Joker is a notable film for a variety of reasons. One major distinction is that it’s the first, and so far, only R rated movie to earn over $1 billion worldwide. It’s also the second movie where an actor won the Oscar for portraying Batman’s arch nemesis, The Joker. It’s the first R-Rated Batman related film, if you don’t count the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke.
The movie stars Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. Back in 2015, Phoenix expressed interest in working on a low-budget “character study” about a supervillain. He’d previously declined working in a superhero movie, because he’d likely be required to reprise a role in multiple films. For a while, he also ruled out The Joker as the film’s focus “Because, you know, it’s just that you can’t do that character, it’s just been done.” He eventually let go of the idea, even after his agent suggested meeting with Warner Bros about the concept. Meanwhile, director Todd Phillips had been offered multiple superhero movies, but declined because he wasn’t interested in a “loud” movie. Eventually though, he came up with a grounded supervillain film, and became attracted to The Joker because he felt there wasn’t a definitive portrayal of the character.
Considering there have been so many different kinds of portrayals of the character already, I can see that argument. He’s had several vastly different iconic performances, and even in the comics there have been many different interpretations of The Joker as a character.
Phillips pitched the idea to Warner Bros. after the release of War Dogs. Before that, he was mostly known for comedies like Road Trip, Old School and The Hangover. After the success of Wonder Woman in 2017, which really worked on its own, DC decided to de-emphasize their shared universe and was more open to standalone films, while Marvel remains intent on a shared cinematic universe. Scott Silver soon joined Phillips as the co-writer, while Martin Scorsese co-produced the film.
At first, Warner Bros. pushed Phillips to hire Leonardo DiCaprio as The Joker, partly because he’s a frequent collaborator with Scorsese. However, Phoenix happened to be the only actor Phillips even considered at the time. “The goal was never to introduce Joaquin Phoenix into the comic book movie universe. The goal was to introduce comic book movies into the Joaquin Phoenix universe.” When Phoenix learned of the project, he quickly grew excited, seeing how it was the exact kind of movie he wanted to make. At the same time, he didn’t commit right away, feeling a bit intimidated.
“Oftentimes, in these movies, we have these simplified, reductive archetypes, and that allows for the audience to be distant from the character, just like we would do in real life, where it’s easy to label somebody as evil, and therefore say, ‘Well, I’m not that.’”
Phillips and Silver wrote Joker for most of the year of 2017. It took time to get approved by Warner Bros, mostly due to concerns over the film’s content. The script took inspiration from several Scorsese films, including Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The King of Comedy. It also took inspiration from character study movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Serpico, and the silent era film, The Man Who Laughs (which itself is one of the inspirations for the Joker character).
After Justice League disappointed at the box office, Warner Bros replaced Jon Berg with Walter Hamada as head of the DC-based film production. He sorted through all the ongoing projects, even cancelling a couple of projects. In an effort to dissuade Phillips, he gave Joker a budget of $55 million. Considering they wanted a relatively small budget from the start, that didn’t exactly work. After months of talks, Phoenix signed onto the film in July of 2018. Immediately after, Warner Bros. green-lit the film.
Scorsese eventually left production duties to focus on The Irishman. Bradley Cooper (Rocket Raccoon in the MCU) and Emma Tilintger Koskoff (who often works with Scorsese) took over to co-produce with Phillips. Meanwhile, Robert De Niro joined the cast as Murray Franklin, a talk show host who has a major role in the title character’s downfall. Zazie Beets (Domino in Deadpool 2) plays a single mother who acts as a sort-of love interest to The Joker.
Most of the filming took place in New York City, with some scenes filmed in Jersey City. Icelandic musician Hildur Guonadottir was hired to compose the film’s soundtrack, and she met with Phillips several times before working on the film’s score. She actually worked on the soundtrack for both Joker and Chernobyl at the same time, which she found challenging since they featured very different styles of music.
Joker ended up earning a total of $1.074 billion worldwide, making it the 6th highest earning movie of 2019, and as I said before, it’s the only R-rated movie to join the billion-dollar club so far. Because of its budget of somewhere between $55 and $70 million, it’s also proportionally by far the most profitable film based on comics. It’s estimated the movie made the studio a net profit of $437 million, when factoring in all expenses and revenues.
