It’s very possible that no other film in 2019 will create more of a fervor than Joker. Yes, there are going to be wars in the stars and other killer clowns to consider, but the radical nature of Joker is already drawing lines in the sand. Personally, I am fascinated by the potential of Joker, its possible effect on the future of other DC films and comic book cinema in general, and I’m looking forward to it with genuine excitement. But, I’m not numb to the issues many are raising about the movie. And to be perfectly honest, I think there is a binary narrative already developing that might threaten a well-rounded critique of this picture.
So, with only a few months before its release, I wanted to apply that binary thinking -- sadly, it’s becoming a much easier way to get people to enter into discussions about art if you recognize two opposing sides and then try to work the conversation towards the middle -- and catalog what I think are reasonable positives and negatives about Joker before we’ve even seen the movie.
Of course, I must have on record that we all should reserve judgment for when we’ve seen the totality of the art in question. But, there are elements about Joker that I think are already worth examining, discussing, and even debating. I’m going to do my best to highlight both sides and really dig into what’s got me equally thrilled and terrified about this film.
Shatter the Shared Universe
While we’ve certainly gotten comic book films in the last few years that are more singularly focused, there is still an expectation from audiences that these recognizable characters all need to operate within a cohesive universe. And while that idea seemed radical and fresh when Iron Man hit in 2008 and The Avengers followed through with it in 2012, it’s an idea that has doomed most of the competition for a decade. Numerous attempts by tentpole films have tried to duplicate the Marvel Cinematic Universe and they’ve all failed.
Joker is slated to be a one-off film with no sequels, spin-offs, tie-ins or any other kind of continuation. In the current landscape of comic book cinema, that now feels like something audiences aren’t being given. It remains to be seen whether audiences are going to find that kind of one-and-done approach appealing, but the fact that that’s what Joker is setting out to do is a good thing.
The uniformity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been enjoyable, but it’s also led to a lot of stagnation when it comes to how experimental and distinct comic book movies can be. The need for a series of films to all operate under the same ruleset means they can’t color too far outside the lines. The visual language, color grading, and tone of the MCU movies all need to remain uniform, and that creates dependable but mostly expected and unsurprising films.
Joker is thrilling because the only rules it has to play by are its own. It’s given the space to carve out its own style in every facet of the production. Whether or not this will lead to a good film is unknown at this time, but it’s certainly a net good when it comes to creating a variety of art in the world of comic book cinema.
Less is More
At some point, superhero cinema eclipsed the traditional action film. Yes, we still get the occasional John Wick and Mission: Impossible flick, but costumed crusaders have become the poster children for blockbuster action at the box office. This means that all comic book movies have an expectation to be Event Cinema. Frankly, that’s very limiting to what kind of movies we can get from these properties.
Joker is uncharacteristically small in comparison to most of the comic book cinema we get these days. And I mean “small” in multiple ways. From the scope of the story to its production budget -- for context, Joker has a reported budget $55 million while Marvel Studios’ lowest budgeted films are the Ant-Man movies with $130 million -- Joker is delivering a product that promises more intimacy as a piece of cinematic art.
And that’s something that we’re in desperate need of in the realm of comic book movies. When every one of these flicks is sold as the event of the year, they start to lose their specialness. While Joker feels momentous because of its titular character, it’s currently coming off as a weirder, tinier little venture in regards to its actual construction. That smallness allows it the chance to be riskier, stranger, and more individualistic.
In the end, we need comic book cinema to be filled with a diversity of stories. Right now, that means asking for more movies that have smaller budgets and less bombastic goals. Joker is providing that and it has the best chance of being a catalyst for this to take off. For all the praise and success of films like Logan (reported budget: $97m) and Deadpool (reported budget: $58m), we haven’t seen lower budgeted comic book cinema really blossom. If nothing else, Joker makes that a tantalizing possibility.
Escaping the Voidspace
In the same vein as the previous section, I think it’s fair to say that the Event Cinema nature of superhero movies also means that they are expected to be gargantuan effects films. While this can often be impressive, it’s led to two big issues with a lot of comic book flicks: a feeling that you’re watching a mostly animated movie and the voidspace.
