No one asked, but my one-line, all-in assessment of Marvel movies would be: “They’re lowering our standards.” Over the past decade or so their potent mix of CG-driven spectacle, nominally interwoven soap operatics and mildly amusing comedy have convinced millions of us that a multi-platform marketing plan is a fine stand-in for a real movie. They’ve also made the case that, beyond box office success and toys sold, genre films—comic book films—are not to be taken seriously at all.
So when a movie like “Joker” comes along and tries, however fitfully and frightfully, to be something more, to be even a faint echo of better, more ambitious movies, it seems incredibly inappropriate. It almost seems like an affront to the blending of marketing and cinema that Marvel has mandated as the standard for this kind of fare. Here is a film that is incredibly flawed, not particularly original, and potentially even harmful (though not really). And yet, it’s trying to do something that no Marvel movie has done before: it asks questions about the extreme nature of the absurd characters living in super-hero universe. It actually considers death and killing as consequential acts. And it tries, however imperfectly, to try and take its subject matter somewhat seriously.
“Joker” is not a great movie, and it certainly doesn’t live up to the prior art (“Taxi Driver,” “The King of Comedy” etc.) that it shamelessly swipes from. But it’s ambitious, at the very least. And more than that, it’s audacious. It challenges our idea of what a comic book movie is, or even should be. I’ve watched so many Marvel films that washed over me with a numbing boredom that I found it fully exhilarating to watch the many parts of “Joker” when I literally had no idea what would happen next. You just don’t get that with the Avengers et. al. You also don’t get actors doing what Joaquin Phoenix is trying to do here: suffuse an entire film with the inner life of the character he’s inhabiting. Phoenix’s performance is amazing in part because it’s actually a real performance inside a comic book movie; it’s worlds away from the self-satisfied mugging, quipping and posturing that Robert Downey Jr. fobs off as acting.
Part of what’s so confusing is that it’s really difficult to talk about “Joker” without talking about Marvel movies, because it so clearly stands as a response to that monoculture that we’ve all been smothered with for twenty-two movies now. But that’s also exactly why the movie is interesting; it represents a moment of change, of evolution. It is in a sense a reassessment of what comic book movies are, and in so doing it’s making a worthwhile—though not unassailable—contribution to the discourse, much as late period noir and western films were instrumental to expanding the possibilities of those genres. In the end, I predict, it will be remembered favorably.
Anyway, that’s pretty much what I’ve wanted to get off my chest about “Joker” after seeing it in theaters last month. Here are all sixteen movies I watched in October: