Phillips’ ‘Joker’ apes the style of Scorsese’s classics without grasping their meaning

Joaquin Phoenix will keep audiences coming back

Posted 10/9/19

Can superhero films be art?

Even before this past weekend’s nationwide premiere of writer-director Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” Martin Scorsese dragged this perennial question out for another round of debate, when he proclaimed that the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are not proper “cinema.”

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Phillips’ ‘Joker’ apes the style of Scorsese’s classics without grasping their meaning

Joaquin Phoenix will keep audiences coming back

Posted

Can superhero films be art?

Even before this past weekend’s nationwide premiere of writer-director Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” Martin Scorsese dragged this perennial question out for another round of debate, when he proclaimed that the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are not proper “cinema.”

At the risk of incurring the wrath of my fellow nerds, it’s an argument with a measure of validity, because for as much as I love the MCU, and I love it a lot, its admittedly broad-stroke political positions tend mostly to serve as pretexts to satisfyingly rousing super-powered punch-ups, not to mention angsty relationship drama between its endearingly archetypal characters.

By contrast, even the most hopeful and lighthearted of film adaptations of DC Comics characters have shouldered the weight of expectations that they prove that superheroes can be serious and profound, from the austere crystalline space opera that opened Richard Donner’s first “Superman,” through the heavy German expressionist flavor of Tim Burton’s “Batman” films, on up to Zack Snyder’s takes on the 1986-87 “Watchmen” comic miniseries and the “Justice League” franchise.

I suspect part of this is holdover insecurity from the 1966-68 “Batman” TV series, which was actually a remarkably hip piece of pop art parody for its day, but which was retroactively branded as “camp” and immature when its child fans, for whom the grown-up jokes had flown over their heads, became surly adolescents and decided they were too adult for such silliness.

But in a broader sense, many superhero fans can’t help but feel frustrated that every other formerly “niche” genre of entertainment, from westerns and gangster epics to science fiction and fantasy, have gone on to be regarded as legitimate avenues for art, earning critical acclaim, and yet, no measure of commercial success nor darker portrayals can shake the BAM! POW! ZAP! stereotypes of superheroes still being primarily for kids.

I said all that so I could say this.

Watching Todd Phillips’ “Joker” left me convinced of two things:

1. Phillips shares Scorsese’s views of the MCU films, and aspired to do better here.

2. Scorsese, in spite of initially being attached to this project as a producer, would be hard-pressed to include Phillips’ attempt under the aegis of proper “cinema.”

First off, Phillips has exceptional taste in Scorsese films, since his vision of the fictional Gotham City emulates not only “Taxi Driver,” perhaps one of the most well-known and well-regarded of Scorsese’s canon, but also borrows liberally from “The King of Comedy,” a bizarre but rewarding take on celebrity that even most Scorsese die-hards routinely leave off their lists. Phillips makes Gotham feel every bit as real as the New York City of the late 1970s and early 1980s, its grimy streets choked with senseless crime and overflowing garbage, and as a fan of Scorsese’s cinematic output from that era, I derived no shortage of guilty pleasure from just basking in the aesthetic and atmosphere that Phillips so religiously recreated.

It reminded me of Zack Snyder’s movie adaptation of “Watchmen,” because Snyder was so concerned with remaining faithful to the comic book that he actually used a trade paperback of the miniseries as his on-set guide for shooting, framing specific camera angles to duplicate panels of art from the pages.

But the problem with the “Watchmen” film, as it is with “Joker,” is that neither Snyder nor Phillips appears to have understood the source materials that they wanted to honor.

Phillips swipes from an eclectic set of mostly era-appropriate sources, using a wall of television screens to encapsulate all the media reactions to an on-air killing from “Network” in 1976, and unfortunately wasting the always luminous actress Zazie Beetz in a romantic subplot whose resolution feels like it came straight from M. Night Shyamalan’s hoary old playbook of plot twists.

There are too many homages, and double-secret-probation reversals of supposedly stunning reveals about certain characters’ secret origins. And while I couldn’t help but respect Phillips’ well-rounded collection of media influences, I also found myself at a loss to identify any message, in the midst of all those tributes, that was distinctly his own.

One of my online correspondents, John Roberson, is a bit more of a film purist than myself, but he was bang-on when he asserted that proper “cinema,” however else one might define it, cannot simply be an imitation of greater works.

By positioning the Joker as the spark that lights the fire of a citywide set of protests against the rich, Phillips explicitly references the real-life Occupy Wall Street and #Resist movements, but he also recognizes that the whole point of the Joker is that he can’t be pegged or pigeonholed by any set of political affiliations, since he’s the embodiment of insane chaos.

Phillips wants the frisson of emulating high-art cinema, and of referencing contentious real-world political debates, but he declines to use either one as a vehicle for actually saying anything.

Which is not to say we don’t get some decent acting performances along the way, even if their roles are more than a touch underwritten.

Beetz could read from cue cards and I’d be entranced, and even though Robert De Niro is in no way extending himself as an actor here, it’s still fun to see him playing a Gotham City-based late-night talk show host who’s clearly based on his old foe, Jerry Lewis’ character from “The King of Comedy,” with some nods to Johnny Carson (his multihued stage curtain and Ed McMahon sidekick on the couch) and a Regis Philbin personality.

Which leads us to Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker. You don’t hire a guy who devoted a year of his life, both in public and in private, to an elaborate hoax, just to sell the verisimilitude of a subsequent mockumentary film that virtually no one wound up watching, if you don’t want a committed performance. And Phoenix commits to his portrayal of psychologically disturbed clown-for-hire Arthur Fleck to a degree that appears literally physically painful, laughing with an anguished expression that seems better suited to a gut-punch.

One of Arthur’s many mental ailments is severe, stress-induced, uncontrollable laughter, and the best part of Phoenix’s performance is that, for as much as the audience will cringe at how his inappropriate outbursts only further inflame already tense moments, Arthur’s eyes show that he’s even more ashamed than we are of the ill-timed bellows of laughter that he can’t stop.

“Joker” did not deserve the eight-minute standing ovation it received at this year’s Venice International Film Festival, but I’m sure Phoenix’s performance was what got those critics on their feet, just as I’m sure that Phillips will have Phoenix to thank for “Joker” earning an opening weekend box office take that’s easily a record for both of their careers.

If this film is a failure, it’s a fascinating one, but I suspect enough moviegoers will disagree with my assessment that we’ll soon see this take on the Joker recast as a prologue for the next series of Batman films.

And for those continuity-minded nerds (like me) who need to know exactly when this story is meant to take place, the movie theater that we see the Wayne family exiting has a double bill of “Zorro the Gay Blade” and “Blow Out,” both of which were released in 1981.

Do the math of Bruce Wayne being 8 years old at the time, per Alan Brennert and Dick Giordano’s “To Kill a Legend” in Detective Comics #500 (coincidentally, also published in 1981), and that would make Batman 46 years old now.

And knowing, as they say, is half the battle.

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