Let me tackle that second point. If you listen to our GenreVision podcast, you’ll often hear my co-host Travis Newton and I bring up the idea of the voidspace. In a nutshell, it’s when a moment in a movie seems to take place in a digital nowhere land. This is usually caused by scenes being shot primarily with green screen sets. It creates an empty weightlessness to the scene that’s especially damaging to action sequences. Sadly, a lot of modern superhero movies fall victim to the voidspace because so much of their production is dependent on previsualization and a lack of location shooting.
Coupled with the fact that comic book cinema is mostly made up of CG animated elements, there is a lack of tactility to a lot of superhero flicks. Joker eschewed this industry standard in favor of using practical sets and real locations in New York. That might seem like a small issue but it actually makes a world of difference. It adds visual texture to the film and makes for more interesting shot selections.
The limitless freedom of the “digital backlot” has been freeing for many filmmakers, but limitations are often what leads to the best art. Working with a location or a physical set means finding out how to best utilize the area you are given. As evident by the first official trailer, Joker is making impressive use of this.
This is a sticky subject when it comes to film discussion, but we often like to drum up terms like “visionary” and “auteur” when talking about movies that have a strong sense of creator personality. While those labels are better for marketing than actual analysis, it is worth noting when a film feels like its coming from a specific creative perspective as opposed to something that feels solely like a product.
For instance, while Spider-Man: Far From Home was by no means a bad film, it felt like a movie that could have been directed by anybody. In all fairness, even Shazam! fell victim to this same… sameyness in its overall approach. In an effort to bring the most crystallized and textbook versions of these characters to the big screen, a lot of modern superhero cinema has strayed away from letting filmmakers enact a very specific take on these properties.
In a conversation between The Tick’s Griffin Newman and YouTube video essayist Patrick Willems (which I highly recommend watching), Newman talks about how he is fascinated by Ang Lee’s Hulk and how it’s a movie that didn’t feel obligated to bring audiences a version of the Hulk that felt like a chiseled-from-stone perfect ideal of what the Hulk should be. Instead, Lee and his creative team were allowed to take whatever they found compelling about the Hulk and his world and explore it in any direction they wanted.
Joker is clearly going to be taking this course. No material from the comics was used for direct inspiration and writer/director Todd Phillips (along with co-writer Scott Silver) were allowed free reign to do anything they wanted in terms of the narrative, the world, and the characters. Even if Joker turns out to be bad, we should be celebrating this kind of creative freedom in regards to these comic book properties. As Newman and Willems state in that interview, a lot of the best comic books end up being the ones where the creators were given that kind of artistic independence.
When the dust settles, Joker will be forever known as Todd Phillips’s Joker. In the same way that we talk about Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man or Tim Burton’s Batman, Joker will feel like a film unto itself. And if we are going to continually be inundated with comic book cinema, I would prefer more movies that allow filmmakers to do just that.
Wrong Lessons Learned
Let’s assume a best-case scenario for Joker. It releases to critical acclaim and box office success. Warner Bros./DC decides that this whole one-off filmmaker branch (the current label being thrown around is DC Black) is something they want to pursue. If you follow major motion picture history, you know that studios rarely learn the correct lessons from their successes. And in the case of Joker, I have a feeling that the film’s potential achievements will cause a ripple effect of the worst kind.
For starters, Joker should not kick off an era of villain-centric pictures. When I tweeted out my enthusiasm for Phillips’s approach to the film, I received a number of responses from people who wanted similar movies focusing on other notable Batman foes. This is not what should excite you about Joker.
I love Batman’s gallery of rogues as much as the next person, but I don’t want executives assuming that Joker’s possible success means that audiences want movies about villains. The Joker is arguably the most notable comic book villain of all time, and it makes sense from a marketing standpoint and even a creative one to have him headline a picture. And while some antagonistic characters have enough malleability to them where they certainly could be the star of a one-off feature, that is one of the least interesting repercussions that Joker could cause.
What would be worse is seeing Joker usher in a wave of identically dark, edgy, aiming-to-be-rated-R comic book films. While there is certainly a contingent of fans that would love for this to be a more normal practice, it shouldn’t be about pushing heavily mature content into these films. Instead, what movies like Deadpool, Logan, and Joker should inspire are more comic book films that do their utmost to appropriately embody the character and story to their fullest. The aforementioned R-rated movies need to be R-rated because those are the kinds of stories they’re telling.
