Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Why Joker is the Most Overrated Movie of the Year

Although it has been phenomenally successful at the box office, writer/director Todd Phillips' film focused on the origins of the most famous Bat-villain has divided critics. Forgetting for a moment that attempting to rationalize and explain one of the most inexplicable characters ever created is a terrible, terrible idea doomed to failure, Phillips' choices over the course of Joker leave much to be desired.

Stealing its plot from two different Martin Scorsese films (Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy) and adding a layer of DC Comics on top which acts more of a fuck you to fans than celebration of the character (purposely making claims that fly in the face of 80 years of comic writing), Phillips offers a script to explain the creation of the Joker. The movie isn't a descent into madness, our lead character is already far gone by the time we meet him. Instead, Joker examines how a shitbag like our protagonist became the most famous villain in Gotham. And, in one of the film's most troubling aspects, excuse that behavior by re-purposing the blame of the Joker's actions on society itself. The Joker doesn't kill people, society kills people.

Joker is a joyless exercise that offers nothing save the performance by Joaquin Phoenix as struggling clown Arthur Fleck who gets taken advantage of at every turn leading to his transformation. Over the course of the film, Fleck is belittled, beaten up, loses his job, fails in his attempt at stand-up comedy, and has the psychiatric program which provides him with his medication shutdown for lack of funding. He also discovers from his mentally-unstable mother (Frances Conroy) about a personal connection to Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) which further focuses the film, and Fleck's psychosis, on class warfare. Society has failed him, and when he takes action to defend himself on a subway, killing a group of Wall Street douchebags, he not only finds purpose but the lower class of Gotham City rallies around the image of a vengeful clown taking action for them (though, to be fair, Fleck doesn't give a damn about anyone other than himself, with the possible exception of his mother).

Set in economic downturn of the early 80s, Gotham City is a hopeless cesspool that mirrors Fleck himself. The look of New York at that time is one of the few bright spots for an otherwise dismal film, although it ultimately adds to the unrelenting churlish nature of Phillips' wet dream. There's also nowhere for the story to go, except to play to the sullen section of the audience that believes society at large is to blame for all of their problems and any action that the Joker takes against it is justly deserved. Excuse me while I go vomit.

And then there's the problem of trying to fit Joker within the context of the character which spawned him. Arthur Fleck is no Joker. First, he's knowable (and really not that interesting). He's a toddler on a disproportionate rampage for both actual and imagined slights against his character. Second, he's an idiot. Far from the deranged clown whose motives and schemes would confound Batman for decades, Fleck has simple needs and desires all too easy for even the most bored audience member to work out. This isn't the Joker created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, who would grow in prominence and stature over years thanks to the work of Denny O'Neil, Neal Adams, Carmine Infantino, Steve Englehart, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and so many other talented artists and writers. It's a sad wannabe screaming "look at me" and then, just like a toddler, not knowing what to do once he has your attention.

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