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The First Reviews of Joker Are In. Here’s What Critics Are Saying.

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker, walking down a flight of stairs, in a still from Joker.
Joker holds the winning card!
Warner Bros.

The Venice Film Festival is in full swing on the Lido, and although attendees still have a full week of seeing movies, eating pasta, and politely avoiding any mention of the Coppa Mussolini ahead of them, it’s already clear which film will be the festival’s most twisted this year: Joker, director Todd Phillips and his co-screenwriter Scott Silver’s take on the clown prince of crime. Back in April, Joker drew comparisons to Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, and Requiem For a Dream, and that was just for a trailer. The finished film premiered Saturday, and the first responses are just as high key, particularly when it comes to Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the Joker. Some critics think he’s a shoo-in for Best Actor, others think he’s a contender for Most Acting, but no one is neutral. The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that audiences will be just as divided as critics when the film hits theaters on Oct. 4.

Here’s a sampling of what critics are saying about Joker:

It’s Not Your Average Comic-Book Movie.

David Ehrlich, IndieWire:

Todd Phillips’ Joker is unquestionably the boldest reinvention of “superhero” cinema since The Dark Knight; a true original that’s sure to be remembered as one of the most transgressive studio blockbusters of the 21st Century. … Joker is the human-sized and adult-oriented comic book movie that Marvel critics have been clamoring for—there’s no action, no spandex, no obvious visual effects, and the whole thing is so gritty and serious that DCEU fanboys will feel as if they’ve died and seen the Snyder Cut—but it’s also the worst-case scenario for the rest of the film world, as it points towards a grim future in which the inmates have taken over the asylum, and even the most repulsive of mid-budget character studies can be massive hits (and Oscar contenders) so long as they’re at least tangentially related to some popular intellectual property.

Alex Billington, FirstShowing.net:

It must be said, without a doubt, that this Joker movie will flip the “comic book movie” genre on its head. It is the most impressive, most brutal villain origin story we have ever seen. No comic book movie, even those introducing villains (e.g. Venom), have ever been as dark and brutal as this. … We have seen plenty of villains in comic book movies, but to go this far, to go this deep, this dark, and to make an R-rated movie that doesn’t hold back, is unprecedented. And it’s not a perfect movie, but then again, what is?

Owen Glieberman, Variety:

Many have asked, and with good reason: Do we need another Joker movie? Yet what we do need—badly—are comic-book films that have a verité gravitas, that unfold in the real world, so that there’s something more dramatic at stake than whether the film in question is going to rack up a billion-and-a-half dollars worldwide. Joker manages the nimble feat of telling the Joker’s origin story as if it were unprecedented.

Dan Casey, Nerdist:

With Joker, Todd Phillips has proven that he is much more than “The Hangover guy” and created one of the most unexpected and rewarding comic book movies since Logan. But simply calling Joker a “comic book movie” does it a disservice; it is a story that feels like it could be about any number of disaffected people who are marginalized by the ruthless world in which we live.

Terri White, Empire:

Phillips has said that though elements were drawn from 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke (in which the Joker is an unsuccessful stand-up), the film doesn’t follow the comic books. A bold move for a universe with such an ardent fan base, but it’s the film’s greatest asset. Not only does it, and the character, sit completely apart from the rest of the DC Cinematic Universe, but it stands apart from comic book movies entirely (even The Dark Knight, as grounded as it was). It’s a character and a movie that’s liberated, entirely. Free to be whatever and whomever it choose.

Jordan Farley, Games Radar:

Going to deeper, darker and more disturbing places than any comic book movie to date, Joker isn’t just a captivating character study, it’s a superhero—or should that be supervillain?—movie like no other.

Joker is so radically different from contemporary comic book cinema – structurally, tonally and morally – that it has more in common with Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy than it does with The Avengers or The Dark Knight. On multiple levels, it’s the most challenging, subversive and nihilistic comic book movie ever made.

Love or Hate Joaquin Phoenix’s Performance, It’s a Lot.

David Sexton, Go London:

Joaquin Phoenix gives an absolutely convulsing performance, maybe the most powerful of his career, as the Joker, Arthur Fleck. To play the role, he shed an extraordinary 52lbs, making his muscular body painfully emaciated, his already aquiline features even more cutting. An Oscar nom is on its way already.

…he is just extraordinary, always dancing and posing, often topless, working that oddly lumpy, peculiarly hard to outline body, so wasted that his muscles and bones are bulging right there beneath the skin. His face seems a similarly both very strongly defined and yet unnervingly plastic, sometimes fiercely concentrated, sometimes completely distorted in a mad grin. It’s a total physical inhabitation and one of the most alarming portraits of psychosis ever put on the screen, quite deliberately out De Niro-ing the young Robert De Niro. It’s unthinkable anybody else could have played this part now.

Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com:

If you live to see Joaquin Phoenix go to performing extremes like nobody’s business, this movie really is the apotheosis of that. As Arthur Fleck, the increasingly unglued street clown and wannabe stand-up comic down and out in what looks like 1980s Gotham (although who knows what period detail looks like in fictional cities), Phoenix flails, dances, laughs maniacally, puts things in his mouth that shouldn’t go there, and commits a couple of genuinely ugly and disgusting crimes with ferocious relish.

