This article was originally published during 2019’s Toronto International Film Festival. We are republishing the piece as the film hits theaters this weekend.
Few films from this year’s fall festival season have aroused as much curiosity as Todd Phillips’s Joker. The supervillain movie unexpectedly took home the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, an honor previously awarded to the likes of Roma, The Shape of Water, and Brokeback Mountain — a sign that, against all odds, the film will likely crack the end-of-year awards race. The Oscar buzz for Joker has also been accompanied by controversy over the film’s handling of toxic masculinity, as its version of the character bears many similarities to the perpetrators of recent mass shootings. Combine all that with the usual intense fan interest that greets most of today’s comic-book films, and it’s a heady mix. If you’ve read our review from Venice, or our review from Toronto, and you still have questions about Joker, well, I did my duty and saw the film at TIFF, and now I’m here to answer them.
Is this Joker movie connected to any of the 8,000 other movies with the Joker in them?
Nope! This is a stand-alone movie unconnected to the rest of the DC Universe, so stand-alone that just this week Phillips seemed to rule out the idea of a sequel. It’s a period piece, being rather explicitly set in the early ’80s, and its aesthetic owes more to Scorsese films like Taxi Driver than other comic-book films. (I would not be 100 percent surprised if the movie began life as a realist social drama before being retconned into a movie about the Joker.) It’s also different in being an origin story. DC Comics canon has presented a multitude of possible explanations for how the Joker became the Joker, but this film throws almost all of them out, save a little bit seemingly inspired by the Joker’s backstory in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. In this telling, Joker is Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill part-time clown who dreams of becoming a stand-up comic before an endless string of indignities from a cruel, uncaring society spurs him toward violence.
You’re saying everybody betrays him and he’s fed up with this world? Is this movie The Room?
That’s not the first movie I would have thought of, but now that you mention it, Joker is not completely dissimilar to The Room! Except played straight and, you know, well-made. Other commonalities with The Room include Joker’s strange bouts of laughter (here the result of a childhood brain injury), and the frequent shirtless scenes for leading man Joaquin Phoenix.
Yes, talk about the shirtless scenes, please.
Of course! Phoenix has said he lost 52 pounds for the role, and it shows; the sinews on his back practically deserve a supporting-actor campaign of their own. Joker spends much of this movie in motion, writhing in pain or dancing to the beat of his own strange drum, and Phillips frequently strips him naked to the waist so we can see just how odd his physical form is. Phoenix isn’t Machinist-skinny — he’s lean but still has a tiny paunch, like a certain blogger I could mention — though his weight loss feels similarly effortful. This is not a look that you can get by accident, and these sequences feel like a dark mirror to the clean-cut, protein-shaked shirtless scenes of the MCU. (Also, despite being a skinny mini, Joker still somehow wins a tug-of-war against a character played by Brian Tyree Henry. Movie magic!)
I know you said it’s a stand-alone movie, but do any other familiar characters from the Batman universe pop up?
Indeed: Bruce Wayne’s father, Thomas, is a key supporting player. The twist in Joker is that this time, he’s an asshole! Thomas Wayne is the richest man in Gotham, and he spends the film mulling a Bloomberg-style mayoral run, while also taking time to periodically insult the city’s underclass. (Since this is a story set in the Batman universe, you can probably guess what happens to him.) We also get a scene with the young Bruce Wayne and his British manservant Alfred, who receives a slightly darker portrayal than the kindly old gent of most Batman movies, or his recent sexy incarnation. Oh, and the film also heavily implies that Joker is a blood relative of one of Gotham City’s most famous residents. Which one? I’ll never tell!
How close is the movie to the leaked Joker script that was going around?
That script appears to date from a few months before production began, and while there are a few differences in the details, the plot, characters, and tone remain largely unchanged from script to film. If you’ve read it, there will still be some surprises in store, but you’ll recognize it as essentially the same movie.
I’ve seen it written that the movie is “a portrait of the supervillain as the original incel.” Is Joker an incel?
To fully dive into the question of whether Joker is sexually active would require spoiling more of the movie than I’m comfortable with. I’ll just say that, while this Joker could be taken as an avatar for the incel movement, the film does do away with one particular misogynist trope that popped up in the script. There is still a lot of masculine rage in Joker, but it’s directed more at society as a whole than at women in particular. Also, for what it’s worth, the majority of Joker’s victims are men. (Usually men who are a lot more obviously loathsome than Joker, but that’s a whole nother line of criticism.)
Do you think the film is going to be as controversial as early Venice reviews indicated?
After the Aurora shooting, a gritty, realistic movie about the Joker was already going to have people’s guard up more than the typical anti-hero drama would. Since its premiere, critics have gone back and forth over whether Joker is merely depicting its protagonist’s twisted worldview or celebrating it. Our own David Edelstein warns that it “panders to selfish, small-minded feelings of resentment,” while writers at The Guardian and The Hollywood Reporter have penned preemptive defenses, decrying as overly simplistic any attempts to link the film with real-life violence. I don’t think this will die down before the movie’s premiere, no.
How violent is it?
It’s bloody, for sure. Still, I wouldn’t say that any of it is necessarily any more extreme than you would find in other R-rated dramas. Someone gets stabbed, a few people get shot — it’s graphic, but it’s the kind of screen violence you’ve seen many times before. Reports of the movie’s outrageous gore feel a bit like marketing to me, and I suspect that Phillips is not altogether unhappy with the suggestion that he’s made something really dark and twisted.
Speaking of dark and twisted, does the movie really play “Send in the Clowns” over scenes of Joker doing bad-guy stuff?
Are you kidding? The movie plays “Send in the Clowns” more than A Star Is Born played “Shallow.” The first instance comes when Joker is mockingly serenaded by three Sondheim-loving Wall Street types on the subway, on his way home from a terrible day at his clowning gig. (Everyone in this movie calls rich dudes who work in finance “Wall Street guys,” so I guess Gotham also has a Wall Street.) Later, Frank Sinatra’s version pops up on the soundtrack, as does a piano version by Ferrante & Teicher. Since the song appeared in the Joker trailer many fans of musical theater have pointed out that “Send in the Clowns” is not about actual clowns; however, since Joker turns out to share one specific plot element with A Little Night Music, the show the song comes from, I personally give the movie a pass.
One final question: When did everybody start calling him “Joker” instead of “the Joker”?
I have no idea.