Variety Critics Debate ‘Joker’

It has been a month since “Joker” had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and in that time Todd Phillips’ dark DC comic-book-villain movie has taken quite a journey. At Venice, it was greeted by rave reviews and rapturous audiences, and it won the Golden Lion (unheard of for a comic-book film). Yet in the weeks since, the movie has been caught in a twitterstorm of criticism, as well as a wave of opening-week reviews that are far from universally enthusiastic. Some love it, some hate it. Yet maybe there’s a poetic justice to the fact that “Joker” has proven to be as divisive as everything else now is in America. The controversy is reflected in the opinions of Variety’s two chief film critics. Owen Gleiberman is a “Joker” believer; Peter Debruge, not so much. What follows is their debate about whether “Joker” is a work of popular art or a serious-blockbuster poseur.

Owen Gleiberman: Peter, I have a confession to make. I have just seen a movie that struck me as an outrage. A scandal. An irresponsible exploitation fantasy. A dangerous provocation. A piece of rabble-rousing incel propaganda. A piece of studio product masquerading as a ’70s-style art film. A crime against humanity.

Actually, I’m joking! I did just go to see “Joker” for a second time, and I don’t believe the picture is any of those things. I think it’s a drama of enthralling and scabrous power, all rooted in the fantastic ambivalence with which we’re asked to view the central character. Joaquin Phoenix’s mesmerizing performance invites us, in every scene, to share a communion with Arthur Fleck, a mentally damaged geek with a curdled anger he has no outlet for. For two hours we’re plugged into his misery, his rage, his dreams, his demented defense mechanisms (like his 12 shades of put-on laughter), his whole sad-sack wallowing loser-ness, and, finally, his emergence as a showboating psycho outlaw. Yet we’re also asked to stand back and behold the fact that he’s such a deeply cracked nut. Our identification is laced with trepidation, our sympathy edged with woe. All of which makes “Joker” the rare blockbuster with an audacious psychological and emotional heft to it — and, in the end, a kind of transgressive awe.

Peter Debruge: Well, Owen, you took the words right out of my mouth — well, some of them anyway — by attempting to defuse my argument before I have the chance to make it. You see, I found myself among those who feel outraged by “Joker,” director Todd Phillips’ disingenuous and angry-making stand-alone spinoff/prequel to the Batman franchise, which is pretending to be one thing — a gritty alternate origin story for the DC vigilante’s most compelling villain — and turns out to be, in your words, “an irresponsible exploitation fantasy.” Now, I should confess that I’ve always had trouble with this genre. Not comic book movies, though I find it tough to care about men in tights (they’re nearly always men) vanquishing threats that have no bearing on the real world. I’m talking about sympathetic portraits of sociopathic characters, like “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” (in which a deranged serial killer is played by a no-resemblance Zac Efron), “Chapter 27” (featuring a doughy Jared Leto as the man who assassinated John Lennon) and, yes, to some extent even “The Irishman” (which at least has a soul).

You’ll notice I didn’t name any of those real-life murderers, and that’s because I think there’s a disturbing kind of glorification process that occurs when filmmakers take such reprehensible humans and build a movie around their misdeeds, almost always under the pretext of trying to “understand” them, when the filmmakers’ actual motivation clearly involves re-creating their crimes in disturbingly graphic detail. That’s what makes them exploitation movies. Yes, it’s important to understand what makes such people snap, but this treatment puts the criminals on a pedestal above their victims. “Joker” rankled me even more because it takes a fictive pop-culture icon and reinvents him as a cruelly misunderstood incel underdog, referencing Robert De Niro’s deeply broken characters in “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” as spiritual role models. Phillips gives Fleck genuine reason to hate the world, which the movie portrays as a cruel, crime-infested cesspool where Bruce Wayne’s father is treated as a Donald Trump caricature (around the time he went on TV to push for the death penalty in the case of the Central Park Five), and then invites us to cheer when a series of violent outbursts become the Joker’s new origin story. Frankly, I don’t think Phillips is the slightest bit interested in the psychology of Arthur Fleck.

OG: If you say you have trouble with films that create “sympathetic portraits of sociopathic characters,” I guess that’s an argument. But it’s a terribly conservative one. The same argument, and outrage, was once used as a weapon against movies like “The Public Enemy” and “Scarface,” and you could easily wield it against a work of art like “Bonnie and Clyde” — as, indeed, the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther famously did at the time. If you really want to make the Bosley Crowther argument against “Joker,” be my guest. But I would point out that none of these films, including “Joker,” are really about “glorifying” misdeeds. By using a word like “exploitation,” you’re trying to tar “Joker” by suggesting that it works in a vicious, bloodthirsty, non-empathetic way, but sorry, that’s not what’s onscreen. The sequence where Arthur kills a trio of Wall Street scumbags does put us squarely on his side, but later on the violence in the film becomes ugly and — in the most spectacular sequence, which takes place on live television — suck-in-your-breath shocking. And the power of the movie isn’t that it’s asking us to “get off” on the violence. It’s that it’s inviting us to enter the twisted heart and mind of someone who comes alive through hate. That’s a very different thing, and a daring thing for a mainstream movie to do; I dare say it’s closer to Dostoevsky than “Death Wish.” And it’s why “Joker” taps so powerfully into our current moment.

