Joker Review: In a World Cluttered by Clown Princes, Joaquin Phoenix Has the Last Laugh

Pop Culture

Joker Review: In a World Cluttered by Clown Princes, Joaquin Phoenix Has the Last Laugh

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

The Joker, as a character, boasts an impressive cinematic legacy. He’s been played by Oscar-winners and bonafide Hollywood legends alike – an illustrious list of actors worthy of his status as arguably the greatest villain in superhero fiction. From Jack Nicholson to Jared Leto, by way of Heath Ledger, The Joker has returned to the big screen in multiple avatars, but never one as tortured as Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal in the new origin story, Joker. For all the controversy around its “problematic” protagonist, the Todd Phillips-directed movie is still one of the year’s must-watch films, solely for the novel way Phoenix brings this character to life, even after The Joker has been analysed, explained, and dissected both in print and on film for over 50 years.

Phoenix’s singular brilliance cannot be overstated. Despite a cast that includes tenured heavyweights like Robert De Niro and Frances Conroy, it is Phoenix who fills up each frame – his performance flits between eliciting pity, disgust, and skin-crawling unease with the randomness of a runaway pinball. His performance is Joker’s beating heart, to the extent that including him in the legion of those who have played the character before – especially the critically adored turns of Nicholson and Ledger – doesn’t feel forced in the slightest (like it did with Jared Leto’s unfortunate, overplayed outing).

However, though all four of these performances (Nicholson, Ledger, Leto, Phoenix – the live-action movie versions) are ostensibly playing the same character, Phoenix’s Joker is nothing like the ones that preceded him. This film marks the first time we, the audience, get to see The Joker not as the larger-than-life Clown Prince of Crime, but as just another disturbed loner; more a product of a broken system than an anarchic force that reimagines it. Until now, The Joker was seen as a disease that infected society, but Phillips and Phoenix posit that society itself is the disease, and The Joker is just a symptom.

The Joker is not a larger-than-life Clown Prince of Crime, but just another disturbed loner; more a product of a broken system than an anarchic force that reimagines it.

It is this reframing of who – and what – exactly The Joker is that makes this newest offering so different. In the lead-up to the film’s release, a common criticism levelled against it was that it “glorified” the violent tendencies of its central character, that his supposed ideology was ripe for cooptation by fringe groups like “incels”. However, the film doesn’t so much glorify The Joker’s worst impulses as strip them of all their mystique. When we see Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck living a sordid, hollow existence revolving around his mentally ill mother and dead-end job, his actions no longer feel like grand philosophical statements in the vein of Ledger’s Joker – which for the last decade has been considered the gold standard. When Arthur places his emaciated frame before the flickering TV screen to escape for a few moments into a less hateful world, he doesn’t come across as an aspirational anti-hero. It’s hard to identify with someone like that. 

This approach puts Phoenix’s Joker at odds with all others. The Joker is a character with a magnetic charisma. His lack of a clearly defined, canonical origin story allows actors to imbue him with their own visions, leading to the wildly different portrayals of the character in equally far-flung films. Nicholson had playful menace when he asked Michael Keaton’s Batman if he had ever “danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight”; Ledger was all nails-on-chalkboard uneasiness with his tall tales about how he got his scars in The Dark Knight; Leto’s Suicide Squad version of The Joker was campy, unbelievable, and even more cartoonish than Mark Hamill’s depiction from the Batman animated series that ran in the ’90s. But what unites this disparate collection is that every time The Joker has appeared in a feature film, he has fully realised his potential as an agent of unbridled chaos, and he enjoys it. On the other hand, Arthur Fleck is a hesitant, meek, fragile man who seems unsure about every step he takes, even in the middle of taking them. It is only in the film’s final two minutes where he seems fully comfortable in his skin, and by then the film has said its piece about who The Joker really is.

Ten years ago, Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his take on The Joker. Today, Phoenix has brought the character into contention for the prized accolade once again. While Joker has its shortcomings, such as a sparse plot, some heavy-handed comic book references, and the lack of a proper foil for Phoenix’s character, the once-in-a-lifetime performance from an actor who’s already given so many of them, and it’s never-before-seen take on such an established pop culture icon makes it unmissable.