‘Joker’: What to Read About the Divisive New Film

Is “Joker” a definitive movie of our time? Is it incel propaganda? Might it even be dangerous? The film arrived in theaters last week accompanied by F.B.I. warnings about the threat of related gun violence, but by Monday its international box office had already reached about a quarter of a billion dollars. Meanwhile, the debates over its politics and artistic merit raged on. Here are some of the many reviews, interviews and features that have been prompted by this dark and divisive movie.

Reviews

‘Joker’ Review: Are You Kidding Me? [The New York Times]

“To be worth arguing about, a movie must first of all be interesting,” A.O. Scott writes in his review for The Times. “It must have, if not a coherent point of view, at least a worked-out, thought-provoking set of themes, some kind of imaginative contact with the world as we know it. ‘Joker,’ an empty, foggy exercise in secondhand style and second-rate philosophizing, has none of that. Besotted with the notion of its own audacity — as if willful unpleasantness were a form of artistic courage — the film turns out to be afraid of its own shadow, or at least of the faintest shadow of any actual relevance.”

‘“Joker” Is a Viewing Experience of Rare, Numbing Emptiness’ [The New Yorker]

“What results is more than the strenuous effort to contrive a story with resonant incidents and alluring details,” Richard Brody writes in his review. “‘Joker’ reflects political cowardice on the part of a filmmaker, and perhaps of a studio, in emptying out the specifics of the city’s modern history and current American politics so that the movie can be released as mere entertainment to viewers who are exasperated with the idea of movies being discussed in political terms — i.e., to Republicans.”

‘Brilliant and Unforgettable, “Joker” Borders on Genius’ [Observer]

“Even if you hate it, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before — like waking up next to a poisonous snake nestled on your blanket, poised and ready to strike,” writes Rex Reed. And although he admits to having mixed feelings, he adds, “I think it’s the best film about the psychological effect of violence as pop art since Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange.’”

Interviews

‘“I [Expletive] Love My Life”: Joaquin Phoenix on Joker, Why River Is His Rosebud, His Rooney Research, and His “Prenatal” Gift for Dark Characters’ [Vanity Fair]

Actor Joaquin Phoenix anticipated a mixed reaction to the film’s moral ambiguity. “It’s a difficult film,” he acknowledges. “We want the simple answers, we want to vilify people. It allows us to feel good if we can identify that as evil. ‘Well, I’m not racist ‘cause I don’t have a Confederate flag or go with this protest.’ It allows us to feel that way, but that’s not healthy because we’re not really examining our inherent racism that most white people have, certainly. Or whatever it may be.” The movie isn’t a “call to action,” he insists, but “a call to self-reflection to society.”

‘“Joker” Director Todd Phillips Rebuffs Criticism of Dark Tone: “We Didn’t Make the Movie to Push Buttons”’ [The Wrap]

The director Todd Phillips explains his motivation to make the film — “a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film” — and expresses his surprise at the reaction. “What’s outstanding to me in this discourse in this movie is how easily the far left can sound like the far right when it suits their agenda. It’s really been eye opening for me.”

Commentary

‘What’s the Panic Over “Joker” Really About?’ [The New York Times Magazine]

Dan Brooks writes that the panic about “Joker” is really a panic about moral ambiguity: “Legitimate movies are about complicated protagonists who combine good and bad qualities; superhero movies are about two guys, one good and one evil. By combining them into a single guy, won’t this movie cause dummies to think the Joker is good? To ask the question is to argue that nuance is dangerous. By fretting over Arthur Fleck’s sympathetic qualities, progressive-minded critics are demanding the same sort of bright line between good and evil that makes comic-book movies so boring.”

