I am the absolute last person to defend an attempt of a Hollywood studio, a superhero movie, or a director and actor so privileged they have the industry and all of its riches at their feet. The budgets of my four completed films range from $40,000 to $5,000,000 — and the budget of my current project hovers somewhere in between. I believe tentpoles have ruined American cinema and the glut of mediocre content in episodic television has made scrolling through titles often as interesting as watching the actual shows.
But I thought “Joker” was a near-masterpiece, an opera of raw, gritty emotion, a stunningly dark and artful gaze into the rich delusion of tragedy. It is not a perfect film, and — as some critics have said — it is dangerous, but it is entirely more dangerous to label it as some kind of call to arms for white rage in this country, or to link the film to the Aurora cineplex massacre of 2012, or to call the film “incel friendly,” which is utterly absurd.
I should know. My third film, “Dark Night,” had everything to do with the Aurora massacre. A fictional meditation on guns in America and 21st century suburban isolation, the film follows a day in the life of six characters who all end up in a movie theater where a massacre takes place.One of the characters is the eventual shooter, the others are simply people — and the idea was that it should be easy to recognize yourself in all of the characters up on the screen. By the end of the film, we all are sitting in a movie theater together, and the fragility of life hovers over every viewer's head. There is no violence in the film, which focuses on what happens before a shooting takes place — how we live — rather than aftermath. Whether you're a young girl looking to make friends, an Iraqi war vet, a selfie obsessive, or a damaged person with unfortunate access to guns, the film is designed to humanize people too often turned into statistics.
There is a reference to James Holmes' trial in the film, as well as others to “The Dark Knight Rises” and Batman. Three mass shootings occurred during the making of the film, and we felt the intensity and pain of creating a living document of the time. “Dark Night” was well-received at both Sundance and Venice; it even won some awards. But the film found no champion in the industry to help it become part of international conversations surrounding violence and gun control. It was a film about people getting killed in a movie theater, and no distributor or theater chain wanted that kind of responsibility.After a tiny distribution deal, and a scathing beatdown from the New York Times, it drifted off to the edge of Netflix where it lies sleeping today. Nobody talked about it.
Since its premiere at Sundance, 67 mass shootings have taken place in America, and one could happen by the time you finish reading this sentence.
As a filmmaker, you make films to be seen by an audience and, hopefully, to be considered and/or discussed long after the screen goes black. It was a devastating experience to watch “Dark Night” become marginalized and ignored. I had purposely worked with all non-actors on the project, so there was a sense of anonymity on the screen rather than that of a recognizable face from some other movie or TV show.The screen served as a mirror to the viewer. In my frustration, I used to joke that if I had cast Joaquin Phoenix as the shooter and fully shown, rather than hid, bombastic violence, the film would have received a giant distribution deal and people would be talking about it.
Alas, here we are.
And while it’s good that we are talking about “Joker,” we're talking about it for the wrong reasons. With all respect and empathy to anyone affected by the Aurora tragedy or gun violence in general, this film seems to have literally nothing to do with the Aurora massacre. James Holmes never said, “I am the Joker” before following through with his horrifying deed. If anything, the killing in the movie is more reminiscent of Bernard Goetz's vigilantism, which I have yet to see mentioned in critical analysis or public outcry.
Gun violence is an epidemic in American society — and I believe that guns should be banned for personal use. Blame policy, but don't blame this movie. Look around at the countless movies this country makes and tell me that “Joker” is the only one with a gun in it. Far from it. Additionally, I can't find merit in statements that equate the film as a call to arms for Incels to wreak havoc. That sect typically targets violence against women, and Joker does not target women nor does he show misogynist tendencies whatsoever. His “love interest” in the narrative is one purely of fantasy, and while there is a moment of threat, she experiences no act of violence.
I know very little about the Incel community, but one could even argue that it might become more angry and desperate after watching a film that has a perfect, wonderful romance in it, as the inability to connect intimately with the opposite sex is where their deepest frustration lies. Lastly, nobody has criticized Jared Leto's portrayal of the Joker character or connected the cash cow “Suicide Squad” to real violence over the past few years — not to mention all of the iterations that the character has undergone since Bob Kane and his team created the character in 1948. So why now?
