Review: Joker

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, October 4th. So glad you’ve joined us today. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a movie being released tonight, called Joker.

This one is billed as a super-hero genre, it has disturbing connections to real-life events. You are likely to hear about it and it is expected to draw big crowds. Be forewarned: it is R-rated. Here’s Megan Basham.

MEGAN BASHAM, REVIEWER: It seems obvious that Joker director Todd Phillips wanted to court some controversy. And not just for the disturbing content of his R-rated film. Last week, in the run up to Joker’s Hollywood premiere, he gave several interviews guaranteed to set media tempers flaring. In one he lambasted “woke culture.”

Joker earned top prizes and long ovations at last month’s Venice film festival. But since Phillips’ media tour the film’s Rotten Tomatoes score has started to drop. That probably says more about the political preoccupations of the reviewer class than sudden shifts in opinion about the movie.

I can’t recommend this violent, profanity-heavy film. But despite its problems, I have to push back against coverage dismissing it as a tantrum from another angry, white male. Joker works as a visceral gut punch because it acknowledges some of what’s driving the epidemic of rage among America’s isolated young men.

Typically, movie villains are less-than-relatable monsters. What do they want? Destruction and death. Why do they want it? The best answer the Batman mythos has come up with so far is “Some people just want to watch the world burn.” But even Satan is motivated by more than this. Pride and envy make him want to devour the chief of his rival’s creations. And pitiable, pathetic Arthur Fleck is being devoured. 

It was previously accurate to call the Joker nihilistic. Not here. To nurse grievances, one must believe in some form of justice. As played by a lurid but effective Joaquin Phoenix, Arthur believes fervently that he’s getting the short end of life’s stick. Brain damaged as a child, he’s the butt of every joke. The punching bag of every gang of street toughs. The rejected, fatherless orphan.

Added to this seething resentment, his violent tendencies are further nurtured by a pornographic environment. Phillips is surprisingly restrained with his R-rating here. We see billboards advertising strip clubs as well as vague glimpses of skin in the journal Arthur maniacally scribbles in. Enough to make it clear that his lust is compounding his loneliness. It’s impossible not to feel empathy for this excruciatingly sad clown.

Most of the controversy about the movie centers on the idea that a character who shares so many characteristics with recent mass shooters should elicit our compassion. But shouldn’t he? Shouldn’t they? Christians make great efforts to show love to murderers once they’re behind bars. But what about the strange, repellant loners before they become Jokers?

As Scottish pastor Robert Murray McCheyne wrote, the seeds of every sin known to man are in each of our hearts. Phillips’s treatment of this iconic villain, intended or not, shows that watering those seeds seems right to a man. But it ends in death.

After Arthur murders a trio of wealthy alpha males, he inspires followers who carry signs declaring “Resistance” and “Kill the Rich.” They cheer Arthur because of their own grievances, some of which have merit. Show me the human being who isn’t sinned against. The evil of Joker and his followers reaches full flower when they decide it entitles them to sin in the worst ways against others.

Comic book movies are unquestionably the collective myths of our time. But are they really the best place to explore such highly charged ideas? Phillips argues yes because superheroes movies are the only ones to get a big release these days. “Look at [it] as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film,” he said.

Ultimately though, Joker fails because of its genre. The character has to become a mastermind supervillain directing hordes of minions. He has to rise to the top so he can take on the man in black. It’s a preposterous finale that turns all that came before into a twisted fantasy. Real Arthur Flecks don’t end that way. And in a different kind of movie, a better movie, neither would this one.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from “Joker,” in theaters on Oct. 4. (Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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