Great familiarity with The Joker character of DC Comics and particularly Batman canon in my generation means knowing that the actors who played him on the big screen were changed by it. Jack Nicholson’s portrayal in 1990’s Batman led him to speak to Heath Ledger about the psychological toll that it took; Ledger’s turn, of course, has become as infamous for his post-filming death as it has become famous for his breathtaking, posthumous Oscar-winning performance. Joker is a complex character, and a fascinating one. Tapping into his psyche and donning the face paint would understandably put any performer into a strange headspace.
The first degree I earned was in Psychology and I am accordingly drawn more to the mind of a complicated persona with a warped moral compass than I am black-and-white villains or white-bread heroes. Sometime in the last decade, The Dark Knight overtook the top spot on my favorite movie of all-time list, in large part due to the performance of Heath Ledger as The Joker; its brilliance warrants its own soon-to-be-written blog entry. So, when I went to see Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the Caped Crusader’s greatest foe, I assumed I’d leave the theater comparing one to the other, contextualizing Joker and much of my opinion regarding its quality on a ranking of actor performance.
Yet, that was not the case at all. Maybe one day I’ll come back to that train of thought, but I truthfully do not upon first viewing consider Joker to be what I think it was originally intended to be. Joker is many things, but it is less an origin story for the famous Batman antagonist and more a disturbing, perhaps masterful piece of social commentary on one of modern society’s top ever-worsening problems that just so happens to use a love-to-hate comic book heel to express it.
The ease with which Arthur Fleck (aka The Joker) obtains a gun, the “seven” medications (presumably all or mostly anti-psychotic drugs) that he takes trying to feel better, the half-assed counseling that he receives and the half-assed effort he puts toward it (followed by the funding for both being cut by the government), his terrible upbringing, the brutally mean-spirited responses that he often receives from people, etc. collectively remind us of how challenging it will be to stop the trend of mass violence from disturbed individuals who have deemed human life expendable.
I have not read many interviews with director Todd Phillips to know if that was what he meant to do, but as a friend of mine whose book I helped publish is apt to say, “Sometimes artistic achievement trumps authorial intent.”
“Stunning” would be a fitting description of Joaquin Phoenix’s take on The Joker. His haunting presentation is a real artistic achievement. It paints the visual portrait of a human-being who has already been beaten down by several societal worst-case scenarios getting even further pummeled, literally and figuratively, all the way to violent madness. That does not seem fit to be tied into wider shared-universe storytelling and it will require a decided tonal shift in future Batman movies to integrate this version of The Joker into its more traditional setting of foil to the Dark Knight. No, it was a movie instead about how a person loses his value of human life whose nickname just happens to be “Joker.”