We initially missed Joker in cinemas, then the pandemic kept delaying things, but obviously we've been aware of the hype. I'd say the film lived up to those inflated expectations in almost all ways: the acting was phenomenal, pacing was excellent, sound and score were perfect (though we did benefit a little on that front from the live orchestra 😉), plot nuanced and rich. I even thought the wider DC inclusions around the Wayne family to be well thought through and fitting for the story. Indeed, whilst it's fairly common now to see Batman's villains have an origin that centres around the unintended side effects of vigilante justice, I thought it was a fun twist to turn that on its head and have the hero be formed by the actions of the Joker, for once; it's a neat mirroring of the normal origins for the two characters.
Honestly, I have very little bad to say about the movie. I'd heard a few people complain that it could have been just as good as a standalone film, that it didn't really need to be about the Joker at all, but I think that's missing the point. The film could take liberties with the plot, with the character, and with the aesthetic simply because people know the Joker, they know what the villain becomes, and that gave it greater scope to spend time really driving home the more important messages at the core of the story. After all, superheroes (and supervillains) are best when their actions, causes, and realities teach us about our own society; when they are used as the lens through which to pinpoint and critique elements of ourselves.
If anything, I think Joker is a little too heavy-handed in that regard. The core messages about mental illness, broken social care systems, and the devolution of society towards individualism, along with all the moral failings and ills that such realities create, it's all plain as day. Perhaps the film could have been a bit cleverer, subtler, artsier... but perhaps that's missing the point. These are real, genuine failings across pretty much all modern countries and governments. Perhaps the black-and-white starkness of the film is necessary to hammer that home. Yes, it's all taken to an extreme, but isn't that the way fables always work?
And for fans of the comics, there's still a huge amount going on here to delight and intrigue. Phoenix is brilliant in the titular role (even if there were more than a few flashes of Ledger, he does succeed in making it his own), and I thought the various twists were done really nicely. In particular, the girlfriend reveal was executed so well. The whole time I was thinking that something felt off about that situation, it felt like the director had just needed to fill time or provide the plot with a slight moral compass, but then the delusional revelation just really hammered the whole situation home. Plus, as mentioned, the Wayne family is woven into proceedings cleverly, and the whole brother subplot was left on a delightful question mark that allows the story to fit into individual headcanon without treading on any toes or getting in its own way. In fact, I thought the ending did this even better: a classic twist on Joker origin stories is to flash forward to a discussion with a psychiatrist or other individual seemingly getting the story out of the Crown Prince of Crime once and for all, only for that grin and laugh to make you wonder if the whole story was just that: a tall tale. So we have this film ends with a weirdly off-kilter few scenes that never really imply anything, but can be read how the fan wants, to either be another fictional tale or to be an accurate account of events. It's up to you, and that's kinda fun.
Still, if anything, the film is a little too hooked into the current zeitgeist. I'm not sure how I feel about ending up rooting for the murderer whilst watching a whole city burn. But then, Joker has a point. His TV interview is perfectly executed, his embrace of chaos, and the utter despair at a system so utterly broken... it just comes together like a thunderclap. You don't end up feeling good about things. It doesn't give you that glow that you get when the superhero saves the world and still makes it home in time for tea. But you do get a sense of righteous fury, of anarchistic glee, that shows just how neatly woven the plot is. Send in the clowns, I guess.