Joker is a classic villain, opposite the classic hero Batman. The new Joker movie is an origin story that treats him sympathetically. We see how circumstances and personality can combine to turn a sad but loyal citizen into a vicious villain.
The basic formula is simple, but quite well-executed, especially via the remarkable acting performance of Joaquin Phoenix. We start Joker out as a pretty ordinary if weak person, hungry for respect that he doesn’t get. We pile on abuses and crises, under which he slowly cracks. We give him the respect and attention he craves only when he is violent, and so tempt him toward more. He starts out admirably restrained in his response to quite unfair abuse, then we slowly ratchet up the size of the abuse, his sometimes out-sized response, and his comfort level with that response. He slowly becomes more confident, graceful, and charismatic, and he is surprised to learn he doesn’t feel so bad about what he’s done. With no clear bright line crossed, the movie dares the viewer to judge when exactly he has gone too far.
In addition, the movie subtly makes Joker seem creepy, right from the start. (“Creepy” = ambiguous threat.) That is, though what he overtly does seems mostly restrained and reasonable, at least for a while, and though we make him understandable and sympathetic, we also pile on subtle and largely unconscious cues that he can’t be trusted. We combine signs that he’s low status and has poor social skills with signs that he’s prone toward physical outbursts. We make sure he seems self-absorbed, and that his gaze and voice seem guarded, i.e., overly controlled and evasive. Joker chain smokes, often laughs uncontrollably, often has his legs shake uncontrollably, lives among garish home furnishings, wears white socks with dark pants and shoes, and is bad at reading what others will think is funny. He often fails to read or anticipate how others do or will react to what he does.
Audiences love the Joker movie:
After three impressive weekends in a row at the box office, Joker is on track to become the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time.
With Democratic candidates competing to advocate unprecedented extreme redistribution schemes, you might think left-leaning movie critics would love a film about a downtrodden guy who, suffering from public service cutbacks, starts a political movement to resist the rich and powerful. But in fact elite critics mostly hate it:
Joker … preview provided social media with the one thing it will not tolerate: moral ambiguity. … What critics … seem to fear is that Arthur Fleck … is also the kind of person we imagine would be very excited about the Joker movie in real life. … He thinks he’s taking revenge on an unjust world. This makes him look like an element of society we associate with senseless violence in real life: lonely, male and emotionally stunted. … David Ehrlich of Indiewire called it ‘a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels’ … At Slate, Sam Adams wrote that ‘no matter how emphatic Phoenix’s performance, it feels like a risk to feel too much for him, not knowing who might be sitting next to you in the theater using his resentments to justify their own. … has led reviewers to condemn the kind of moral ambiguity that was supposed to distinguish art from crass commerce in the first place. … won’t this movie cause dummies to think the Joker is good? To ask the question is to argue that nuance is dangerous. … failure to maintain critical distance… projected onto…audience that critics imagine to be more suggestible than themselves— insanely more suggestible, almost comically so… critics telling us, in a tone of concern for their fellow man, that these losers are total misanthropes. (more).
Apparently Joker being a low status white male who uses a gun to gain respect is a deal-breaker for them – that’s just too much like those incels and Trump supporters.
I’d say the movie actually pretty clearly disapproves of Joker’s actions toward the end; this is the origin story of a famous villain after all. It also disapproves of the rioting mobs that he inspires. Even if the rich and powerful have been mean to the poor and weak, wild angry rioters just make things worse. As Tyler says, “it is the most anti-Leftist movie I have seen, ever”. Which may also be why left-leaning critics hate it.