I hate that I have to begin a review like this, but the discourse surrounding this particular film makes it pretty much unavoidable: Joker is just a movie—a dark, gritty, and violent one, to be sure, but a work of fiction nonetheless. The title character’s actions are neither glamorized nor glorified; he’s a lonely, delusional, socially-inept loser, and although he certainly endures his fair share of abuse, it’s also obvious that he’s suffering from a major persecution complex (in addition to numerous other psychological maladies). You’ll pity him, you’ll sympathize with him, heck, you might even occasionally relate to him… but you’ll never find yourself compelled to emulate him (and if you do, then you’re already in desperate need of professional help). The only thing that’s going to inspire copycats of the Aurora shooter is all of this unwarranted media attention, which is once again painting theaters as tempting targets for would-be fame seekers. Wannabe intellectuals on Twitter and YouTube should start evaluating cinema based on its artistic merits, rather than judging it by what they perceive to be the intended target audience.
Okay, that’s enough ranting out of me; now I’ll get around to addressing the question that really matters: is Joker actually any good? For the sake of keeping this brief (too late): yes, it is quite enjoyable. A bit derivative, perhaps, but as I’ve said before, that isn’t inherently a bad thing—after all, discovering variations on familiar themes and structures often leads to innovation. It definitely doesn’t hurt that director Todd Phillips has been refreshingly transparent about his influences since the project was in pre-production; this is an unabashed love letter to Martin Scorsese, an unholy mash-up between Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy that takes viewers on a haunting, hallucinatory voyage through a disturbed mind. And while I’m not overly fond of every liberty it takes with the source material (especially concerning its reinterpretation of Thomas Wayne—traditionally depicted as the sort of philanthropic moral paragon that you’d expect to have raised the goddamn Batman—as an elitist, self-righteous hypocrite), it remains delightfully faithful in other respects: this version of Gotham City, for instance, is torn straight out of the pages of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, and Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck perfectly personifies the iconic “One Bad Day” philosophy expressed in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.
I disagree with the notion that Joker somehow “transcends” the “typical” comic book adaptation in terms of its content and quality (I still maintain that Marvel’s output isn’t nearly as stylistically homogenous as its detractors would argue)… but I will concede that it ranks among the very best examples of the genre.