Because, for all of the film's somewhat hokey superhero movie necessities too much explanation, a few obvious and clunky plot points, and the requisite garish set pieces, through the writing and Phoenix's sympathetic portrayal, the film deals with real hurt, with real emotion, with real mental illness. That's not something mainstream American audiences are necessarily drawn to these days.Dark isn't good marketing. What we're given in the superhero genre is Robert Downey Jr.'s tiresome glib eye roll, and a narrative that illustrates a dependence on a thousand miles of green screen and an audience's yearning to escape into mindless entertainment. Joker is not like that – and much is at stake because of the filmmakers' and studio's decision to create the film the way they did. It's an important risk by Warner Bros. to follow Phillips' Joker as a godson of “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy.” This vision took extreme bravery. It should be rewarded, supported, not destroyed.
Yet the most disturbing criticism I've read and heard about the film so far involves Joker's sympathetic backstory. He's too human. But if we recognize his trials in personal terms, it allows us to explore how society takes a toll on many people not wehy enough to advocate for themselves.
What is wrong with empathy? Why is it wrong to humanize a villain? People may not want to see it in the movies — but they should, because it could help inform how we exist in the real world. Perhaps it takes a blockbuster to convince people this perspective is worth their time. Along with its entertainment value, why shouldn't this film be about mental illness, or about the lack of social services for people forgotten by society, or about the fact that the one percent have been a major part of the destruction of the fabric of American life?
These are real problems, but when the movies address them we cry foul — or we cry dangerous. But “Joker” isn't dangerous because it could influence incels or copycats; it's dangerous because it tries to show something human. That's what I wanted to explore in “Dark Night,” and I'm glad to see that “Joker” follows suit.
Tim Sutton is the director of four feature films — “Pavilion,” “Memphis,” “Dark”, and “Donnybrook.” He lives in New York, where he is currently in production on his next project.
I’ve been in a spot where the young Yoko Atsuko Maeda was or maybe still in it: an existential anxiety about your prospects. For anyone who has ever done film production before, you know that small filmmaking roles can be a gateway to your desired grander opportunity. At this point in her life, Yoko is disillusioned with her position as a host of a reality travel show trailed by a trifling all-male crew in Uzbekistan. At first, Yoko treats her position like an unwanted obligation since she has been pining for better—or something she calls “better.” Now she fears she may be in stasis rather than moving forward toward her desired destination.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s To the Ends of the Earth encapsulates one woman’s blossoming from a reserved drone into a willing participant with Maeda’s subtle dynamism from a perpetually placid and pouty countenance to a focused visage.
Yoko’s stint in Uzbekistan takes off on undignified starts. When the camera rolls, she has to perform a bubbly persona—at odds with her current morose mood—that doesn’t pop enough for the director. The fishermen they film with also call her bad luck, since she is a woman, and their first shoot was reliant on them making a catch and the fishermen welcoming her. Her concerns and needs, while not ignored, are secondary in the production. When she is forced to endure an intense theme park ride, a crewmember checks on the camera before looking at her blatantly nauseated expression—then she is ordered to endure two more takes of the ride. To complicate matters, she cannot speak the Uzbekistan language and relies on a translator, which can be troublesome when she’s out alone and interacting with the locals. Along with it, she witnesses the deleterious effect of a production that doesn’t seem to be realizing its full potential, eavesdropping on the crew’s mulling over the quality of the footage. Obstacles are inevitable in any production.
On her break days, Yoko navigates the anxieties of traveling in a foreign country as she walks through the city alone, not for sightseeing but to buy supplies. She pushes away aggressive vendors—who profile her as a tourist and thus a potential customer—and breaks into a run when she walks past groups of strangers in an alleyway. However, she eases up in this strange environment, finding bits of enchantment, and getting lost in it, such as a penned goat on her encounter. Halfway through the film, does the story bring her desires to light as she wanders alone into an opera house and imagines herself on the stage. She voices this insecurity to her crewmember, who assures her there that her current station could still be a gateway for her singing aspirations.
