Joker Succeeds Due to the Strength of Joaquin Phoenix’s Performance
Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” helped popularize the idea that superhero movies could exist as reflections of reality rather than their comic book source material. For decades, the Joker has existed as an over-the-top sinister arch villain, drawing a sick delight from being responsible for some of Batman’s darkest hours, including killing Jason Todd and paralyzing Barbara Gordon. For big screen feature films, the criminal mastermind’s terror stems from utterly realistic nature of his tyranny, the kind of evil not dissimilar from those who commit mass shootings or other heinous acts.
Todd Phillips’ Joker rarely feels like a comic book movie. Instead, his take on the iconic villain plays out as more of long think piece on the nature between isolation and evil. For a character who’s been committing crimes for eighty years, the comics don’t tend to spend a lot of time on the background information that led the Joker on the path of darkness. There isn’t even really an established history regarding the character’s real name.
Joaquin Phoenix presents Arthur Fleck as a pathetic individual. Arthur is clearly mentally ill and lacks any meaningful connection to the outside world besides his similarly delusional mother (Frances Conroy). Arthur wants to be a comedian, but it’s unclear if he actually knows what a joke is.
Phoenix’s mesmerizing lead performance is more than enough to carry the narrative past many of its meandering moments. Giving one of the strongest performances of his storied career, Phoenix plays Fleck with such nuance that it’s often hard to take your eyes off him in each scene. Many talented actors have played the Joker, but Phoenix ensures that his take will go down as one of the best takes on the character.
As a film, Joker is a bit diminished by Phillips’ approach to potential sympathy that one might feel toward the film’s “protagonist,” a label that feels uncomfortable if not accurate. Arthur Fleck is a very bad man who’s led about as tragic a life as one could present on film. Never lost on the audience is the sense that the Joker represents a failure on both fronts of the “nature vs. nurture” debate. The narrative fully explains how this monster came to exist, but Phillips isn’t interested in telling anyone how to feel about Arthur.
Some may appreciate that approach, giving the audience full leeway to come to their own conclusions. Situations are rarely as black and white as many films make them out to be, but Joker feels utterly comfortable swimming around in the grey. Arthur can be grey and sympathetic, understandably despicable. Whether those implications should be transferred onto Fleck’s real-world counterparts is a different story, albeit one where the lines might seem a little blurred.
The other aspect of Joker that doesn’t quite work is its desire to exist as part of Gotham’s larger lore while simultaneously being about as far removed from a comic book movie as has ever been presented on screen. Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) plays a supporting role, an inclusion that feels more obligatory than out of narrative necessity. The Joker is without a doubt the most well-known comic book villain in history. There isn’t any explicit reason why the Wayne family needs to be included in his story. Phillips hardly makes the case for their presence in this film.
Joker is a triumph largely due to Phoenix’s performance. The film has a lot of flaws, but Phoenix keeps the narrative afloat with his commitment to the character. For a genre wrapped up in franchises and connected universes, it’s rather refreshing to see a movie with a concrete beginning, middle, and end.