The Montgomery Advertiser:

The Joker gives Cesar Romero a role far removed from the suave Latins he has generally played in films. In clown makeup, wearing a constant grin from ear to ear, he is the happiest scoundrel ever.

Jessica Kiang, The Playlist:

But if the unwavering unwholesomeness of the mood is set a little too steadily, that’s only to give a baseline for Phoenix’s extraordinarily unsettling performance, which changes and jerks and heaves and zags when all laws of psychology and physics suggest it should zig. … Comparisons with Heath Ledger’s Joker are inevitable, but the two interpretations are very different, with Ledger’s Joker always possessing a steely core of cunning, almost a sophistication running through his psychosis. But there is no grandeur in Phoenix’s Arthur, not even megalomania. He is pathetic and irritating and small, and when he becomes big, it is by accident.   

Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair:

At the center of all this creeping ruin is Joaquin Phoenix, hunched and emaciated, laughing and laughing and laughing (and dancing) away. … I’ve not always gotten along with Phoenix’s mannered, muscle-strained approach to his craft, but here he makes a compelling case for going full-tilt. He somehow doesn’t condescend to Arthur’s condition, even if the movie around him sometimes does. There’s a softness cutting through the affect, a sorrow of soul that gives Joker a pale, tragic glow.

Stephanie Zacharek, Time:

In Joker—playing in competition here at the Venice Film Festival—Phoenix is acting so hard you can feel the desperation throbbing in his veins. He leaves you wanting to start him a GoFundMe, so he won’t have to pour so much sweat into his job again. But the aggressive terribleness of his performance isn’t completely his fault. (He has often been, and generally remains, a superb actor. Just not here.)

It Reminds Absolutely Everybody of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.

Xan Brooks, The Observer:

… its real inspirations are Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese’s conjoined masterpieces, each spotlighting the tawdry underside of American celebrity. Joker frames Fleck against Gotham’s neon-drenched streets in a direct nod to Travis Bickle, while his flailing stabs at stardom echo the hapless Rupert Pupkin.

David Sexton, Go London:

Joker, though a film that’s full of deranged laughter, is not funny at all – it’s more akin to a horror story. With co-writer Scott Silver, he has taken inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, both studies in psychosis. To a surprising extent, Joker is a homage to, or mash-up of, these classics.

Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com:

Darkness no longer has much to do with feelings of alienation the filmmaker wants to express or purge, as was the case with a film like Taxi Driver. It’s not about exploring uncomfortable ideas, as was done in The King of Comedy. Do you think Todd Phillips, who co-wrote and directed Joker, which references those movies so often you might suspect that the director of those films, Martin Scorsese, was enlisted as an executive producer here as a way of heading off a plagiarism lawsuit, really cares about income inequality, celebrity worship, and the lack of civility in contemporary society, three of the themes ostensibly tackled in this movie? I don’t know him personally but I bet he doesn’t give a toss.

David Jenkins, Little White Lies:

It craves that viewers draw a connection to Martin Scorsese’s 1982 masterpiece The King of Comedy and, to a slightly lesser extent, 1976’s Taxi Driver. And its toadying relationship to those films may ultimately be its undoing, in that it sits clawing at the trouser hem of some of those towering examples of modern film art. 

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times:

Robert De Niro turns up as Murray Franklin, a popular late-night TV host who becomes Arthur’s obsession and his bête noir. That inspired casting choice, an explicit nod to The King of Comedy, is merely one respect in which the movie’s grittily realistic Gotham feels indebted to Martin Scorsese’s New York. (Scorsese, who will soon return to his gangland roots with De Niro in The Irishman, at one point considered signing on as an executive producer on Joker.)

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter:

Built around a credible spiral from lonely outsider to deranged killer, it’s as much a neo-noir psychological character study grounded in urban alienation and styled after Taxi Driver as a rise-of-the-supervillain portrait. … The film is also an obvious homage to another Martin Scorsese title, The King of Comedy, with Robert De Niro playing the host of Live with Murray Franklin, a network late-night show on which it’s the dream of Phoenix’s party clown and aspiring standup comedian, Arthur Fleck, to appear.

Geoffrey Macnab, Independent:

As first encountered here, Arthur Fleck is like a cross between Travis Bickle, the vigilante loner in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and Rupert Pupkin, the would-be comedian in Scorsese’s King of Comedy. The presence in the cast of Robert De Niro (as a chat show host very like the Jerry Lewis character in the latter film) underlines the fact Joker is as much inspired by Scorsese as by the DC comic book universe.

Joker Will Create New Heavens and a New Earth: And the Former Shall Not Be Remembered, Nor Come to Mind.

Alex Billington, FirstShowing.net:

There will be before Joker. And there will be after Joker. Nothing will be the same after, we’ll be living in a whole new world. That’s not even hyperbole, just the truth. I don’t know if the world is ready for this movie. Or maybe it is? We’ll find out soon enough. There’s no stopping it now. I can’t believe it exists. But it does, and it’s coming. And no matter if we’re ready or not, it’s going to make an impact. … it is crazy. It is GNARLY. It is audacious. It doesn’t hold back. It’s subversive, provocative, dark, demented, twisted, and terrifying. 

If the Police Expect to Play Against the Joker, They Had Best Be Prepared To Be Dealt From the Bottom of the Deck!

The Joker, Batman #1:

If the police expect to play against the Joker, they had best be prepared to be dealt from the bottom of the deck! … The Joker will have the last laugh!