Courtesy of Esquire 2019
Is ‘Joker’ Worth Your Money?
Joaquin Phoenix Creates a Thrilling Performance of the Joker in Unnecessary Film.
October 27, 2019
Joker sidesteps the stereotypical trend of superhero films and places DC’s most notorious villain on the cinematic stages of absurdity and insanity. After at least twenty-two attempts at bringing the character to life on screen, Director Todd Philips did well in selecting Oscar-bound Joaquin Phoenix to play the failed comedian-turned mentally ill psychopath. The film basks in the limelight because of its integration of an idiosyncratic backstory to an already fully developed comic character. It continues to win prestigious awards (like the Golden Lion Award) and break box office records (like becoming the biggest October opening of all time), meanwhile its review scores remain just above average.
The film continues to be subject to praise or criticisms alike for its visual representations of society’s perceptions of mental illness and social apathy amidst a governing hierarchy. Further, its capacity for R-rated violence compared to other Joker-featured films still proves worrisome to many moviegoers. The strongest place for critique can be geared toward Philips’ unconventional approach to the Joker character that goes against the previous adaptations and his choice to produce a darker DC film with little reliance on the comic books. To these things, I clink my metaphorical glass to celebrate a worthy endeavor on behalf of Phoenix, but sip comfortably (and quietly) to several predecessors’ far greater representations.
In the sequence of Joker actors, Phoenix’s performance is unlike any other take on the Clown Prince of Crime. In fact, Phoenix’s performance is so distinctive that—without the green hair, clown gimmick, and painted white face—one might not know they are watching a Joker film. Never in a Joker-featured film do we come to know the character as Arthur Fleck—a depressed, mentally handicapped man who lives in the city and takes care of his frail mother. Never do we see the physical and emotional transformation—besides versions where the character falls into a vat of acid—that maps out his descent into madness. Though the bizarre, psychopathic behavior coupled with the clown persona is much ingrained in Phoenix’s version (and is done exceptionally well), the whole performance seems out of line with keeping Joker’s background a mystery—such as in the original comics and Christopher Nolan’s film. Though there are a few, vague origin stories, his remains unlike any other.
Phoenix molded the role to be his own—from his unique origin story to the psych ward-bound madman—and deserves much praise for giving us an unsettling and compulsive performance. When reflecting on decades of films and television shows that encapsulate the defining characteristics of the Joker, it makes it harder to accept Phoenix as the true Joker. Believability plummeted even before the film’s release when DC announced that Joker would not be a comic book film, cutting ties with the rest of the DC universe and eliminating the potential for sequels. Though Joker is entirely in its own category, there are still some commonalities Phoenix shares with previous actors/Jokers that gives him some credibility and likeability. The following is a glimpse of the character’s history to provide similarities and differences between several prominent portrayals to help you decide for yourself Phoenix’s authenticity as the Joker:
Inspiration for the first concept for Joker, which made its debut in Batman #1 in 1940, derives from a 1928 film The Man Who Laughs. The Joker creators Bob Kane, Bill Ginger, and Jerry Robinson all agreed to use Conrad Veidt’s character’s terrifying grin as a part of the Joker persona. This grin—the creepy byproduct of mental illness and insanity—manifests roughly eighty percent of Joker because of his consistent laughter. Influence also derives from Caesar Romero, who played the role in the Batman television series (1966-68). The television show portrays a much lighter take on the character; he acts in reflection of the more colorful, kookier comic book stories that were the norm of the era. While a happy Joker is virtually nonexistent in the newer version, the style of the white face, green hair, and messy, red lip paint surely inspire Phoenix’s depiction.
Further, though Romero’s Joker performed evil crimes, he always started jokes relevant to the audience. Phoenix takes the same route in making jokes but with intensely dark undertones that the average moviegoer might view as demented and raw. In Joker, the character’s own inability to tell compelling jokes initially puts him in the eyes of fictional audiences as unwitty. Put simply: “you wouldn’t understand it.” The Joker character’s call for humor is lacking especially compared to Jack Nicholson’s version from the Batman film (1989). With the 1989 film, the Joker transformed from Romero into a much darker, crueler character. Yet, in the perspective of Bob Kane, Nicholson is considered “the exact, personified [envisioning] of the character,” therefore revealing that there needed to be a perfect balance of darkness and comedy in order for Phoenix to succeed in the role.
The R-rating allowed the film to be dark, gruesome, and occasionally morbid. Call me desensitized if you wish, but Phoenix’s ill actions like stabbing and shooting people are not much scarier than Heath Ledger’s PG-13 performance (minus an unfortunate, bloody scene with a pair of scissors). Heath Ledger from Director Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) portrays the Joker to be an agent of chaos; a cruel, lonely soul with an agenda to prove to everybody that the world is a cruel place. Phoenix as Arthur Fleck/Joker seems to also reflect the same negative outlook, but I have to agree with film critic David Denby on the far greater legitimacy of Ledger who provides arguably the best “sinister and frightening performance” of any Joker. Phoenix proved himself well to be a crazed, delusional antihero, but Ledger’s Joker really wanted to watch the world crash and burn. Finally, in terms of Jared Leto’s portrayal in the 2016 Suicide Squad film, there is no redeemable quality about him that fits this critique (sorry, not sorry).
Now that you are equipped with the Joker’s history and can identify commonalities that exist among his actors, you still may wonder: should I go see it? I suppose it depends on your fondness for the character and what kind of film you want to watch. Phoenix’s portrayal allows the movie to shine as more of a deep character study rather than a psychological thriller, or even a supervillain-action movie—far different than the likes of other antihero films like Marvel’s Venom (2018). With his limited action specific only to his chilling, gruesome murders, there seems inflated hype put on by advertisements and trailers. Joker ultimately is a mediocre, rather unnecessary production that is interesting to watch.
It moves slowly and—as a stand-alone film—there is no real buildup to any foreseeable Batman scenario. I will not say how it ends, but if Phoenix’s Joker emerges in a movie or television scene one day, I cannot envision him having the same effect as his predecessors had before him. Thus, the film’s only real use to fans is Joker’s potential backstory. Though it is not a comic book film, would it have killed the producers to incorporate less of a party clown-look (maybe more serious like Ledger) or add a tad more kookiness to his personality (maybe like Romero)?
Its only great achievement stems from Phoenix’s ability to capture an ill man’s descent into madness. Not that there is no merit in viewing the film. Yes, you feel bad for him. Yes, there that can be a lot taken from a man’s struggles with mental illness. The overall story proved very compelling. There are actually some funny scenes that provide comic relief unlike many DC movies following Man of Steel (2013). Since it broke the worldwide box office, it is at the least valuable to see if the hype is exaggerated or if this new Joker deserves the same recognition as the amazing ones before. Overall, I give the movie a solid 68%.