PD: “Bonnie and Clyde” belongs to a long tradition of true-crime stories, tracing back to quickie 19th-century pulp novels that aggrandized the exploits of real-life outlaws. The movie came out long before I was born, but I’m on record as disliking that classic, albeit for an entirely different set of reasons. I appreciate works of art that view morally complex characters in more nuanced terms than “bad” and “good.” But I’m unapologetically conservative when it comes to movies like “American Psycho” and “Natural Born Killers,” which exaggerate and even parody horrific acts of violence, the way “Joker” does during the scene in which two of Fleck’s co-workers visit his apartment. Despite the veneer of seriousness Phillips gives the project, “Joker” is a textbook example of exploitation cinema, cashing in on not only the current superhero craze (people would ignore this movie if it weren’t leveraging the character’s name recognition to achieve must-see status), but various other burning trends in popular culture to make a quick half-billion bucks.

On the surface, it’s sly to preempt the creation of Batman (the film puts the Waynes’ back-alley murder into fresh context) by suggesting that Fleck was in fact the original vigilante, before Bruce Wayne got the idea. But the logic doesn’t hold. Phillips shows audiences those three Wall Street bullies brutalizing Fleck on the subway, but the public can’t possibly guess that’s what happened, so it makes no sense that this clown would ignite some kind of “kill the rich” fervor the way he does in the film. Phillips’ script is riddled with such plot holes, betraying the mythology of a legendary antagonist and transforming him into a pathetic provocation.

OG: A trio of Wall Street jerks are killed by a subway gunman reported to be wearing a clown face, in a story that’s splashed all over the tabloids. And the public “can’t possibly guess what’s happened”? It’s your argument that makes no sense, Peter. The “kill the rich” insurrection in “Joker” is totally believable, and incendiary, on its own terms. It arrives at a moment when Donald Trump, cornered on the right, is out to raise the specter of civil war, and when those on the left have fallen into a class-war rage not seen since the 1930s. I think audiences are going to feel those unruly passions rippling through the movie.

But look, I’d rather address the core of your argument, which is revealing in its blanket anti-comic-book elitism. You say, “People would ignore this movie if it weren’t leveraging the character’s name recognition to achieve must-see status.” Let me put that in a less condescending way: The comic-book film is the dominant movie genre of our time, and no character in its history is more fabled and fascinating than the Joker, the most grandly mythological of all Batman villains. So why is a movie that imagines his origin story with a rare kind of wild-card depth and maniacal darkness an act of “leveraging”? On the contrary, “Joker” is the most radical — and transfixing — studio blockbuster in years. Yet I think you’ve inadvertently captured where a lot of the critical hostility to the movie is coming from. Namely: Critics have built up so much resentment toward the comic-book genre that even now, when someone makes a spiritual companion piece to “The Dark Knight,” it has to be dismissed as cynical fake-edge product. Personally, I was bowled over by the way that “Joker” makes the character’s evolution into something spooky and unprecedented. When Arthur finally puts on that costume, he’s terrifying, because we see and experience what the comics, at their heart, are really about — letting us touch a kind of madness.

PD: None of it feels believable to me: not the idea that Fleck aspires to being a stand-up comic, nor the wild twist involving his connection to the Wayne family, and least of all Joaquin Phoenix’s over-the-top performance, which feels like a mockery of anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider. There are plenty of critics out there taking a much more extreme stand against this movie. Personally, I don’t buy the argument that the movie will inspire violent acts of copycat behavior in our culture any more than I do the idea that Fleck’s outburst on the subway would spark a movement. But I do think that Phillips has given incel types a poster boy for the kind of toxic “it’s everybody’s fault but mine” mentality, reinforcing the delusions of their own victimhood, and I worry for the women dating young men who have this version of the character pinned to their dorm room walls.

For the record, I’m not anti-comic books. I just dislike most of the movies they’ve spawned and the overall shallowness of character that audiences accept from the genre — which defies so much of what Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and others have brought to the graphic novel form. I tend to love the first act of superhero movies, when an ordinary guy struggles to adapt to a life-changing transformation, then tune out when characters start shooting lightning bolts out of their eyes. On paper, “Joker” should have been right up my alley. But it’s not sincere about its psychology, using some made-up condition to explain Fleck’s freak status. In a world where “Hamlet” and other Shakespeare plays get re-staged multiple times each year, I’m not opposed to multiple, conflicting takes on a character like Joker. What Heath Ledger did with the character in “The Dark Knight” was entirely unexpected, and scary. But Phillips is no Christopher Nolan. You can’t just slow things down, make it dark and call the result “artistic.”