But, that doesn’t mean that we need an R-rated Superman movie or anything as equally wrongheaded. Quite the opposite. If Warner Bros./DC wants to showcase that the DC Black banner is going to deliver stark takes on their characters, they would show a lot of promise if they announced an idealistic and undeniably positive new Superman film that was obviously intended for audiences of all ages.
I don’t want Joker to become a lightning rod for the Hot Topic-ification of the DC catalog. If there is a character or story that feels appropriate to take that grim route with, then so be it. But, it’s got me worried that the bean counters will see grimness as Joker’s best feature.
The Joker script leaked to a number of film journalists a little while ago, and some cursory Google-Fu can pull up the big story beats if you want to spoil yourself. We all knew that making a movie centered around the character of the Joker was always going to be a dicey proposition. I’ll get into more detail with that in the next section, but what’s got me nervous about the film’s reception is the conversation that’s going to crop up around it. Heck, that conversation is already happening before anyone has seen the film.
There are going to be a lot of… let’s say, difficult areas that Joker is going to dive into. Mental health, social ostracization, male rage, toxic politics, vigilantism, and a whole lot more. These are topics that are all worth exploring and debating in art, but because of Joker’s prestige blockbuster status as a comic book adaptation, it’s likely that a lot of people with less savory reads on the film are going to become wrapped up in this conversation (see The Ugly section).
And it’s going to be turbulent and petulant no matter where you sit on this film. Joker is designed to stir the pot and our cultural level of discourse has people more than ready to throw as much spice into said pot as they can. Agendas will be formed, hashtags will be coined, and the cycle of outrage will continue. Granted, Joker is counting on that as a marketing strategy. That’s fiendish in its own right.
Basically, whatever easy talking points that come out of Joker will fuel an interminable amount of bad faith takes that we’ll have to be subjected to in our YouTube recommendations and Twitter feeds. In short, I’m dreading having to live in a world of Joker reactions. A perfect experience would be seeing the film in a vacuum and only seeking out the opinions of critics and friends that I trust. If only.
Turning a Villain Into a Hero
There is always a present danger when you make a piece of fiction that features a protagonist whose actions are questionable, morally suspect, or outright deplorable; you risk creating a character that people actually like. We’ve seen it time and time again in film history. A Clockwork Orange, Dirty Harry, Taxi Driver, Fight Club, American Psycho, and many others have found themselves becoming embraced by certain audiences for very warped reasons.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t make these kinds of movies. In truth, I like all of those movies and even more that feature indefensibly despicable lead characters. Maniac (2012) is one of my favorite horror films of the decade and it’s an entire movie about putting the audience directly into the perspective of a serial killer of women. Observe and Report is a criminally underseen dark comedy (and my favorite film of 2009) that ends with a triumphant scene of shocking, scary, and utterly repugnant behavior. It’s not that these movies are inherently bad, but it’s becoming more and more difficult to do these kinds of stories and not have a large swath of viewers find these disturbing villains somewhat heroic.
Add to that the Joker’s iconic status in pop culture and you have the recipe for a truly undeserving “hero.” We’ve seen pop culture iconography become co-opted by various political and social movements -- V for Vendetta’s Guy Fawkes mask, the Punisher logo, etc. -- and it’s almost never in a good way. The Joker’s theatrical nature and imagery are primed for similar treatment and it’s gonna suck.
I want there to be movies about protagonists that aren’t traditional heroes and are even demonstrably villains. It’s possible for me to assess such stories, see the arguments and nuances the stories present, and take them into account without lionizing their subjects. But, I don’t think that’s going to be the case for a good number of Joker’s biggest supporters. Especially when it comes to younger/teenage viewers (predominantly men) that will only see the sympathetic angles of the story and glom onto them. That’s not something Joker can avoid or be personally accountable for as a piece of art, but it is an emotionally valid reason for some people who have decided to write Joker off.
I’ve written about the awfulness of fandom before and I won’t retread those same arguments here, but it is worth reiterating that there is an indisputable sickness coursing through the veins of modern-day fandom. Unfortunately, the DC Comics films are home to one of the most vocal and abhorrent sects of fans out there.
