When, as a kid, I read Batman comics or saw the 1960s TV series, my child's mind didn't question anything. Batman was good and his arch-nemesis, the Joker — portrayed back then as a one-dimensional clown by actor Caesar Romero — was bad. That was all the explanation I needed. By adulthood in 1989, with Jack Nicholson cast in the role, I needed a little more explanation, and that's what I got: a little more.
Although the most recent actor to take on the role of Gotham's Clown Prince of Crime was Jared Leto in 2016's Suicide Squad, the definitive live-action portrayal was Heath Ledger's in 2008's The Dark Knight, for which he won, posthumously, ab Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Ledger and director Christopher Nolan achieved the perfect blend of taking the character beyond just a frustrated, sadistic clown, yet stopping short of explaining his mystery.
There will now be a lot of Batfans who'll consider Joaquin Phoenix's characterization as the definitive Joker, in director Todd Phillips' new movie.
Phillips’ Joker introduces us to Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), who makes a marginal living as a street clown, and otherwise lives as with his elderly mom (Frances Conroy).
It's not only the family's poverty which is a dead weight on Arthur's life, but that he suffers from PBA, or Pseudobulbar Affect, which causes people to erupt in inappropriate laughing or crying. On multiple medications, Arthur's only real therapy and escape is watching nightly telecasts of an after-hours, thinly disguised Tonight Show (as it was during the ’70s), upon which he dreams of appearing as, of all things, a stand-up comic. That is, until a coworker gives Arthur a gun to help him protect himself in the increasingly dangerous streets and alleys of Gotham City.
I'll refrain from any further description of the plot. The hook here is Phoenix's darkly layered exploration of a character the American public has taken for granted since 1940, and which takes the audience to a place darker, I believe, than we have ever seen in any other comic book movie.
What makes it all the more terrifying is how plausible and everyday it seems, how perfectly it fits into today's headlines: An incel, ignored by the world, finally achieves the means to make a nihilistic statement that cannot be ignored. From the first frame to the last, it's Phoenix's film, and his performance raises the serious consideration that he might well succeed Ledger in winning an Oscar for playing this iconic character.
The brilliance of Phoenix's performance can't detract from Joker's resemblance to two of Martin Scorsese's classics, 1976's Taxi Driver and 1982's The King of Comedy. Arthur Fleck is obviously a fusion of Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin, the central characters of those films. Almost as both confession and unabashed boast, Phillips casts the man who played those iconic characters, Robert De Niro, as Murray Franklin, the late-night star with whom Arthur is obsessed. De Niro's appearance may be just a paycheck, but his participation does seem to "bless" Phillips for having recycled those films' themes for the sensibilities of the 2000s.
Joker is not a gentle picture. It’s not an escapist comic-book fantasy, nor even a horror movie featuring a scary clown from the sewer, but a brutal look at extremely unwell people who are cut off from a rapidly shrinking social safety net.
As in real life, there's no caped crusader poised to save Gotham, although the Wayne family is not unmentioned. In fact, they have a very big part to play, but mostly as remote, almost semi-divine beings who don't sully themselves by associating with the peasants. They aren't the altruistic billionaires extolled in almost 80 years of literature and movies. And the rewriting of that history may end up being the most controversial aspect of Joker.