The longer she stays in Uzbekistan, the more she feels attuned, even if she isn’t completely embracing the new world around her. She begins adding her two cents and pitching her ideas. One pitch comes through, her decision to liberate the penned goat she came across. They film her freeing the goat into the expanse, only for the owner to attempt to reclaim the goat. So they pay the original owners to let it wander, but she is more aware that the goat is more at risk when set free. Spoilers: the goat will return, and in a way that strikes the heart, and she accepts it as a sign from the universe that all will be well.
Kurosawa stacks a twist or two that may seem over-the-top, but they somehow compliment Yoko’s transformation. After a harrowing chase scene at the of Yoko’s anxiety, she doesn’t realize she has a paradigm shift. When there comes a moment a terror is resolved and she says, “The people here are nice and the country is nice” and means it. By that time, she has evolved in her potential as much as she evolved her perspective in a foreign place.
The film twirls into musical territory at two moments, the final a-la Sound of Music. For a film shot naturalistically, it manages to earn these sparks of spontaneity. Some questions linger after her final song of exuberance. Has she made peace with the elements given to her? Is she still optimistic she’ll reach her initial dream, just in a way she never expected? Either way, she knows she’ll be fine.
While many a superhero film has had a villain problem, the Joker is one villain from the comics medium who has not only translated well, but also lent himself to a succession of compelling reinterpretations. He’s the greatest comic book villain of all time and he’s lit up the big screen with equal gusto. With Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker coming off a record-breaking box-office weekend, this is as good a time as any to rank the various iterations of the Clown Prince of Crime on film.
For an old-school fan of the J-man, it’s tempting to include Batman: The Animated Series and the 1960s live-action Batman TV series on this list. Both feature classic depictions of the Joker. Thankfully, their Jokers had such a taste for the theatrical that they also crossed over into movies. Not counting the animated movie Batman: The Killing Joke, which played in theaters for one night only before going direct-to-video, there have been seven cinematic Jokers since 1966.
If it doesn’t feel like we’re playing with a full deck here, well, since when has the Joker ever been wired that way? Regrettably, we don’t have time to mess around with the Proto-Jokers of the TV series Gotham, or any of the animated, direct-to-video Jokers of the DC Universe Movies. This is the meat-and-potatoes ranking of Jokers. I’ve developed a secret algorithm for a precise ordering that is infallibly correct. It’s called the Smylex Algorithm. “And here we … go.”
7. Jared Leto in Suicide Squad
The Joker in Suicide Squad feels more like a wisp from a montage than an actual movie character. He leaves us with a fascinating case study in how a film’s editing can eschew lucidity in favor of cacophony, to the detriment of its characters.
Philosophically, I’m not opposed to a Joker who has had his front teeth knocked out by Batman, so that he now sports a shiny grill along with his prison tattoos. I’m not even all that bothered by the goofy tat on his forehead that reads, “Damaged.” I mean, whatever. We’re all damaged, right?
The real issue with this Joker is that if you watched all the trailers and TV spots for Suicide Squad back in 2016, then you would have already seen the bulk of Leto’s performance and maybe everything else worth seeing in the movie. That’s up for debate.
When the Joker pops up in Suicide Squad, it’s frequently in flashback form. Fever-dream glimpses of him come to us through the mind of Harley Quinn. For an electroshocked brain such as hers, you could certainly make the case that memories should play like vignettes from an audiovisual nightmare. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of Joker, who only gets to breathe as a character in scenes like the one where he confronts Harley’s prison guard.
On the set of Suicide Squad, Leto’s method acting, or douchebaggery, or whatever you want to call it, reportedly included gifting his coworkers with live rats as well as sending them used condoms, dildos, and anal beads, among other things. Even though these stories came straight from the lips of Leto’s co-stars – seemingly reputable sources, like Will Smith and Joel Kinnaman — Leto later denied some of the rumors, as did director David Ayer up to a certain point.
