“Joker” tops my list of films I have no intention of seeing this fall.
So why, when asked to write about director Todd Phillips’s new Batman villain origin film, did I say, “yes”?
Because as I’ve realized in the week since “Joker” opened in theaters, this is a movie that has crushed the souls of many women who write about film. Their reviews aren’t just negative; several female critics seemed deeply concerned that so many Americans are seeing this film, which grossed $94 million at the box office last weekend, setting a record for October film openings.
“Perhaps the most depressing film I’ve ever seen,” The Hollywood Reporter’s Tatiana Siegel tweeted. “Unrelenting nihilism. The utter absence of hope. Humorless & lacking empathy.”
Like many other journalists who have weighed in on the movie, Siegel praised Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Batman’s green-haired nemesis. But as a reporter who has covered the Harvey Weinstein story — and accusations of sexual misdeeds against many other reprehensible men in the entertainment industry — her assessment that a comic book movie conveys an “utter absence of hope” seems particularly damning.
In formal reviews, female critics have been equally appalled. And as a critic myself — albeit one who typically assesses live theater and dance performances — I recognize that many of their reviews go far beyond the usual this is bad, don’t waste your time and money formula.
Slate’s Dana Stevens, one of North America’s highest-profile critics, acknowledged that while she went in curious about what Phoenix would do with “the role of an evil comic-book clown,” the film turned out to be a “grimy and relentlessly downbeat fable. … Joker is a bad movie, yes: It’s predictable, cliched, deeply derivative of other, better movies, and overwritten to the point of self-parody.”
Stevens surmised that the first third of the movie is about drumming up pity for future serial killer Arthur Fleck, while the remainder of the film “wallows in that disgust, seeming to relish the bathos of its own protagonist’s abjection and isolation.”
Time magazine’s Stephanie Zacharek went even further, using her platform as a Pulitzer Prize finalist to condemn the trailer for making the film look too “energizing” and “fun,” and deliberately marketing the movie to the sort of misunderstood adolescents who could potentially become mass shooters. While Zacharek stresses that violent films do not beget violence, she also references — as many other commentators have — the Aurora, Colo., mass shooting in which James Holmes barged into a Colorado movie theater and killed 12 people during a screening of the 2012 Batman film, “The Dark Knight Rises.”
“Phillips may want us to think he’s giving us a movie all about the emptiness of our culture — but really, he’s offering a prime example of it,” Zacharek wrote. Phillips, who is best known for directing raunchy, comedic bromances like “The Hangover” franchise and “Starsky & Hutch,” presents Fleck as a man beset by misfortunes, from unrequited love to Gotham City budget cuts that block access to his psychiatric meds. In “Joker,” Zacharek says Phillips wants viewers to pity Fleck because “he just hasn’t had enough love,” but what he’s done is create a protagonist who could become the “patron saint of incels.”
Because she attended the film’s premiere in late August at the Venice International Film Festival and wrote one of the earliest negative reviews, Zacharek “became a target of angry, derogatory, sometimes aggressively misogynistic missives from people who haven’t yet seen the movie,” she wrote.
Speaking with me by phone, Zacharek shared more specifics about the trolls who came at her with “sick burns” both on Twitter and Instagram. One called her a “lonely old hag.”
“It was just so stupid,” she said. “How many of these people are out there? These are people who don’t think things through, and if this is the audience that this movie is courting, that proves my point.”
Go to the website Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates movie reviews, scroll through the reviews from top critics and you’ll see that other women joined the concerned chorus, including The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday and Leah Greenblatt of Entertainment Weekly. “The message this one hammers home again and again — that life is nasty and short; that no one cares; that you might as well burn it all down — feels too volatile, and frankly too scary, to separate from the very real violence committed by young men like Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck in America almost every day,” Greenblatt wrote.
As charted by Rotten Tomatoes, all but one of the top-tier female critics gave “Joker” a poor review, yet the film still ended up with a 68 percent rating from critics overall.
“The supervillain origin story to beat all origin stories,” rhapsodized the Toronto Star’s Peter Howell, reviewing the North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
And then there was the take from Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper, who previously co-hosted “At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper” alongside Roger Ebert. Roeper’s review came out Oct. 2 with proverbial guns blazing. The opening paragraph: “It’s difficult to fathom anyone who has actually seen ‘Joker’ coming away with the impression it’s a sympathetic origin story or it glorifies mob violence and bloody anarchy.”
In case you didn’t get it the first time, Roeper restates his case in the fourth paragraph: “the MOVIE itself doesn’t glorify violence, nor does it ever paint this psychopath in anything approaching a favorable spotlight.”
To be sure, there are plenty of male critics who also wrote negative reviews, but it appears that if the ratio of female-to-male critics were higher, the film’s Rotten Tomatoes rating would be much lower. According to a 2019 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, male critics outnumber female critics by approximately a 2 to 1 ratio.
“The sheer volume of violence in many films today — particularly the happy violence found in films like ‘Deadpool,’ and the justified violence of ‘Cold Pursuit,’ ‘John Wick 3,’ and ‘Death Wish 2,’ in which we are encouraged to cheer killing, is deeply disturbing,” Martha Lauzen, director of the center and author of the report, wrote in an email.
Like me, Lauzen has thus far avoided seeing “Joker.” She shared her displeasure that studios keep avoiding taking any responsibility for the “happy violent” content they create. For example, the statement released by Warner Bros. regarding “Joker” says, “It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”
Lauzen’s annual study on women’s representation in the world of film criticism, first conducted in 2007, tracks the gender and racial breakdown of critics and how they respond to certain key factors in films. For example, this spring, 62 percent of the reviews penned by men were about movies with male protagonists, while 46 percent of reviews written by women were about male main characters. It’s unclear whether that disparity has to do with the reviewers’ preferences or simply the assignments they received. The study also found that female critics tend to give higher ratings to films with female protagonists, compared to male critics.
“Whether male critics are more likely than females to gravitate to more violent films, rate them more highly, or evaluate them more positively are open questions,” Lauzen noted. “We simply don't know the answer to that question from a quantitative perspective.”
Zacharek was hesitant to weigh in on why women who write about film have responded to “Joker” with such visceral disgust. When she wrote her initial review in Venice, she said she did so alone in her hotel room after merely “sharing an eye roll” with a colleague. She was later shocked to learn so many Venice viewers responded positively to the comic-book movie, which won the festival’s prestigious Golden Lion award, a prize that typically goes to a well-reviewed art house film, like last year’s atmospheric Mexican drama “Roma.”
Given the growing hype surrounding “Joker,” however, she was not surprised when audiences started rolling in following the film’s Oct. 4 wide-release date. Zacharek said she’s recovering from her “Joker” review, and the online vitriol it sparked, with the usual coping mechanisms she relies on after seeing a gratuitously violent film: She takes long walks to clear her head and maybe has a cocktail. And she tries to move on. “This is the last time I’m talking about ‘Joker,’” she said.
But likely not the last time she writes about it.
“The thing that’s depressing about all this is that when a movie like ‘Joker’ does well, that means there will be more movies like ‘Joker’ coming down the pike. And I think, ‘Oh my gosh. That’s going to make my job harder,’” Zacharek added. “That’s the way the world works.”