At this point, it’s undeniable to say that The Joker is one of the great, iconic villains of cinema. For over 50 years, we’ve seen amazing actors take on the legendary role, including Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger (and to lesser effect, Jared Leto). Each performer has brought their own unique talents to the part, imbuing it with specific traits to make it all their own, making you wonder if, after all this time, it would even be possible for anyone to come up with a new rendition. To find the answer, director/co-writer Todd Phillips enlisted the great Joaquin Phoenix to take on the iconic role for “Joker,” a new, gritty take on the villain’s origin story that seeks to tell us how the Clown Prince of Crime became who he is. It was certainly a bold move, but with such casting, it hardly seemed like it could go wrong.
As the film opens, we meet Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a struggling clown performer who has dreams of being a stand-up comedian. He lives with his mother (Frances Conroy), and constantly has to put up with all the hassles that life throws at him, such as a condition that has him laughing hysterically for no reason. Eventually he is pushed to the edge, causing him to start a kind of riotous movement in the city. This, coupled with a secret that his mother has kept from him all of these years, makes his life spin even more out of control, ultimately turning him into a dark product of his circumstances who feels the need to unleash his anger.
Not only was it a bold move to think that another actor could come up with yet another iteration of the popular villain, but it was also rather bold to divert from accepted canon to tell his gritty origin. However, this is what makes “Joker” such a fascinating experience. As an origin story it’s rather compelling to see what drove the man down the path we know he has to eventually tread, and as a character study it’s equally captivating to see the effects it has on the man himself (i.e. the transition from harmless wannabe entertainer to someone quite dangerous). This isn’t a somewhat simple case of falling into acid and going mad, but rather the case of a man beaten down by society and pushed to the edge.
In order to portray this transformation in a realistic manner, they opted to go with one of the very best actors of our time. Joaquin Phoenix has always had a remarkable ability to transform himself as his roles require, a talent that has earned him three Academy Award nominations throughout his incredible career. As Arthur Fleck, he continues to show us this talent as his character is beaten, mocked, and pushed around to the point where he goes from being the loving, devoted son to taking out his frustrations on others. At times, it’s a very subtle performance, while quite intense at others, but Phoenix plays the range marvelously, and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him earn his fourth Oscar nod.
So how does he stack up against the other actors we’ve seen portray the infamous clown? Well, it’s kind of hard to say, as Arthur Fleck doesn’t really fully become the Joker that we’re familiar with, nor can we even be sure if he’s meant to be THE Joker that we’ve come to know and love. This could be seen as the starting point for his future endeavors, or it could be seen as the inspiration for the eventual true iteration of the character (the one that falls into the vat of acid). What’s important is that Phoenix makes it his own. With his dead stare and creepy, spontaneous laugh, what he does with the character is downright chilling, and at times, darkly humorous (a trait that many of the previous actors have shared). In short, he was simply the perfect choice to take it on.
Overall, this look at the Joker’s origin is a mostly-compelling tale that will provide comic book fans an interesting glimpse into an alternate take at how the infamous villain came to be. It’s intriguing, funny, and at times, shocking. It can be a little languid here and there, but Phoenix is always at the top of his game to keep it moving along smoothly. In the end, it’s quite gratifying to say that a film that many questioned as being unnecessary, on top of being from a director who’s mainly known for making bad comedies, turned out pretty well, showing that there can still be life in a character even after they’ve seemingly been done to death. 3/4 stars.