Joker ★★½

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. It’s also a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels, and a hyper-familiar origin story so indebted to “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” that Martin Scorsese probably deserves an executive producer credit. It’s possessed by the kind of provocative spirit that’s seldom found in any sort of mainstream entertainment, but also directed by a glorified edgelord who lacks the discipline or nuance to responsibly handle such hazardous material, and who reliably takes the coward’s way out of the narrative’s most critical moments.

“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. The next “Lost in Translation” will be about Black Widow and Howard Stark spending a weekend together at a Sokovia hotel; the next “Carol” will be an achingly beautiful period drama about young Valkyrie falling in love with a blonde woman she meets in an Asgardian department store.

“Joker” is a movie about a homicidal narcissist who feels entitled to the world’s attention — a man who’d rather kill for a good laugh than allow the world to treat him like its punchline. It’s also a movie about the dehumanizing effects of a capitalistic system that greases the economic ladder, blurring the line between private wealth and personal worth until life itself loses its absolute value. Phillips, whose cinematic legacy was previously defined by the “Hangover” trilogy and that scene in “Road Trip” where he cast himself as a random creep who sucks on Amy Smart’s toes, has made a film that is somehow all of these things at once: It’s a visionary, twisted, paradigm-shifting tour de force and a bar-lowering mess of moral incoherence. It’s nothing less (and nothing more) than an agent of unbridled chaos.


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