Here at Burbs, we find it important to come together to discuss our opinions and ideas about recent events in popular culture in order to develop a better overall understanding. This past weekend presented us with one of the more polarizing pop culture events of the year: the theatrical release of the newest addition to the Batman canon, Joker.
DC and Todd Phillips’s (director of The Hangover trilogy) film, Joker, had the most profitable opening weekend for a film in the history of the month of October. After generating a lot of controversy regarding the film’s themes, messages, and tone, Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix’s (the film industry’s closest thing to the character he portrays) Joker has exceeded expectations from a financial standpoint, but where does it stand from a critical perspective?
We asked some of our resident movie-goers what they thought of one of the more highly anticipated films of the year.
We will be discussing the totality of the movie, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, then we strongly encourage you to attend the next possible screening of it.
Okay, before we begin, what would you rank this movie on a scale from 1-to-10? (1 being the worst, and 10 being the best)
Ralph James: After giving it some more thought, I'd have this film at a quality 8.5 as far as watching-a-movie-and-then-rating-it goes, but I think it did a 9.5 job at achieving what it seemed like it was attempting to achieve (make the audience as uncomfortable as possible).
Jack Martin: I honestly still haven't been able to discover my final thoughts, but I've been going with 7.6. I agree with Ralph, though, it did a damn-near perfect job of setting the tone they wanted.
Evan Northrup: I can’t believe I’m rating something higher than Ralph, but I think I’m gonna give Joker a 9. Yeah, it made me more uncomfortable than a hooker in church, but I was entertained from beginning to end. I also thought the dancing and soundtrack made the film beautiful, in a disturbing, terrible kind of way.
What was the best, or your favorite, part of the movie?
Evan Northrup: From when he dyes his hair that classic Heath Ledger greasy green to the end was incredible. Everything got turned up to ten and it was a drag race to the finish.
Jack Martin: For me, I guess it’s parts. I knew a young Bruce Wayne would be in the movie but I wasn’t sure in what capacity because it was made very clear that Batman would not appear. The connecting of Arthur to Thomas Wayne, Arthur’s encounter with Bruce and Penny, and finally the gunning down of Thomas and Martha Wayne on the night Arthur Fleck is finally seen… I wasn’t expecting any of it. I loved the way they showed the origin of the Joker while simultaneously setting up Batman’s eventual beginning and the cat and mouse game between the two that we’ve all come to know.
Ralph James: Personally, I don't know how I didn't see the Zazie Beetz twist coming, but I thought that it was really impactful. Arthur was obviously a very disturbed, and complicated character, but the idea of him conjuring her up in some of his most formative moments (stand-up performance, visiting mother in the hospital, etc.) was really all I needed to see in order to understand just how mentally unstable he really is.
What was the worst part of the movie?
Evan Northrup: Damn, this question really made me realize how much I love Joker. I really can’t think of a “worst part” or anything close. I thought Thomas Wayne punching Arthur Fleck was a little too on the nose (excuse my pun) about how the rich treat those with less, but even that was an important part of Fleck’s dismal character arc.
Jack Martin: It’s not necessarily a part more so than a line. During his monologue on The Murray Franklin Show before killing Murray, Arthur says something along the lines of, “I’ve been turned away by society,” and actually used the word “society.” I felt like it could’ve been delivered without being so direct, I don’t know. It kind of sounded like “Society hates me, maaaan.” But then again, I didn’t write or direct it, so maybe Phillips had his reasoning for that.
Ralph James: I mean, c'mon, did he really have to suffocate his mother to death?
Should Joaquin Phoenix be in contention for Best Actor at the Oscars?
Evan Northrup: No matter how much the Oscars hate superhero movies, there’s no way that Phoenix won’t at least land a nomination. However, with the controversy surrounding the movie I doubt he would get enough academy votes to win. Plus he’s competing against Leo... as Rick Dalton... in a Tarantino movie... Good luck?.
Jack Martin: Yes, but like Evan said, I don’t think the Academy will vote for him. Phoenix’s performance was deeply unsettling; he did his job better than I could’ve imagined. While my final verdict on the film has hovered around a 7.6, there’s no doubt that Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck is a 10.
Ralph James: Well, let's see. It's safe to assume that either Leo or Brad Pitt will be nominated for Once Upon a Time. So there's one lock.
I also think it's safe to presume that Adam Driver will receive a nomination for his role in the unreleased Marriage Story, which is gaining early momentum and genuine praise from critics.
I wouldn't count out Willem Dafoe or Robert Pattinson for their roles in The Lighthouse either (also unreleased).
Adam Sandler is going to have to be in contention for his role in Uncut Gems, which is said to be his best performance since Punch Drunk Love.
Other than that though, I don't know who else would be regarded above Joaquin, a three-time Oscar nominated actor who deserves all the praise he's been awarded for his intense commitment to this role.*
*I saw somebody on Twitter say that Joaquin committed to this role so hard, that he actually got scoliosis in order to better dive into the character.
