. I still haven’t seen it, but now I feel like I must. My friend did feel sympathy, her and her boyfriend both. Her boyfriend told me it would make me feel sympathy for the devil after I watched it, and my friend told me because I’m empathetic, I would definitely get it. I suppose we’ll see…..

    I have felt bad for the bad guy in a few films. Kahn in Star Trek for instance, but I never think that excuses their behavior, but I understand, if that makes sense.

    Anyway, I’ll let you know what I think of it, when I do eventually get around to watching it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kristian, this is worthy insight and a great question, and I think I’ve come to a conclusion regarding this movie’s polarity and question of sympathy: Movie nerds like me who revel in the classics have seen Joker many times before, and this is shamelessly copied out of anything Scorsese; but, moviegoers in their twenties and thirties (millennials) see this as new, captivating material that earns perfect scores left and right. From IGN to young bloggers, this is a masterpiece. Not only did I not see anything original, I was stunned that no one had called out Todd Phillips for ripping off Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. With Joaquin’s “Joker,” sympathy is subjective, but I think the intention is to fear him at the end because there’s not much to support when he finally loses it. You have to see it. I think you will like it. I just can’t condone such a lack of originality. Joaquin is worth it, but I felt the guilty pleasure of walking into a “freak show” than enjoying a movie. Great debate material though!

      Liked by 1 person

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