Note: This is a spoiler-free Joker movie review
The Joker has always been the most nuanced, dynamic, and beloved villain in the comic book universe, DC or Marvel. The character is more of an on-screen jokester during the Adam West years, most-recognized through Jack Nicholson’s portrayal in 1989. Heath Ledger put a dark twist on the role and has since been considered the pinnacle, rightfully so.
He was so good, in fact, that people think we should just put The Joker away and never see it on screen again.
Eleven years after Ledger’s brilliant performance, we have company at the mountaintop.
Joker is the darkest take on the Gotham City villain yet, backboned by a career-defining performance from Joaquin Phoenix and a story that will have people talking.
Joaquin Phoenix In The Performance Of The Year
Joaquin Phoenix is mostly what’s worth discussing when discussing Joker. Partly because he’s in every scene of the film, but mostly because of how damn good he is in all those scenes.
Phoenix has long had a polarizing approach to his craft. Hate it or love it, you have to admire the fact he’s always after a challenge. He has the Leto buffer, but the challenge of taking Ledger to the next level is about as high-level as it gets. Phoenix performs in a way that will be remembered for a long time.
This version of the Joker is bullied, ostracized, and struggling with a condition he can’t control. In other words, he’s desperate for approval no matter how it comes and what action it stems from. In this world, Arthur Fleck creates positively-reinforced anarchy with an incident on the subway and never looks back.
What Phoenix brings to the screen is captivating, sympathetic, and disturbing all at once. He’s able to jump between evoking varied emotions seamlessly and multiple times within scenes. There is little doubt casting a method actor to play The Joker is dangerous. There is no doubt it makes for the best performances.
The role of the Joker is unlike anything else. It’s all-encompassing and twisted when at its best. Phoenix’s performance is different from Ledger’s, because it’s separate playing a Joker origin story versus playing The Joker in a Batman movie. They’re similar in tone but distinct in how we interact with the character on screen. And make no mistake about it — Ledger opened the door in 2008 so Phoenix can walk through in 2019.
That said, on sheer performance alone, Joaquin is on par with Heath. He should and will get all the nominations for his performance.
No Laughing Matter
Outside of a virtuoso performance, the story of Joker will be discussed in what it means and how it fits within the Batman universe. A lot of the conversation around the movie will be “Joaquin Phoenix great, the movie itself just eh.” That’s a fair criticism, but Arthur Fleck fits clearly and distinctly within the Canon and the performance is so good it elevates the entire movie. The DIEHARD comic fans may be upset, but really anyone outraged about the story is just looking for outrage.
It can’t be understated how dark Joker is. There are no real light-hearted moments or comic relief, which is ironic considering Arthur is an aspiring stand-up. Even in the moments you laugh, you’re only laughing as a respite. Those moments aren’t particularly funny on their own.
The film is darker than the darkest movie in the comic book universe, which fits the darkest villain in the comic book universe.
Additionally, the character backstory sticks to the Joker model of having a “bit” that makes him uniquely the Joker. Traditionalist Batman and Joker fans will enjoy the movie for that reason.
If there is one villain that deserves their own story it’s this one. Fans will be pleased that Todd Phillips and Scott Silver got it right. The crescendo from troubled New Yorker to becoming The Joker is both captivating and satisfying, culminating in a beautifully shot final scene.
All that adds up to something that shouldn’t get lost in the fold. This is easily the second-best movie DC has ever done outside (cheat code) Christopher Nolan, and it could be the best. People have been trashing DC for so long that they’ve been written off on anything they make. The studio takes a swing here and hits a home run.
Should I Go See Joker?
The movie is great, and the lead performance is brilliant. There are no two ways about it — this is an Oscar movie.
That said, it’s not suitable for everyone simply because of how dark it is. You need to be in the mood for it, and if you go expecting another fun comic book movie you’ll be sorely disappointed.
Other than that absolutely go see Joker. Everyone else will be talking about it anyway.
(Featured Image courtesy of Warner Bros.)