OG: Well, first of all, Arthur isn’t a victim of “some made-up condition.” He’s a victim of a life singed by child abuse, which the film graphically describes. His adoptive mother was a lunatic! That’s one reason why the film isn’t just “blaming society” for the fact that Arthur turned into a freak. (Pet peeve: I’m amazed at the number of critics who have taken Arthur’s description of his psychological “condition” — the one that causes him to laugh uncontrollably — as if it were…an actual condition! One that you could look up in the DSM-5! It’s not a condition, folks. It’s just Arthur rationalizing his compulsive fake laughing jags.) But beyond that, Peter, when you call Arthur a “poster boy” for angry self-pitying incel types, I do think you’re onto something — not about whether he’s going to become a hero to the basement dweller brigade, but about the true, underlying reason why there’s been so much hostility to “Joker” on the part of film critics who routinely greet utterly processed comic-book films with a wan shrug of approval.

The movie is being treated by those critics as if it were a two-hour advertisement for the toxic white male. It almost doesn’t matter whether the film is glorifying or condemning Arthur’s violence. Everyone knows that “Joker” is going to be a huge hit — and, more than that, a phenomenon — and the fact that it places a toxic white male at the center of the conversation is somehow being slammed as a violation of the New Woke Rules. The critics are saying: We’re done with characters like this! But they’re trying to wish away something that can’t be wished away. In doing so, they’re treating the rare piece of popular art with a genuine emotional danger to it as if it were the enemy.

PD: When it comes to characters like this, the new rules aren’t so different from the old ones, although as early as the Venice/Toronto film festivals, I detected a sense of left-leaning political outrage in the pile-on against “Joker.” Onscreen sociopaths have always been received with some measure of “save the children!” alarm, and in this case, the case is amplified by the Aurora shooting, when a killer in a vaguely Joker-esque disguise opened fire on a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.” But it would be a big mistake to banish toxic white men from the movies. We live in a patriarchal, white supremacist culture, and as such, movies dissecting the dudes in power are a necessary tool in unpacking and challenging that dynamic — if anything, that sounds like an argument for the film’s existence. But it’s one that greeted “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” back in their day, and, to an even greater degree, Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” — all three of which Phillips overtly references in “Joker.”

I have a slightly different hunch about the hate, informed by my own reaction: Because this is a superhero spinoff, we expect a certain kind of movie going in, but Phillips switches genres on us. “Joker” isn’t a comic-book adaptation in any conventional sense, but a kind of horror movie, in the vein of “Psycho” or “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” where the main character is the villain. “Joker” sucks all the fun out of a flamboyant character. I miss Jack Nicholson’s extravagant theatrics and Ledger’s deranged determination. Like Jared Leto’s manic take from “Suicide Squad,” it’s the wrong answer. (Not every actor knows how to play Hamlet.) Phillips doesn’t give us Joker as a gleeful anarchist but, rather, Joker as a creepy nihilist. You want a radical studio movie willing to take emotional risks? Try “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which stars Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers, but isn’t at all the toothless nostalgia grab such a project would suggest on paper. Rather, it dares to defy the burning social rage in evidence today and makes a case for kindness. I’ve never seen a studio blockbuster halt midway through to take a minute of silence, but this one does, inviting audiences to participate in the therapeutic exercise. By contrast, it feels like “Joker” is just throwing gasoline on the fire.

OG: I think it’s exposing the fire, and that’s cathartic. The old “save the children” mentality was a holdover from the 1950s. But I don’t get how contemporary liberal critics, who can celebrate Joaquin Phoenix in a walk-on-the-wild-side art thriller like “You Were Never Really Here,” somehow feel that audiences need to be protected from what he does in a film like “Joker.” If you don’t like the movie, then fine, but there’s an incredible snobbery built into the notion that this film isn’t good for you, and that America’s movie reviewers can save us from its dire influence. I would argue that a much greater danger in American culture today is the deep unreality of so much entertainment — the fact that we’ve become a nation of fantasists. That’s something that “Joker,” in the disturbing force of its violence, rejects. What’s more, the movie identifies the fraudulence of pop culture as its own kind of demon. In “Joker,” the late-night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin stands in for an America hooked on fake laughter, fake fun, and a kind of surface snark that channels angry, hateful undercurrents. Arthur is on some level a fanboy gone wrong, and part of his problem is the dream that seduced him in the first place — that he could be funny, and famous, and loved. In the culture of celebrity addiction, Arthur doesn’t just represent “incels.” He represents everyone who wants to be a star and would blithely trash their own humanity to do it.