Taking a cue from Leto’s Joker look, perhaps, Suicide Squad‘s cast famously gave each other matching tattoos. In today’s day and age, I wouldn’t put it past a tight-knit cast like that to fabricate wild stories, as a gag, in the hopes that the news would go viral and garner more publicity for their movie. Who’d have thunk it, but when Angie Han interviewed Margot Robbie for /Film in 2016, Robbie said that Leto was “respectful, professional, and lovely.”
What we have here with this Joker is an instance where the look of the character and the dubious on-set stories about the actor portraying him are more interesting than what’s onscreen. Whatever the truth is about Leto, there’s a separate strand of hate that people seem to have for him, over and above the behind-the-scenes legends that surround Suicide Squad. It’s affected public perception of his Joker and I can’t really comment on it beyond what I’ve learned from night-Googling, “Why do people hate Jared Leto?”
In the final analysis, the version of Leto’s Joker that survives in the theatrical — and even the extended — cut of Suicide Squad is simply too insubstantial to warrant a higher spot on this list. We should take no pleasure in seeing any film fail to knock it out of the park with Joker. Somewhere in the world right now, some disappointed DC fan is thinking of Leto’s Joker as they rewatch Jack Nicholson’s and hear him recite the line, “If you could see inside, I’m really crying. You might join me for a weep.”
6. Zach Galifianakis in The Lego Batman Movie
Zach Galifianakis is a funny guy. Inborn comic talent isn’t a prerequisite, but a plus in the Joker-actor column. Two weeks before the new Joker movie landed in cinemas, Netflix’s Between Two Ferns: The Movie dropped read our review here. It showed that Galifianakis still passes the laugh test when insulting celebrities and being maced in the face by cuckolds. In the 2000s, Galifianakis had a following for his comedy, but it was really ten years ago, in the summer of 2009 — when he co-starred in the smash-hit The Hangover — that he became a big bearded blip on everyone’s movie radar.
That film’s director, Todd Phillips, has since gone on to helm said Joker movie, while Galifianakis, in 2017, lent his voice to the lisping, pointy-toothed Joker in The Lego Batman Movie. What makes Lego Joker so endearing is his codependency on Batman. He just wants to be seen, recognized as an essential part of Batman’s life. Naturally, he regards himself as Batman’s greatest enemy. We’re all on the same page about that … everyone except Lego Batman.
The breakup of their one-sided bromance serves as the movie’s funny little inciting incident. Melodramatic, Zimmer-esque, saving-the-world music accompanies it. Galifianakis’ voice brings vulnerability to the Joker as their chucklesome, euphemistic dialogue riffs on his neediness and Batman’s aloofness.
Batman: “I’d say that I don’t currently have a bad guy. I am fighting a few different people. I like to fight around.”
Joker: “I’m fine with you fighting other people, if you want to do that. But what we have? This is special.”
Batman: “Whoa. Let me tell you something, jaybird. Batman doesn’t do ‘ships. As in ‘relationships.’ There is no ‘us.’ Batman and Joker are not a thing. I don’t need you. I don’t need anyone. You mean nothing to me. No one does.”
Our heart breaks with Lego Joker as he hears these words. What is it with Batman? Can’t he see what’s right in front of him, the love that’s there, if only he’ll open his crime-fighting heart to it? Who else drives him to one-up them the way Joker does?
While Bruce Wayne sits in the back of his Lego limo, watching the smarmy Superman chat on TV, Lego Joker is across town, feeling underappreciated. Soon, he devises a new plan: to surrender himself. He informs Batman, “You can’t fight me anymore. I’m off the market.” Since he serves, rightfully, as the ringleader over them, he even gift-wraps all the other Bat-villains, including some ridiculous, lesser-known ones, like Condiment King.
If Lego Joker has a flaw, it’s that his attempts at scaring people are sometimes met with awkward silence. “You should be terrified,” he tells them. They’re not, and neither are we, but Lego Joker still puts a big smile on the viewer’s face. Love that Joker.