This is an example of the increasing number of films where the critical reception and the audience reception vary wildly. On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie holds a 68% approval rating with an average score of 7.3/10. It was a polarizing movie with the critics. IGN gave the movie a perfect score, saying it “would work just as well as an engrossing character study without any of its DC Comics trappings; that it just so happens to be a brilliant Batman-universe movie is icing on the Batfan cake.” Variety’s review stated “Phoenix is astonishing as a mentally ill geek who becomes the killer-clown Joker … the rare comic-book movie that expresses what’s happening in the real world.”
IndieWire’s review was more lukewarm, giving it a C+. They called the movie the boldest and most exciting superhero movie since The Dark Knight, but “also incendiary, confused, and politically toxic.” Time Magazine gave the movie a negative review, calling Phoenix’s performance over-the-top, and called the plot nonexistent and “dark only in a stupidly adolescent way.” The Guardian’s review called it the most disappointing film of the year, although they praised Phoenix’s performance.
Industry and audience responses were far more positive. Mark Hammill, who’s portrayed the Joker more than anyone else, loved the movie. Richard Donner (directed Superman) called the movie brilliant, fascinating, and called Phoenix’s performance genius. Michael Moore called Joker a cinematic masterpiece, and went so far as to say it’s a “danger to society” if people don’t see it. Josh Brolin (Thanos in the MCU, Cable in Deadpool 2) called the movie powerful. “To appreciate Joker I believe you have to have either gone through something traumatic in your lifetime or understand somewhere in your psyche what true compassion is.”
The movie won two Academy Awards, one for Phoenix’s performance in the title role, and one for Best Original Score. It received 11 Oscar nominations overall. That breaks The Dark Knight’s previous record of 8 for most nominations from a comic book inspired movie. At the BAFTAS, Joker won Best Actor In a Leading Role, Best Casting and Best Original Score. It won those same awards at the Golden Globes, the 25th Critics’ Choice Awards, and won a number of other awards at other ceremonies.
I’ve been interested in seeing this movie for a while, but never got around to it until just now. My overall thoughts are that it’s really good. Joker isn’t as re-watchable of a movie as The Dark Knight, nor would I say it’s quite as good. In fact, some of its scenes are hard to sit through. Joker is somewhere between a character study on a mentally ill man living in poverty and a psychological thriller. It stars Arthur, a man who comes from an abusive past, with his mother being mentally ill herself, and he’s struggling to hold down jobs because of both his physical and mental conditions.
Almost every aspect of society fails him, from co-workers and bosses who don’t give him a chance, to funding cuts that make it pretty much impossible to seek the help he needs. Even his own mother turns out to be a manipulative, abusive woman with secrets that also contribute to Arthur’s issues when they’re exposed.
Arthur starts off as a genuinely nice guy, simply trying to make people smile and laugh. But when even that is ridiculed or rejected both publically and privately, he runs out of options. He ends the movie as a broken, bitter man who unintentionally sparks riots. It seems the only people who appreciate him are the rioters, further encouraging his extreme attitudes. By the end of the movie, Arthur no longer exists and The Joker is all that’s left.
It’s hard to talk about this movie in detail without spoiling the proceedings. What makes this movie work is the slow reveals of what’s happening. The slow unraveling of Arthur’s life, and his perception of who he is. Even if this movie doesn’t really contain too many surprises, it’s best to leave everything up to the viewer to see. It’s a depressing movie, and one that is disturbing at times. The acting is phenomenal throughout, not just with Phoenix’s performance, but everyone around him also performs their roles well. The music is fairly subtle for the most part, often focusing on enhancing the emotional aspects of the movie’s drama. Yet it’s also intense when the movie calls for it. With all that said, this movie isn’t completely joyless. There are moments of brilliant comedy, and although there isn’t much action, the chase scene near the end is entertaining.
Joker is not the kind of movie I’d recommend to everyone. Not even every fan of the Joker character. This is a dark, depressing and sometimes disturbing movie. It can also feel a bit too close to home if you’re either in a city that’s been in a constant state of unrest for a while, you’re in a region that’s still under intense lockdown, or you otherwise feel oppressed. Yet for those who can handle a movie like this, not only is it a brilliant exploration of mental illness and how people who seek help sometimes slip through the cracks, but it’s arguably an important film for that very reason.
Next month I’ll be catching up on a couple movies related to past blogathons that have released in the last year. I haven’t decided which one to start off with, but I will be watching New Mutants, Raya and the Last Dragon, Pixar’s Soul, and I’ll throw in some sort of bonus blog post. Then I’ll do a classic musical theme month. Not yet sure what I’ll focus on after that, but I am considering a series on the Pink Panther movie franchise.