WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Joker is shaping up to be a savvy move: By simultaneously lowering the stakes and raising expectations, the latest screen depiction of Batman's most creatively fertile villain is already scoring with its first wave of critics.
Joker premiered last Saturday (Aug 31) at the Venice Film Festival, and the early reviewer reactions were mostly positive.
The movie, which stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck/the Joker and opens on Oct 4, has a score of 87 per cent "fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes, as of press time - the best DC live-action movie score since 2017's Wonder Woman (93 per cent) - and a score of 75 on Metacritic.com.
Several publications, such as Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, highly praised Joker; the Wrap and a handful of others offered middling reviews; and Time magazine is the only major outlet so far to thoroughly trash the movie, calling it "a bunch of reaction GIFs strung together".
Director Todd Phillips lowered the stakes by detaching his stand-alone origin story from the DC Extended Universe behemoth that has grossed more than US$5 billion (S$6.9 billion) worldwide since 2013's Man Of Steel.
Everything about Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver's R-rated character study looks like a streamlined project that sheds itself of multi-movie narratives and bloated effects budget.
This, in other words, is built to be Phoenix's slimmed-down, superhero-world tour de force - unless it careens into acting farce.
The filmmakers have raised expectations by creating such a rich vehicle for one of Hollywood's most consistently interesting actors.
Can Phoenix sculpt a Joker performance distinctive enough from the late Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning turn in 2008's The Dark Knight?
And can Joker, which co-stars Robert De Niro, nod to such Martin Scorsese classics as The King Of Comedy and Taxi Driver without homage veering into aping both those De Niro films?
The critics who went to Venice - where the film reportedly received an eight-minute ovation - are mostly on board.
"Phoenix (has) crafted a layered, terror-inducing antagonist, and earned his rightful place alongside Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson in the pantheon of all-time-great Jokers," writes Marlow Stern of the Daily Beast.
"Phoenix's performance is astonishing... playing a geek with an unhinged mind, yet he's so controlled that he's mesmerising," writes Owen Gleiberman of Variety.
And Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times writes: "It's a raw, festering wound of a performance that flirts with virtuosity and redundancy alike."
Critics ultimately might diverge on whether Team Phillips has actually "reinvented", or at least "reimagined", the so-called comic book movie. But that will likely hardly matter.
In a year dominated by the record-breaking Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel and Spider-Man: Far From Home, many reviewers will welcome a Scorsese-influenced character study as an artistic palate cleanser - if not also a way forward for superhero characters that need not be tethered to a corporate universe.
If Phoenix's performance is worthy of an Oscar nomination, superhero fans and superhero-fatigued critics might alike claim an artistic victory of sorts.
In other words, why must only one camp get the last laugh?
Joker could well be a win-win - including for a studio starved for some critical love.