It seems everyone has to have an opinion about the new movie Joker, and so here’s mine.

I didn’t like it.

To begin with, I didn’t like the idea of it. I don’t really like the idea of Todd Phillips, whose recent comments about his move away from comedy smear a patina of cynical self-interest over what is already a pretty lazy and cynical piece of filmmaking.

I don’t really like the idea of Joaquin Phoenix either, who often reminds me of those tortured Hoffman performances of the 1970s, full of effort but lacking in charm. He’s fun in Gladiator (opting simply not to be in the same film as Russell Crowe but to join Oliver Reed’s team instead – and quite right too) and he’s a fine match for Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master even if that film ultimately doesn’t find anywhere interesting to go. But I had deep misgivings about his ability to portray the clown prince of crime as anything other than an introverted sociopath.

And I don’t really like origin stories, particularly not for well-established characters. Why do we have to laboriously build up who this person once was when the reason we like them (or at least are interested in them) is because of who they became? And when one filmmaker has scored such a huge success creating a version of The Joker whose origins are obscure, it seems downright perverse to spend two hours providing a definitive one.

And I don’t really like the idea of a Joker movie without Batman. The Joker is defined as the mirror-image of the Dark Knight Detective – chaotic and improvisational where Batman is ordered and methodical, venal and selfish where Batman is noble, and yet both hide their true identities behind elaborate costumes and exhibit signs of mental distress.

This idea is made pretty much explicit in the 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke, one of many obvious antecedents which feed into this magpie’s trove of a movie. While drawing on yet earlier origin stories (The Joker’s first appearance is in 1940, just one year after Batman himself) Alan Moore’s story is pretty much patient zero for the modern conception of the character. The plot is brilliantly simple. The Joker’s thesis is that the only difference between him and Batman is one bad day. As we flash back to the bad day which turned a struggling stand-up comedian into a crime lord, we watch him inflict the worst of all possible days on Commissioner Gordon, including crippling his daughter Barbara – a nasty piece of sadism which was retained in the main comic continuity.

This story, elevated by wondrous art from Brian Bolland, was a big influence on Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman where Jack Nicholson was essentially asked to reprise his performance from The Witches of Eastwick while wearing a rather limited prosthetic that makes him look like he has a nut allergy when he tries to relax his face. Heath Ledger’s version is many people’s favourite, his facial scars alluding to the “Glasgow Smile” which may have been the original inspiration for the character, and as noted he has no need of a coherent origin story.

So what can Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver add to this rich legacy? Their version of the character has a rather muddled career as a party clown / sign-twirler / stand-up comedian. He’s also afflicted with a neurological condition which makes him laugh inappropriately and a number of other ill-defined mental illnesses which do little other than perpetuate the myth that mental illness = violence. So here’s problem number one with the construction of this movie. Rather than taking an earnest sad-sack with whom it’s possible to feel some sympathy and turning him into a supervillain (as in The Killing Joke) or taking an ambitious career criminal and releasing a flamboyant theatricality as in the Tim Burton film, here we take a dangerous mental patient and make them a bit more unstable. It’s just not that interesting.

The universe rains trouble down upon Arthur Fleck. He gets beaten up; he loses his job; he’s humiliated on TV by his idol, chat-show host Murray Franklin (Robert de Niro, essentially playing a 70 year old Rupert Pupkin); his mother is lying to him about his paternity. But quickly it becomes apparent that the transformation from Arthur to Joker is going to take the full running time of the movie. This is not a half hour origin story and then a ninety minute Joker movie. We’re just going to watch a sick man suffer until finally he snaps.

Now, that’s a structure that could work. It instantly calls to mind another far superior movie, Taxi Driver, not just because of the presence of de Niro but because of the journey of the central character. But it’s noteworthy that Travis Bickle’s explosion of violence occurs at the very end of the film, whereas Arthur Fleck shoots three improbable musical-theatre fans to death about a third of the way in, and it turns out not to be a defining moment in his transformation, but a mere detail along the way.

I have other grumbles about the structure. There’s a hint at the end of the movie that possibly an incarcerated Fleck imagined the whole thing, but the fact that he appears to have fantasised his relationship with his next-door neighbour (Zazie Beetz) muddies those waters pretty fatally. And I desperately couldn’t give a shit about Penny Fleck and Thomas Wayne, nor do I have any interest in seeing Bruce Wayne’s parents shot yet again (and the meeting of a 45 year old Joker and a 10 year old Bruce Wayne creates some fairly unmanageable problems for the wider DC Universe).

But it’s the spirit of the thing which finally ground me down. Firstly, the movie has no interest in any of the victims of Fleck’s crimes. As noted, the three chorus boys on the subway are essentially never mourned and their execution is treated as an amuse-bouche when surely it should have been the main course. Neither Fleck nor anyone else misses his mother after he smothers her and although Fleck’s colleague Gary has the good grace to look shocked and scared after Fleck plunges scissors into another clown’s eye, again there’s no sense of loss, grief or anything other beyond the orgiastic excitement of seeing the blood flow.

And so there’s a queasy sense – totally unlike Taxi Driver – that the city and his misfortune is not so much corrupting and degrading Arthur Fleck, but that he is self-actualising through this process. Phoenix’s part-awkward part-graceful cavorting on those now-famous steps is probably the highlight of the movie as far as performances go – that theatricality which the character rests on is finally becoming visible – but there is no moral context given to this transformation. And at the end, when he becomes almost a messiah for an angry and violent populace, this ascension to greatness is made to seem all the more noble because it is clear that Fleck never wanted it. My hero.

Unimaginably dull for much of its running time, frequently chasing its own narrative tale and shot through with a sadistic and cynical worldview, this is a one-note film whose occasional bright spots can’t save it from its own self-loathing.

I didn’t like it.

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