Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker Is Different from the Rest

October 21, 2019 | By Lucia Tarro, Illustrations by Lauren Aquino

The newest iteration of the iconic villain, the Joker, has finally hit theaters in the form of director Todd Phillips’ film, Joker (2019). The film presents the life of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a poorly socialized for-hire clown. Phoenix plays the role with incredible nuance, slipping into the character without any hesitation or pride to hold him back. Arthur’s life is a mundane one. He lives with and cares for his disabled, elderly mother, dresses up as a clown for a living, spinning sale signs or attempting to cheer children up at a hospital, checks in occasionally with a social worker due to his past stints at a mental hospital, and deals with constant mocking and beatings from people as a result of his strange demeanor. The film firmly establishes that this society treats Arthur like trash in every way, showing scene after scene of things going wrong for our protagonist, eventually resulting in him becoming “The Joker.”


Illustration by Lauren Aquino

Within the DC Cinematic Universe, this film is definitely a standalone story. It’s been confirmed Arthur won’t be appearing in the upcoming Robert Pattinson Batman movie or any DC films to follow, which is to the film’s benefit. No plot points have to be jammed in to set up a sequel of the Joker’s appearance in another franchise — this is a single film exploring someone’s musings on how the Joker came to be. As a result, Joker had no obligations to even resemble a comic book movie in the first place. For a decent portion of the movie, you’ll forget it’s about the famous villain since he isn’t technically created until the end. Combined with the unique cinematography, the real sets and locations, and the hand-held style filming, Joker felt more like an indie film rather than a big-budget superhero flick — something many will appreciate given a recent fatigue with the oversaturated genre. 


Another big difference to note is the Joker himself. We’re used to seeing the Joker portrayed a very certain way across his renditions, though to varying degrees. Smooth and charming enough to endear those around him despite his madness. Intelligent and cunning, always a few steps ahead of his adversaries. And, of course, mean-spirited and cruel enough to want to torture a whole city for his own sick amusement. The Joker in this movie is not that Joker.


For one, we are given very little evidence that Arthur has any of those qualities. He’s painfully awkward. His lack of charm is shown through his failed comedy routines, which elicit more cricket sounds than laughs. He certainly doesn’t come off as very intelligent, his only strategic moment taking place in a train scene when he disguises himself with a mask, not the most in-depth plot you’ll ever see on screen. Phoenix’s performance hints that Arthur may have some sort of developmental disorder or be on the autism spectrum, but this isn’t explicitly confirmed. 


As far as this Joker being a cruel-hearted monster, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Arthur is portrayed as a caring man who tries to entertain kids he meets in public, wants others to enjoy his comedy, and cares for his mother despite it holding him back. When Arthur’s violence begins to emerge, it starts as self-defense and turns into impulsive retribution, which doesn’t feel entirely like a natural progression due to the overly simplistic writing and predictable plot structure. But there is an important distinction this film had to make between this Joker and the other Jokers. Arthur is a protagonist, not a villain. We don’t need to like him, but we need to sympathize with him enough to want to see where his story goes. There is no Batman in this movie for the Joker to be ruthlessly evil against. There’s just a man versus his cruel society. 


This is where some of the criticism over the film’s moral ambiguity comes in. Many saw this film as trying too hard to garner sympathy over a character who incites brutal violence and inspires an incredibly harmful anarchist movement in its simplistic politics. People also noticed a connection between the character and some violent incel-like figures (mass shooters, for example), in that a guy is mad at society for wronging him, so he decides to take it out on innocent people with violence, using his victimhood to justify his actions. Arthur’s referenced mental illness ties into this connection even more. Some of this criticism is definitely justified in much of the symbolism and imagery of the film, but I’m not sure that’s the position the filmmakers were necessarily trying to take. They wanted us to look at this character in the same sense of many antiheroes in media, sympathize with their problems, and disavow their solutions. With nuanced writing and a more mature reflection on Arthur’s afflictions, this perspective would’ve been received better by critics and wouldn’t have caused as much controversy for the film, not that it’s actually hurting them financially in the slightest. 


The most important part of this movie, of course, is the performance given by the chameleon actor Phoenix. To be perfectly clear, without this man doing his absolute best in this role, this film would not be taken seriously at film festivals and dragging home awards like it currently is. There are few times in film history that an actor has so entirely put aside their pride for a role and committed to a character. And I don’t just mean the whole “Wow, he sure lost a lot of weight for that role. Such commitment!” ploy that tends to triple an actor’s chances of winning awards. Phoenix portrayed Arthur from his head to his toes, making sure that at all moments, he’s acting exactly how this mousy clown would have. His face twitches and falls in tiny movements that only could’ve been achieved with months of devotion. I can only wonder what he could’ve done with a better script, but if you need any reason to see this movie, it’s to see this man kill the role of a lifetime.


Overall, this movie means good things for the future of the superhero genre. It might not have achieved everything it wanted to, but let’s remember that this is a DC movie. With the financial and critical success this indie-style, action-light movie has had, DC, and possibly even Marvel, might realize that taking risks with the genre is a viable option that won’t sink their ship. In fact, it may even make them millions.