Now, let me preface this by saying there are plenty of good and healthy fans that feel passionately about the DC Comics stable of films and are able to engage in civil discussion. As with the majority of these rotten apples, they are a vociferous minority that seeks to dominate the conversation by blaring their point of view on every conceivable platform. For them, it has become less about supporting a creative venture and more about adapting these sentiments into a twisted sense of self-identity.
We’re talking about the deluded “Release the Snyder Cut” faction and those that are unnecessarily hateful towards Marvel as their competition. These are the kinds of fanatics that are going to be championing Joker in the most atrocious ways. We should ignore and lampoon these people, but what’s demoralizing is that any modicum of support or appreciation for Joker is going to get assimilated into their narrative.
To get a little personal, it’s been very difficult to be an outspoken DC fan in these last few years. When it comes to the Big Two, my heart is always going to favor the Distinguished Competition. Their stable of characters and library of titles are just more familiar and integral to my upbringing. But, there has been an alarming extremism festering in the DC following for the last decade or so, and it’s gotten to a point where I am very selective about who I share my deep DC love with.
Joker is a movie that will speak to the most zealous DC devotees. It’s unavoidable. I wish Warner Bros./DC would preempt this inevitable repulsiveness by disavowing and condemning these people, but the cold capitalism of it all means that they need every audience they can snatch. That alone makes this whole situation inescapably ugly.
Originally, this diatribe was only going to feature the “Foul Fandom” piece in the Ugly section, but recent developments have forced me to acknowledge a facet of Hollywood that we’re all becoming uncomfortably familiar with.
In a now-deleted post on Reddit, an anonymous figure has accused Todd Phillips and his productions of, “openly abusive, manipulative, sleazy, and predatory” practices on and off set. While there are very few specific allegations made, it’s a story that is now an icky refrain when talking about the culture that Hollywood has allowed to flourish.
If this is true, I wish Phillips was able to speak out about it, admit any wrongdoing, and be able to prove that this behavior is no longer occurring. Of course, that can’t happen because then he’d potentially be liable for any number of legal actions. It’s a depressing system that we all hope is beginning to see real reform.
And reform is something we have to allow in these instances. Not only for institutions but for human beings as well. The idea of “cancel culture” is not one that wants people to get better. They simply want these horrible people to disappear. That sentiment is completely understandable, but it also creates an atmosphere of fear rather than one of remorse or betterment. Fear is never a good foundation for reform.
This is an immensely difficult, nuanced, and wide-reaching issue that I’m not going to be able to solve or even properly explore in this dinky article about a movie where a guy dresses up as a clown. Suffice to say that if Todd Phillips is guilty of anything criminal, I hope it comes to light and proper actions are undertaken.
I set out to write this article because I was having a lot of trouble organizing my multitude of thoughts concerning Joker. Even this piece isn’t an exhaustive breakdown of every little sentiment I have about this movie pre-release. And like I said, a lot of this will be expanded upon and re-examined once we’ve all actually seen the movie. But, through various discussions with my GenreVision cohorts and interactions about the movie on Twitter, I felt compelled to do my best in representing my Big Points when it comes to Joker.
My hope is that my intrigue, excitements, and apprehensions are similar to how many of you feel. And I want to hear your (civil) thoughts about Joker in the comments section. The best thing about film is that it’s a shared experience, and sharing our experiences can help us all see things from a variety of perspectives. I don’t want my viewpoint to be my sole reference for Joker. It’s imperative that I absorb as many opinions as I can about this and every other film. It’s the only way I’ll become a better consumer and connoisseur of movies.
I’m eagerly looking forward to Joker. I’m also fearing Joker. My anticipation of the movie is comprised of both polar ends of the spectrum. With your help, I hope we can meet somewhere in the middle.
SHELF PICK: The King of Comedy
Just like we do on our GenreVision podcast, I always like to leave y’all with a movie recommendation. This time, it’s Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. The film has been cited as a very direct inspiration for Joker, and Robert De Niro’s inclusion in Joker as a comedic talk show host is a knowing nod to Scorsese’s picture. The King of Comedy is something of a redo on Taxi Driver, but it strips away any potential coolness from its protagonist. It’s dark, twisted, unnerving, and funny in a perverse way. Definitely one of my top three favorite Scorsese efforts. It’s currently available to stream through Amazon Prime Video in the US.