“Joker”: Rebirth or death?

Sienna Axe, A&E Reporter

Depending on who you ask, “Joker” (2019, dir. Todd Phillips) either marks the rebirth of the comic book movie or the death of art.

While it was released to wider audiences on Oct. 4, 2019, the film initially premiered in competition at August’s Venice International Film Festival — the first comic book movie to do so — and won the Golden Lion, the festival’s top prize.

So, what exactly is it about “Joker” that sets it apart? What about the century’s third method actor “Joker” iteration made Venice’s jury see fit to place it alongside past winners, such as Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” and the Encounters staple, “The Battle of Algiers”?

Sophomores Justin Ferland and Bridget O’Brien, who saw the film twice, think the answer may lie in the film’s more down-to-earth, less action-packed style.

“The reason I liked it more than other superhero movies was because it just didn’t really follow the same plotline that normal superhero movies did,” O’Brien said. “There was violence, but I didn’t notice the kind of fight scenes that you see in other movies I’ve watched, and that’s one of the things that deters me from watching superhero movies.”

“There were not a ton of CGI, fantastical things,” Ferland said. “There weren’t spaceships or things that couldn’t exist. It’s like a comic book story told in reality, which I thought was very different.”

For others, the distinguishing factor is the film’s tone, something first-year Andrew Casterella described as “dreadful.”

“Not as in it was bad, but it makes you feel like — you dread it, essentially. It doesn’t make you feel good, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he said. 

First-year Simon Fitts believes the tone was largely the product of the film’s cinematography and sound design.

“It was amazingly well-shot,” he said, “[and] the score and the sound — it really set the mood for every moment, as well as [building] up tension… I’ve never had my skin crawl for the first third of a movie as much as this because just the cinematography and the sound design made everything super uncomfortable in a good way.”

For Casterella, the film’s grim tone was occasionally too much.

“The cinematography was very good… everything seemed like it had all been planned,” Casterella said. “The ambiance was good, but it was a little over-the-top like they made the city look dirty… literally everything had graffiti on it.”

“Joker” is no stranger to the concept of being over-the-top.

In one oft-cited example of the film’s ability to transcend reality, a drunk stranger trying to bully Joaquin Phoenix’s titular character sings the entire first part of Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” from memory, a scene many critics are quick to call unrealistic. While it seems both critics and Whitman students agree that Phoenix’s performance was more than good enough to carry the film, there are some who would call the plot simplistic.

“I thought that it was a good movie,” Casterella said. “It wasn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen in my life, I don’t think — I mean, it’s pretty simple. And that’s not a bad thing, but it’s a pretty just straightforward plot — there’s not a lot of symbolism, I found.”

Fitts agrees that the plot is somewhat simple, but believes that in this case, the good outweighs the bad.

“The point is that it’s more about this character and his evolution into the Joker, and not the story itself,” he said. “I thought it was very well done, how… he slowly became more and more insane, as well as just getting into his head and how he was reacting to everything.”

Personally, I didn’t understand the appeal of “Joker” while I was in the theater. To me, it was a grim story, and at times too excessive with its message. I am, however, interested in how this will affect the film industry going forward; will we see more films like this one at festivals in the future, and if so, how will other, smaller films fare? The answer remains to be seen, but hey, as “Joker” and Frank Sinatra both want so badly for us to understand: that’s life, as funny as it may seem.