Within the first few minutes of Joker, a movie where Joaquin Phoenix is going to get nominated for if not win an Academy Award for sleeping in a refrigerator, we learn that Gotham is being overrun by rats. Not just any ol’ garbage-eating rats, but garbage-eating super rats, and the only way to take care of super rats is super cats, obviously. Followed by super dogs, super gorillas, and finally, it’s winter time. Anyway, the rats never factor into the plot of the movie, but they might in another DC title, The Suicide Squad.
It’s suspected that the rats belong to Ratcatcher, an obscure villain in Batman’s Rogue Gallery. “Once employed as an actual rat catcher in Gotham City, Otis Flannegan soon started using his strange ability — an affinity with and the ability to control rats — to stage a variety of crimes,” his description reads. “Eventually, his control over the vermin grew until he threatened Gotham with a veritable army of rodents. Incarcerated many times at Blackgate Prison, he can cause as much damage behind bars as without, using his loyal, trained, pets to relay messages and transport materials inside the maze of ventilation ducts that wind throughout the giant prison.” If I lived in Gotham, I could deal with evil penguins and riddle-obsessed lunatics, but rat minions? That’s too much.
The rat infestation could be a coincidence — a way to signal that Gotham is on the decline, like how movies set in the future use trash-can fires as a visual representation of poverty — but maybe not, considering Ratcatcher will make his, or should I say “her,” official introduction in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad. The role will be played by Daniela Melchior, who “will have some connection to whomever [Idris Elba] ends up playing,” according to Variety. Maybe Ratcatcher can join Harley Quinn’s girl gang?
Anyway, the rat reference did not slip by many DC fans.
Still reeling over Joker. Keep thinking the rats in the background of significant scenes could be a subtle hint to Ratcatcher?
— Pizzkey @pisskey October 6, 2019
Was the big rat thing a ratcatcher reference?
— Steven Glansberg @VDC234 October 6, 2019
Shoutout to the Ratcatcher
— Jbat: Striver for Justice @moeru_hoshi October 7, 2019
I mean come on you foreshadow Obscure Villain The Ratcatcher and not do anything with it?
— John Reid Adams @NarcoticCasser1 October 9, 2019
Noticed Ratcatcher too.
— Jack Bottomley @JJB888 October 7, 2019
Maybe they're saving that for the sequel. I mean, they're introducing Ratcatcher in The Suicide Squad, so maybe she and Joker will team up in "Joker II: Ratpocalyse". pic.twitter.com/61zaD2ZAnn
If the worst part about watching Joker was that you were left wanting more of Joaquin Phoenix as the Clown Prince of Crime, you can take some comfort knowing that Joker 2 is definitely possible. While no plans for a sequel are currently in the works, the critical and financial success of the movie certainly allows for the possibility. Opening up about playing the iconic role on Popcorn with Peter Travers, Phoenix shed some light on what it was like to become Batman's arch-nemesis.
When asked by Travers if playing the Joker was a "dream role" for him, Joaquin Phoenix suggests it turned out to be that way after he signed on and open to reprising the role in a follow-up movie. From the interview:
"I wouldn't have thought this was my dream role, but now, honestly, I can't stop thinking about it. I talked to Todd a lot about what else we might be able to do - in general, just working together, but also, specifically, is there something else with Joker that might be interesting? So, it ended up being a dream role."
Let's not start holding our breath just yet. "I don't know that there is [anything more to do with Joker]," Phoenix also says in the interview. This suggests he's open-minded to reprising the role in another movie, but only if the right idea comes along. As for Phillips, the filmmaker doesn't seem quite as optimistic about seeing a Joker sequel happen, clearly stating in an interview that a follow-up just wasn't in their plans.
However, if the demand for it was there and the folks at Warner Bros. were also interested in continuing the story, Phillips admits he's ultimately open-minded about developing a potential sequel one day. "If he was willing to do it, and if people show up to this movie, and Warner came to us and said, 'You know what? If you guys could think of something...' Well, I have a feeling that he and I could think of something pretty cool," Phillips confessed.
Related: Joker 2 Probably Won't Happen, But Joaquin Phoenix & Todd Phillips Did Discuss Ideas
Directed by Phillips using a screenplay co-written with Scott Silver, Joker presents an all-new backstory for the iconic supervillain. This version of the character introduces Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a clown for hire and failing stand-up comedian who's come to be down on his luck in Gotham City. One unfortunate event leads to another which results in Arthur's transition from a shy loner into a demented, face-painted murderer. Along with Phoenix, the movie also stars Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, and Brett Cullen. As it serves only to tell the story of the Joker specifically, Batman only appears in the movie as a young Bruce Wayne, years away from becoming the savior of Gotham City.
Joker has proven itself to be a tremendous hit with critics, boasting mostly positive reviews despite its troubling content. It's also a big winner at the box office, pulling in nearly $100 million during its opening weekend and smashing records in the process. Still, controversy continues to swirl concerning the movie's violent content, and it remains to be seen just how much this will affect the movie's chances for recognition at the Oscars. Whatever ends up happening, most people seem to agree that Phoenix deserves a Best Actor nod at the event at the very least.
Who knows if we'll ever see an official sequel, but on its own, Joker seems to be one of 2019's most must-see movies, even if it's leaving some members of the audience feeling disturbed. The portrayal of the character by Phoenix in particular is certainly worth the price of admission alone. For one reason or another, the movie definitely has a lot of people talking. You can watch the interview with Phoenix below, courtesy of Popcorn with Peter Travers on YouTube.
I hope you’re not sick of Joker yet, because this movie is being bandied about as a serious Oscar contender, which means we have another four months of talking about it from several different angles – and that includes diving into hot-button comments from its cast and director.
Filmmaker Todd Phillips made waves recently by essentially claiming that “woke culture” is ruining comedy, but longtime comedian and Joker cast member Marc Maron strongly disagrees. Read Maron’s dismissal of Phillips’ viewpoint below.
Within a recent Joaquin Phoenix profile at Vanity Fair, Phillips gave his thoughts on the current state of comedy:
“Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture. There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore—I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right? So you just go, ‘I’m out.'”
Maron responded to those comments on an episode of his long-running WTF podcast via The Playlist, calling Phillips’ stance “tired” and refuting his entire premise about comedians metaphorically taking their ball and going home:
“There’s plenty of people being funny right now. Not only being funny but being really fucking funny. There are still lines to be rode. If you like to ride a line, you can still ride a line. If you want to take chances, you can still take chances. Really, the only thing that’s off the table, culturally, at this juncture –and not even entirely – is shamelessly punching down for the sheer joy of hurting people. For the sheer excitement and laughter that some people get from causing people pain, from making people uncomfortable, from making people feel excluded. Ya know, that excitement.”
“As I’ve said before, it’s no excuse,” Maron continued. “If you’re too intimidated to try to do comedy that is deep or provocative, or even a little controversial, without hurting people, then you’re not good at what you do. Or maybe you’re just insensitive.”
I never would have thought that Marc Maron would be the voice of reason in the Joker discourse, but here we are. He finished up his point with one more observation:
“Bottom line is no one is saying you can’t say things or do things. It’s just that it’s going to be received a certain way by certain people and you’re gonna have to shoulder that. And if you’re isolated or marginalized or pushed into a corner because of your point of view or what you have to say, yet you still have a crew of people that enjoy it, there you go! Those are your people. Enjoy your people.”
It’s hard not to think of people like Louis C.K. during that last quote, and Maron’s points are solid here. It seems as if Phillips may not have been fully prepared to handle the intensity of the firestorm surrounding the movie he made, and Maron’s essentially saying that if you’re going to call down the thunder, then you can’t complain about it when you get soaked.
And as for “woke culture” killing comedy, what Phillips seems to be really upset about is that it’s killed a subset of comedy, one which just so happens to reflect the comedy on which he built his career. But that does not mean that there isn’t a vibrant comedy scene out there full of vastly different perspectives. For more on this, I’d recommend listening to this excellent episode of the Still Processing podcast, which touches on Dave Chappelle’s most recent special and digs into this topic even deeper.