Do you want more superhero/villain movies to have this tone?
Evan Northrup: I don’t think any movie could ever match the tone of Joker, but I would love to see more dark superhero films that focus on character over plot. Logan is my favorite superhero film of all time and it is similar in a way, both being dark character studies focused on inner conflict more than classic villains.
Jack Martin: Definitely, but it obviously depends on the character. The reason I skipped last year’s Venom was because of the PG-13 rating. I wanted a really dark look at a character I’d only seen portrayed by Eric Forman. If I wanted to see a sheepish pothead get angry I’d start doing vlogs. But, yeah, I also think DC characters work better for this style of film; I’d love for them to produce more lower budget, more realistic R-rated takes on their IP.
Ralph James: Well, let me say this, Deadpool changed the superhero movie game for me. Both the first and the sequel are in my top five superhero movies alongside The Dark Knight, Endgame, and Thor: Ragnarok, but this Joker film in particular has the momentum to gain its way into that relatively concrete ranking of mine. While superhero movies are typically, and have been traditionally, bright spots for the community to come together as one and enjoy a hero persevering through all types of adversity, and coming out on top, this movie was anything but that.
It was a two-hour long cringe fest that made me question my own humanity for days afterwards. So, yeah, I like when movies mix things up a little bit, and sometimes it's refreshing to have a superhero or villain movie that resembles The Witch more than it does Remember the Titans. I think it's important to continue diversifying a relatively predictable genre of movies.
How does Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal stand in comparison to the legendary Heath Ledger’s?
Evan Northrup: I won’t lie, I re-watched The Dark Knight the night after I went to see Joker. What really surprised me is how much more in control Ledger seems compared to Phoenix. Like yeah, Ledger’s Joker is pretty nuts, but he knows who he is. He has a clear goal, which is to cause chaos. In Joker Arthur Fleck is a ball of contradictions, shooting people in cold blood then going home and giving his mom a bath. He has no idea who he is, or where his place in the world is, until the very end. I think we see Fleck really evolve into a Joker much more like Ledger’s at the end of the movie when he realizes what he wants, to see the world burn.
Jack Martin: They can’t be compared. Both did their own thing with a character we’d already come to know by the time their portrayals arrived on screen, but Phoenix and Ledger fulfilled different purposes. Ledger, while very much the standout star of The Dark Knight served as the opposite of Christian Bale’s Batman, and showcased a character unconcerned with chaos and the ramifications of his actions. When we’re introduced to Ledger’s Joker, he’s deeply damaged, we’re just not sure why. We see Phoenix’s Joker from his lowest point in an already-broken existence and the events that lead him to madness. Phoenix’s Joker wants to feel bad, or something, for his actions; he simply just can’t.
Ralph James: My dad texted me and asked me whose version of the Joker was better: Ledger's or Phoenix's? I replied that it would be disrespectful to compare and contrast the two performances, and I still kind of stand by that (he replied with a one-word text that said "Pussy" when I refused to answer his question).
Their renditions of the Joker are two nearly completely opposite approaches. Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight had a complicated, yet organized plan of attack, and he was also a pathological liar that couldn't decide on what story he wanted to tell the world. The only thing he really knew was that he wanted to "see the world burn." On the other hand, Phoenix's Joker became this way not because of his tendency to lie to himself and others, but because of the lies that he was told growing up and his mental health issues.
I don't think Ledger's Joker would've ever aimed to have a career in stand-up comedy, whereas Phoenix's Joker has only ever known his aspirations to become a successful comic like the one he watches on television (Robert de Niro's character, Murray). The only thing that the two have in common is that they both feel safer when they're hiding behind the mask of face paint then they do in their own, natural skin.
But, with that being said, Ledger's Joker is only on screen for 25-minutes and 15-seconds (a la Anthony Hopkins's 16-minute performance as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs), while Phoenix's Joker was at the front and center of the screen in every scene for the entire two-hour-and-change-long movie.
So, just from an impact-through-time measurement, I think that it's safe to assume that Ledger's performance was far more successful in that regard. If his Joker had received a solo film, then I think that it definitely would've been closer to a 10-out-of-10 than Phoenix's was.
Do you think that anybody else could, or would have done a better job than Joaquin at portraying The Joker? If so, who do you have in mind? (Not including Heath Ledger)
Evan Northrup: I once saw that Willem Dafoe was almost cast as The Joker for a Batman movie in the late 80’s only to get beat out by Jack Nicholson. Ever since then I’ve thought he could totally pull it off, he certainly looks like The Joker and he’s acted in some pretty weird roles (Who’s ready to see The Lighthouse next week?). But could he have done better than Joaquin? Probably not.
