‘Joker’ First Reactions: Joaquin Phoenix Loses His Shit in a Bold But Incel-Friendly Origin Story

Audiences at the Venice Film Festival have finally seen Todd Phillips' revisionist DCEU origin story.
Warner Bros.

“The Hangover” director Todd Phillips’ revisionist take on the beginnings of the titular DCEU villain, “Joker,” has finally world-premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and the first takes are all over the place. In his review, IndieWire critic David Ehrlich deemed the Joaquin Phoenix-starring thriller as “potentially toxic,” indebted to such incel origin stories as “Taxi Driver.”

However, Phillips’ film apparently lacks the nuance or sensitivity required of such a project in an age of rampant Reddit trollism — especially when it comes to superhero movies, which attract knives-out fanbases ready to go for the jugular (and probably in the comments section of this post). Reactions to the film bode a long season of uncomfortable discourse.

Praise is already being heaped on Phoenix’s hotly anticipated, unhinged turn as a homicidal narcissist, with “a hypnotic and inimitable performance [that] would feel completely new if it didn’t borrow so much from his past work,” wrote Ehrlich. “If Freddie Quell and Theodore Twombly stepped into the teleportation machine from ‘The Fly,’ Arthur Fleck is who they would mutate into.”

“Joker”Warner Bros.

RogerEbert.com‘s Glenn Kenny writes, “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 review continues: “Once the movie starts lifting shots from ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (and yes, Phillips and company got Warners to let them use the Saul Bass studio logo for the opening credits, in white on red, yet) you know its priorities are less in entertainment than in generating self-importance.”

Time‘s Stephanie Zacharek gutted the movie in her hilarious review: “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.)” She adds that director “Phillips may want us to think he’s giving us a movie all about the emptiness of our culture, but really, he’s just offering a prime example of it.

Vanity Fair‘s Richard Lawson writes, echoing IndieWire’s sentiments about the potential toxicity of the film, “There is undeniable style and propulsive charge to ‘Joker,’ a film that looms and leers with nasty inexorability. It’s exhilarating in the most prurient of ways, a snuff film about the death of order, about the rot of a governing ethos. But from a step back, outside in the baking Venetian heat, it also may be irresponsible propaganda for the very men it pathologizes. Is Joker celebratory or horrified? Or is there simply no difference, the way there wasn’t in ‘Natural Born Killers’ or myriad other ‘America, man’ movies about the freeing allure of depravity?”

“Joker”Niko Tavernise

Forbes, however, says it’s one of the year’s best films: “‘Joker’ is an awesome accomplishment sure to please fans of the character and of the superhero genre, as well as average viewers just looking for a terrific film for adult audiences.”

Jenna Busch of Vital Thrills praises the film’s equal-opportunity misanthropy: “I want to take a moment to mention how women are portrayed here. […] It’s not active misogyny. It’s a disregard for the depths of others, and it’s done with everyone, not just the women.”

In a five-star review, Terri White of Empire is also a fan: “Bold, devastating and utterly beautiful, Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix have not just reimagined one of the most iconic villains in cinema history, but reimagined the comic book movie itself.”

Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman writes, “Joaquin Phoenix is astonishing as a mentally ill geek who becomes the killer-clown Joker in Todd Phillips’ neo-‘Taxi Driver’ knockout: the rare comic-book movie that expresses what’s happening in the real world.”

Below, check out first reactions from Twitter. Warner Bros. unleashes the film wide on October 4 following layovers at the Toronto and New York film festivals.

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