‘Variety Critics Debate “Joker”’ [Variety]

Two critics — Peter Debruge and Owen Gleiberman — debate the nuances on both sides of the argument. Debruge is rankled by “Joker” “because it takes a fictive pop-culture icon and reinvents him as a cruelly misunderstood incel underdog.” (He does concede it would be a “big mistake to banish toxic white men from the movies,” though.) Gleiberman counters that critics are treating a movie “as if it were a two-hour advertisement for the toxic white male,” “a violation of the New Woke Rules,” adding: “But they’re trying to wish away something that can’t be wished away.”

‘The Joker Is Simply a Clown Who Loves Crime’ [The Outline]

Alex Nichols, after debunking a popular misconception about the 2012 Aurora shooter James Holmes (“he was not outwardly Jokerlike and did not tell police that he was the Joker after the shooting”), questions the repeated refrain that “violent media breeds violent behavior.” “It’s odd to hear this refrain from liberals, given that Donald Trump and the N.R.A. routinely blame video games and violent movies for mass shootings in order to steer the debate away from gun control,” Nichols writes. “But this idea has been a mainstay of both parties for decades.”

‘“Joker” — A Political Parable for Our Times’ [CNN]

“This isn’t the first time Phillips’ and Trump’s worlds have collided,” Jeff Yang notes. “Imagine Fleck as Trump,” he suggests. “Phillips may not have intended for his film to be a political parable — or maybe he did — but it’s hard to imagine a darker ending for our real-world horror-comedy than that.”

“Commentary: How “Joker” Mirrors Our Fascination With Monsters, Now in the Trump Years” [Chicago Tribune]

Christopher Borreli connects Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker to “S.N.L.” sketches and likens the film to a sketch “written the morning after the 2016 presidential election, when journalism seemed intent on understanding why so many Americans turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.” This, he writes, is why the Joker is all motives: “mental illness, bad jobs, alienation, misunderstandings, nihilism, devious co-workers, social-service cutbacks.” The Joker is what happens “when our social contract is shattered and no one — not politicians, not the rich (who are targeted in film) — are held accountable to anyone anymore.”

Features

Jokers at Every Turn at Comic Con, but They Were on Their Best Behavior [The New York Times]

Cosplay Jokers at New York Comic Con discuss the methods behind their “madness,” including Mei Velasco who “girl-ified” her Heath Ledger Joker while her husband dressed up as Harley Quinn. She also weighed in on the latest film Joker: “I feel like what he’s trying to say is that our society looks like it’s going toward that way, so this is like a warning. It’s like, ‘Hello, everybody, wake up!’”

Why the ‘Joker’ Movie Was a Risk Warner Bros. Wanted to Take [The New York Times]

“‘Joker’ got its start in 2016,” report Brooks Barnes and Nicole Sperling, “when Todd Phillips, who had directed men-behaving-badly comedies for Warner Bros. like ‘The Hangover’ and ‘Old School,’ told Greg Silverman, then the studio’s president of creative development and production, that he had a wild idea. Mr. Phillips wanted to make a gritty character study of the Joker in the mold of ‘Taxi Driver,’ dispensing with the cartoon, buildings-imploding fantasy of most superhero movies and placing the story more squarely in the real world.”

Getting the Joker’s Laugh Just Right [The New York Times]

It’s not easy to develop paroxysms of laughter, as Steve Knopper discovered during this examination of how actors have voiced the Joker over the decades. “It was rare that someone would come in to do the Joker voice for more than 20 minutes who didn’t end up bathed in sweat,” director Andrea Romano said. “It requires a tremendous amount of energy.”

The Jokers, Ranked [The New York Times]

Who laughed best? From Lego cacklers to “Suicide Squad” scene-stealers, the various Jokers are appraised for their theatricality and psychopathy. Only one can achieve the distinction of being, as Jason Bailey notes, “truly, a Joker for our time.”

How Well Do You Know the Joker’s Laugh? [The New York Times]

Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Mark Hamill, Jared Leto and now Joaquin Phoenix have all cracked up as the Joker, but which of them is which? Take this quick quiz to laugh along with them.

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