It seemed that Heath Ledger’s famous performance as the Joker in “The Dark Knight Rises” would remain unmatched forever. Ledger’s take on the character cast a shadow on any who dared take on the role after him, and after Jared Leto’s disastrous rendition of the character in “Suicide Squad,” it seemed that all successors were simply doomed to fail. But behold, the curse has been lifted. Joaquin Phoenix bespeaks to be able to do what no other has been able to until now: prove to be Batman’s worthy adversary.
Directed by Todd Phillips, the thriller-drama “Joker” tells the origin story of Batman’s most notorious rival, who is now named Arthur Fleck. As an outcast who suffers from a multitude of illnesses and disorders, Arthur finds himself the constant punchline of society’s jokes and degradation. Following failure after failure, the once-tame aspiring stand-up comedian soon transforms into his infamous alter ego. The film chronicles the Joker’s “Making a Murderer-”esque journey. It again brings to light the centuries-old question: are monsters born, or created by the world around them? As the systemically oppressive city of Gotham erupts into a chaotic and polarizing riot between the entrenched elite and the downtrodden “jokers,” the answer to that question suddenly becomes a lot less ambiguous.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is captivating and at times heart-wrenching. Casting such a nefarious character in a pitiful light requires precise execution. Notwithstanding the maniacal laughter, Phoenix somehow manages to pull at the heartstrings. Nevertheless, the ultimately violent and disturbing fate that awaits Arthur Fleck is one that even Phoenix’s mesmerizing performance could not make palatable.
While the dark tone of “Joker” is not foreign to the Batman franchise, the uncensored violent and serious themes of the film are certainly untapped reservoirs. It is the first live-action Batman film to receive an R-rating. Laced with heavy subjects including abuse, violence and mental illness, the intensity of “Joker” is no laughing matter.
“Joker” develops the idiosyncrasies of a villain typically presented as transparent. With the ability to captivate any predisposed anti-Joker audience member, Todd Phillips’s thriller will leave all awaiting the character’s next appearance.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, print edition. Email Nyssa Joseph at [email protected]