Joaquin Phoenix: A Superhero Hiding In a Supervillain’s Role

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Joaquin Phoenix: A Superhero Hiding In a Supervillain’s Role

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

A few months ago, Todd Phillips directed what could aptly be called the Fight Club of this generation — a film that would grow to be furiously popular among men of a certain age, but also generate enough controversy to keep the think-piece factory running for the next few months, at least.

There’s a reason Joker was nominated for an Oscar and Avengers: Endgame wasn’t: It was released at a time when America was grappling with a series of school shootings coupled with the rise of self-pitying “incels”. Taking into account all this context, more than a few critics ended up finding the plot of the film too real, even as others wrote glowing reviews.

Phoenix’s Joker, a mentally-ill aspiring stand-up comedian, is seen facing constant rejection because of his condition. He ends up having a meltdown and killing three businessmen in a train, before shooting a TV anchor on air. The twist: He’s met with rousing support, and placards encouraging him to go on and “kill the rich”.

While accolades have poured in for Phoenix’s portrayal of Gotham’s evilest supervillain — that laugh sticks in your heads for days — several critics pointed to a deeper problem with the film’s messaging, specifically how the younger generations may end up missing the point, and end up sympathising with the Joker.

Several critics pointed to a deeper problem with the Joker’s messaging, specifically how the younger generations may end up sympathising with the Joker.

As one such critic puts it, “Joker’s artfully constructed trailer makes the movie look energising and fun, ‘dark’ in the way that appeals to misunderstood adolescents. The Joker is one of the best-loved villains among fans of comic books and comic-book movies, maybe because moody teenagers—and sometimes adults—gravitate toward the ‘laughing on the outside, crying on the inside’ clown aesthetic.”

This morning, however, there could be no misunderstanding Joaquin Phoenix’s message, as he collected his Oscar for Best Actor. He may have won the award for playing the world’s most watched supervillain, but the actor used his moment in the spotlight to — much like others have in the past — draw the audience’s attention to very real issues.

Oscar speeches are known to be rousing, and Phoenix didn’t disappoint, initially taking a sombre tone as he spoke about social inequality and his past transgressions before adopting a more hopeful tone when reminding us of the need to live with compassion and stop plundering the planet for personal gain. While his rendition of a deranged Joker set off alarm bells at the FBI and the US military headquarters — both warned  of a potential security threat before the screening of the film — Phoenix’s speech could not have been more virtuous if he got the Dalai Lama to write it.

“We go into the natural world and we plunder it for its resources. We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow and when she gives birth, we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmisge of threetakable,” the actor, who apparently turned vegan at the age of 3 after a particularly emotional fishing expedition, said, before going on to emphasise the need for us to help “guide each other toward redemption.”

At most of these award functions, Phoenix’s delivered similar impassioned speeches stressing on the importance of gender equality, queer rights, and indigenous rights.

In the run up to the Oscars, Phoenix swept all major awards, winning best actor at the Baftas, the Critics’ Choice and Screen Actors Guild awards, and best actor in a drama at the Golden Globes. At most of these functions, he’s delivered similar impassioned speeches stressing on the importance of gender equality, queer rights, and indigenous rights. At the BAFTAs, he went a step further, calling out the British Academy for a lack of diversity, and pressing for the need to “dismantle” the “systemic racism” in the industry.

So even as the debate over Joker’s critical success may continue for a few more years — or at least until the next Batman film releases — it’s slowly turning out that the real superhero was the man behind the Joker mask all along. The film may not stand the test of time, but in the face of an impending climate disaster, Phoenix’s message probably will: “When we use love and compassion as our guiding principles, we can create, develop and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentient beings.”

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