Does a supervillain require intent and purpose, or does it just require a confluence of events that “cross[es] a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash”? Taking a cue from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Todd Phillips has given the Batman canon another gritty, more realistic origin story to explain its greatest antagonist in Joker — disturbing, affecting, but perhaps more ultimately nihilistic film than either Phillips or star Joaquin Phoenix intended.

Set in 1981, a marker only indirectly gleaned, Joker tells the story of mentally ill, quasi-professional clown Arthur Fleck, who barely exists in his poverty-stricken life. It’s difficult to tell at times if his constant degradation and victimization has caused his wretched mental state or if it’s the other way around, but after a while you realize that it doesn’t really matter. Gotham City has descended into social collapse that parallels the 1970s-80s version of New York City, and budget cuts are making it worse, especially for Arthur. He’s forced to go off his meds while trying at the same time to pursue his dream of stand-up comedy, at which point it starts becoming more difficult for Arthur — and the audience — to tell what is real and what is delusion inside Arthur’s head.

Much has been made of the politics of this film and its supposed celebration of violence, and of Arthur’s stand-in for an “incel movement,” which is a contradiction in terms. The politics of this film are much more difficult to pin down than that, however, and are really only scenery to Arthur’s meltdown, at least until the final act. Thomas Wayne is not a terribly sympathetic character, a change from the DC canon in which Batman’s father is usually described in near-martyr terms, and the city’s uprising as well as Arthur’s own sympathies seem vaguely more in line with Antifa and Occupy Wall Street than Proud Boys and MAGAists. Even in the final act, the motivation matters much less than the reality of the chaos and utter collapse of Gotham in Joker’s rise.

Just as the role landed the late Heath Ledger an Oscar, Joaquin Phoenix seems destined to be at the top of the awards short lists next year. He gives a superb performance in the film, having lost more than 50 pounds to play Arthur and giving the role an almost spectral and haunted look. His physicality dominates the film, and in fact seems to be almost the entirety of the film.

The rest of the cast almost fades into the background. Robert De Niro seems both wasted and miscast as talk-show host and comedian Murray Franklin, a cheesy Johnny Carson knock-off. Frances Conroy does better as Arthur’s mother Penny, but perhaps purposefully gives little hint about her reveals in flashbacks to come. Zazie Beetz, who did so well in Deadpool 2 as Domino, is given nearly nothing to do as Arthur’s neighbor and potential love interest. Brett Cullen’s Thomas Wayne lacks any real style at all, with nothing but his money and his (perhaps) arrogance to even mark his presence in the film. Everything sinks into the grimy and washed-out background of Gotham, including Arthur, at least until his alter ego finally emerges.

Joker is no doubt an interesting and at times gripping film. But does this all work? By the time we get to the final act, viewers might wonder what the point of the film is. The climax is telegraphed, even if the choreography of getting there is undoubtedly compelling, which robs it of its shock value. The stretched-out fall of Arthur leaves less room to contemplate the rise of Joker, which makes the first part of the film an at-times frustratingly slow character study, leaving audiences stuck in the head of someone to whom they really can’t relate at all.

The arrival of the last act, which is spectacular in its way, accentuates the essential meaninglessness of what preceded it. Joker shows us one version of how the Joker came to be, perhaps, but as an accident of fate rather than as a master plan of villainy. Ledger’s Joker was a malign philosopher, a man with a distinct plan to prosecute the world for its imperfections. Phoenix’s Joker almost literally falls into the role of master criminal, with few clues or skills to maintain it. There is no sense of paths-not-taken or deliberate choices and plans; Arthur and the audience are strapped to a roller-coaster car of fate, with one track and one destination — which we already know before the ride begins.

In the end, we realize that maybe we were better off not knowing the why of Joker. The Joker backstory mattered most in Nolan’s Dark Knight because it was left untold and unknowable. The Joker just was, existing in his own moment and in no other, made all the more frightening for it. In both Tim Burton’s Batman and especially this film, the backstory subtracts the “super” from Joker’s super-villainy, perhaps even more so in this case. What matters is Joker’s threat, not Arthur’s descent, and that makes most of Joker a very long, if incredibly well crafted, irrelevancy.

Still, for what it is — and perhaps especially for its throwback sensibilities of 1970s cinema — Joker is still a good film. It’s a rare merger of comic-book genre with realistic human drama, without superpowers, aliens, fantasy tech, and Justice Leagues getting in the way. On the Hot Air scale, I give Joker a four:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

Joker is rated R for realistic violence and language. It’s way too intense for younger viewers, and I’d be uncomfortable taking teens younger than 17 at all. It’s not for those who recoil at bloody violence.

If you do go, however, watch for a couple of things in the final act. First, pay attention to the movie marquee, which captures Phillips’ approach to this film in a unique manner. Also, see if you find the same reference to Turk 182! that I think I saw.  And then be sure to read my friend Christian Toto’s reporting on the controversies around Joker at Hollywood in Toto.