Movie review: Controversy aside, 'Joker' is all setup, no punchline.

Movie review: Controversy aside, 'Joker' is all setup, no punchline. (Warner Bros/TNS)

As the comic book biopic "Joker" was opening in movie theaters to record-breaking box office last week, Twitter erupted (as it does, every time) with the news that Martin Scorsese did not think Marvel movies and presumably, by association, any superhero movies, were actually cinema. He wasn't talking specifically about "Joker," which tells the backstory of Batman's longtime archenemy and steals liberally from Scorsese's oeuvre, particularly "Taxi Driver" and "King of Comedy." He was talking about a weightlessness many detect in superhero films, a pattern of superficial motives and artificial consequences. Archetype standing against Archetype, with scant nuance.

Scorsese wasn't entirely wrong, or entirely fair.

Few filmmakers have done more to showcase the pliability of easy archetypes than Scorsese - gangsters, violent loners, con men, even holy prophets and fed-up housewives, all have grounded Scorsese's work. And "Joker," a muddied exercise with an ambitious streak, can be watched, if nothing else, as something quite similar, as yet another stress test on the durability of our blue-chip characters. You might not love "Joker," and some hate it with an intensity that suggests they don't trust its audience not to find their spirit animal in Joaquin Phoenix's portrait of the young man as a bad clown.

But "Joker" does one thing well that we have always looked to art to provide: A fresh way of understanding the contemporary relevance of a familiar, well-trodden character.

Scanning my bookshelf, this month alone has brought Salman Rushdie's "Quichotte," which pictures Don Quixote as an Indian pharmaceutical salesman, tilting at a windmill in the shape of an Oprah-like American TV host. Alongside that is Jeanette Winterson's "Frankissstein," another reimagining of Mary Shelley's classic, now as a tale of Brexit-era England and sex robots; Doctor Frankenstein, this time, is also trans. Last year, one of the most passed-around novels was "Frankenstein in Baghdad," in which the monster is stitched together with body parts found after mosque bombings.

It's a familiar, telling game, and a necessary one, sometimes shallow, sometimes radical, sometimes surprising, but the rules remain firm: here is a chance to reconsider our cultural history and weigh it against what we understand to be true right now, so that we might know ourselves. Just take any of the characters on endless repeat this Halloween month - Frankenstein, Dracula, zombies, etc. - and to trace their histories is to write a timeline of our anxieties. A year from now there will be a feature film about the early days of Tony Soprano, who, when we first met him two decades ago, was himself a kind of reworking of the mafia-don type as an exhausted, second-rate schmuck.

When characters like these endure it's because there's something foundational in their DNA that we wrestle with and always will. Frankenstein's monster allows us to voice our suspicions about technology. Don Quixote is a window into the limits of aspiration, just as our mobsters tend to present a way into the contradictions of the American Dream.

The Joker, who debuted in the first issue of "Batman," in April 1940, is an agent of chaos, a manifestation of another of our fears - the unhinged, unaccountable individual.

And so, inevitably perhaps, a day after "Joker" opened, Kate McKinnon appeared on "Saturday Night Live" as Rudy Giuliani in full Joker make-up, eager to make his rounds on news talk shows and promote crimes as policy successes. The even more relevant sketch came a week earlier, when Kenan Thompson, playing a news roundtable talking head, responded to every accusation of wrong-doing against President Trump with this:

"Ain't nothing going to happen."

The Joker began his career as a psychopath, as raw as early comics often were, then quickly evolved into a jokester; that relatively benign approach to a lunatic super villain, seen for much of the Cold War, was famously personified by Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson's takes, from the 1960s TV show and the 1989 Tim Burton film, respectively.

But for the past 25 years or so, in movies and comic books, the character of Joker has been less a criminal mastermind than a free-floating reminder nothing matters anymore.

He is more like a weather system than a person - unassailable and widely dispersed.

Heath Ledger (who will always be my movie Joker) played Joker as a cipher, providing conflicting stories of his home life and letting his victims decide the disturbing truth. More importantly, he held no motives, allowed himself no connection to another living person - he carried a chill, and existed entirely to laugh at how easily things fall apart.

Joaquin Phoenix's Joker is more like a sketch written the morning after the 2016 presidential election, when journalism seemed intent on understanding why so many Americans turned to a man they didn't fully understand. The Joker is all motives: mental illness, bad jobs, alienation, misunderstandings, nihilism, devious coworkers, social-service cutbacks. He is a result, the film says, of what happens when our social contract is shattered and no one - not politicians, not the rich (who are targeted in film) - are held accountable to anyone anymore. In "The Dark Knight," Michael Caine described the Joker like this: "Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with - some men just want to watch the world burn." That's also Phoenix's Joker, except for the apocalypse stuff. He's not a terrorist.

He's not even looking to do anything.

Phoenix's Joker has no agency, even after he becomes Joker. Which may be the point. He's no antihero. He creates a crisis inadvertently, then feels nothing. He's a well-meaning idiot pushed too far. But naivete plus self-righteousness anger can make anyone a menace. "Joker" may not have anything especially original to say about the political moment - indeed, Joker here claims to be apolitical - but if the character feels evocative of the Trump years, and an October record $96 million opening weekend suggests he definitely does, that's because he understands what a lot of people already feel: Hopelessness.

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