Jack Martin: Not this Joker. Phoenix has shown time after time that he fully dedicates himself to his characters and with Joker being the in-depth character study of Arthur Fleck that it is, there’s not another actor that comes to mind. The weight he lost, the hair, the mannerisms, the laugh. Phoenix made Arthur Fleck his own, and I’m not sure there’s anyone else who could’ve delivered such a performance.
Ralph James: This question immediately makes me think of this question: Who are the craziest sons of bitches in the world, that can also act? Does anybody even fall under the same umbrella as Joaquin Phoenix? I mean, look at some of the shit he's done, the dude is a genius while also being relatively psychotic.
The same guy who did a near perfect portrayal of the infamous Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, embodied a character who had the lack of social capacity that enabled him to fall in love with a glorified Siri in Her, and performed perhaps one of the greatest feats in recent acting history alongside the legendary Phillip Seymour Hoffman (RIP) in The Master also did that one thing on David Letterman in real-life via the guidance of Casey Affleck.
So, no, I don't think anybody is crazy enough to portray the Joker as effectively as Phoenix did, aside from the late, great Heath Ledger. And their versions of the Joker are two totally different characters.
Aside from Joaquin Phoenix, which actor or actress won the movie for you?
Evan Northrup: De Niro’s performance as Murray Franklin made me completely hate the character despite his limited time on screen, so I have to give it to him. The angry, disgusted way he delivered his lines to The Joker on his show felt like a spot on representation of how judgmental people deal with others that make them feel uncomfortable because of their blatant non-conformity to societal norms.
Jack Martin: Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck. I wasn’t able to get a full read on her character at first, but after she’s revealed to be severely delusional, it all makes sense.
Ralph James: Zazie Beetz wins everything she's ever been in. And I thought that Robert De Niro also did an excellent job portraying a late-night television host and reminded us that he's the GOAT. I agree with Jack here though, the scene that detailed her insanity was a real galaxy-brain moment.
Do you anticipate this Joker character to reappear in other DC movies?
Evan Northrup: Phoenix and Phillips have said they would be interested in working together again. If that means a potential Joker 2, then I could get down with it. Otherwise I think this character is too complex to be featured in a large ensemble cast. Joker works because it's a close study of Arthur Fleck. After that, a movie where he is simply Batman’s opponent would be disappointing.
Jack Martin: No, and I hope he doesn’t. Phoenix gave an incredible performance ,but I think his story has been told. I saw a theory that Arthur Fleck doesn’t become Joker after his fateful appearance on The Murray Franklin Show, but rather inspired the future Crown Prince of Crime to continue in Fleck’s honor. Maybe his influence will reappear but Arthur Fleck should disappear into the confines of Arkham Asylum.
Ralph James: I would give up my left leg, and Jack and Evan's, for a Phoenix-Pattinson Joker/Batman film.
Do you anticipate an incel uprising following the release of this film?
Jack Martin: LOL, no. I actually (kind of) understand where the fears of that stemmed from because of a few scenes, but like anything of that nature, if a lunatic is going to resort to violence to get a point across, then a movie isn’t going to be the final straw.
I did find it interesting that outlets like CNN kept pushing that narrative. Don’t they think constantly publishing the faces and names of people who commit atrocities and saying the movie is going to cause violence does more harm than a movie directed by the same guy who made The Hangover? Open your eyes, America. (In response to Ralph: We should have a meeting with our agents. Mine's Malizia.)
Evan Northrup: Yeah, I’m thinking not. I agree with Jack that media companies should take a closer look at their own violence promoting practices before throwing stones at Joker.
The message of this movie was interpreted by many to be, “If you’re put down by society then you have the right to go on a shooting spree,” but I think it was really trying to convey, “Look at how we treat people who don’t fit into our idea of a perfect society. Maybe we should treat them with compassion and acceptance rather than laughing, ignoring and ultimately causing more harm.”
Ralph James: I respectfully decline to answer this question. Please contact my manager and agent, Sammy Maasarani, for further questions.
How will you remember this movie moving forward?
Evan Northrup: Personally, I’ll remember it as the greatest superhero (villain, you know what I mean) origin story movie of all time, DC or Marvel. However, I also think I will always remember it in connection to the controversy surrounding it, kind of like The Interview. The wide spectrum of responses to this movie highlight a strange time in American culture and media, so I think it will be interesting to see how the public’s view of the film changes over time.
Jack Martin: I don't think a movie has ever made me think so much. Not from a "Wow, that was really thought-provoking due to it's super deep social commentary and contemporary English countryside setting," standpoint but more "I honestly don't know how to feel about that because I don't know how it made me feel." It's been days since I've seen it and I filled out this whole digest and I still don't truly know my thoughts on it.
Ralph James: I'll remember it as one of the few movies that made me feel one specific way so profoundly. I was cringing for nearly 120-minutes straight, and I appreciate films that can impact me in such a successful way.