When it was rumoured that a solo film centred around the origins of classic Batman villain The Joker was being written, it was difficult to comprehend how it would look upon release.
The last interpretation of the character by Jared Leto in 2016’s visual answer to diarrhoea Suicide Squad proved that playing The Joker didn’t automatically lead to another upgrade in the character’s long foretold development, and such a poor display also meant that the follow-up attempt would be scrutinised more than ever before.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance hits home
Despite a feeling of hesitance around how the film would play out, Joaquin Phoenix proved that it was somehow possible to trump the efforts of Heath Ledger, who was undoubtedly superb in 2008’s epic The Dark Knight.
It felt as if, because The Joker had been played in so many different ways before through comic books, graphic novels, books, films, TV shows and even games, there would be no way of adding another angle to a character that was first created in 1940. Joaquin Phoenix dispelled this myth with his portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime by adding elements that made him realistic, relevant and justifiable, leading most viewers to controversially sympathise with his actions.
However, although Phoenix’s performance was faultless and far more human than anyone could have imagined, unfortunately, a lot of fans, reviewers and neutrals have picked out a few reasons to dislike the film, regardless of the glaring quality.
Todd Phillips dismisses edgy comedy by attempting to be edgy himself
Easily the most bizarre factor about the original announcement of Joker being in development was that it was being directed by Todd Phillips, who previously directed buddy comedies such as Road Trip, Old School, Starsky & Hutch (2004 remake), School For Scoundrels (2006 remake), Due Date, War Dogs, and The Hangover trilogy.
Elements of comedy, both dark and genuinely positive, were dashed throughout Joker, but it said more about him that he could make an utterly perfect film in terms of the plot, acting, timing and cinematography despite previously only making easily forgettable comedies. The only problem was the racy comments he chose to make after Joker was released in early October.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Phillips said: “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture.” He added: “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore. I’ll tell you why: because all the f*cking funny guys are like ‘F*ck this shit because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right? So, you just go ‘I’m out.’ I’m out, and you know what? With all my comedies—I think that what comedies in general all have in common—is they’re irreverent. So, I go ‘How do I do something irreverent, but f*ck comedy? Oh, I know. Let’s take the comic book movie universe and turn it on its head with this.’ And so that’s really where that came from.”
Of course, Todd Phillips is referring to the dangerous issue of whether comedy can still be edgy and controversial in a world where it matters what people think.
It’s important to take opinions seriously if people are genuinely upset by something, but it surely doesn’t mean that all comedy is dead, or we would have seen a demise for Dave Chappelle, Jimmy Carr, Archer, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, South Park, Family Guy, Rick Morty and countless others. It’s a shame the same can’t be said for Louis CK, but to be fair his unfortunate demise was – without an intentional pun – self-conflicted.
You could simply ignore Todd Phillips’ cry-baby rant, but the saddest part of his comments aside from the clear lack of sensitivity around the issue, is that it’s affected the overall view of Joker, which is now being perceived as being a ‘f*ck you’ to the current climate rather than the multi-layered piece of social commentary that it can be.
It would be a shame to ruin Joker’s chances of picking up awards, as well as dismissing it as its own special entity, due to people choosing to do that, but it must be remembered that basing your opinion of Joker on the comments of Todd Phillips is totally illogical.
How the Joker has, as Phillips might say, refused to adapt to woke culture
From the early days of the Joker’s live-action appearances, where Cesar Romero expertly portrayed him as an insane criminal, we’ve come a far longer way than many would probably realise. Yes, Jack Nicholson presented him as being more of a mafioso to boost the inclinations set by Cesar Romero in the original Batman TV series, but we’ve now reached a point where the character is human and given reasons for how he thinks instead of being inexplicably peculiar.
Murmurs throughout many of the portrayals of the Joker hinted at a dark childhood to justify the reasoning for his actions, but none were as harsh a blow before Heath Ledger in 2008’s The Dark Knight. Not only was he more manic and unhinged than any previous performance, but he also delved into the real-life reasons for the character’s actions, touching upon every aspect of the character’s many traits.
Comic book films are so often dismissed for academy awards due to the nature of the plots and characters, but Heath Ledger broke the mould in receiving a Best Supporting Actor at the 2009 Oscars posthumously. It would be wrong to put down any part of Ledger’s portrayal of the character, but Joaquin Phoenix somehow bettered it, adding a version of the Joker without a need to be destructive for his own enjoyment, instead lashing out after not being given sufficient help for a severe mental illness.
He isn’t even funny, with the film going out of the way to prove how unfunny the character is, and there’s more reason for his actions. He’s not simply trying to make the world burn as Alfred Pennyworth states Ledger’s Joker is in The Dark Knight. Joker’s Arthur Fleck is sick of being ignored and can’t remain hidden amongst the thousands of untreated people struggling in his city anymore.
Many people have criticised the film’s knack of making viewers sympathise with the character, but while it shouldn’t be the case that any viewer is hungering for the violence he inflicts on the world towards the latter stage of the film, it’s hard to not feel empowered by it, as he’s constantly being ignored, disrespected and discredited as a human despite constantly crying out for help.
The only time he’s actually acknowledged is when he’s being humiliated on national television, so there’s no denying a feeling of sadness and sympathy towards the character. In such a film as this one, it’s telling of how impressive Phoenix’s performance is that he’s capable of getting this reaction.
Jared Leto is the missing link in the Joker’s development
Aside from the unwise comments made by Todd Phillips, there was another person making their thoughts known regarding Joker in the form of Jared Leto, who played the character in the most recent portrayal prior to Joaquin Phoenix.
One of the kindest observations that people have made about Jared Leto’s performance in Suicide Squad is that the script was poorly written, the character was irrelevant to the film, and he didn’t get half as much screen-time as you’d expect.
These are fair arguments to make, but it’s also fair to consider that Jared Leto was so poor that he set the role back several decades, defeating even the unwatchable versions of The Joker seen in cringeworthy TV shows like Gotham.
Not only was Jared Leto’s rendition of the character dull, uninteresting, and completely opposite to all other previous versions to such an extent that nothing he did made sense, but he also ruined watching his performance through the overstated reports of how he ‘got into the role’ by sending soiled condoms and dead animals to his co-stars to show how much of a method actor he was.
Cesar Romero brought the character to life; Mark Hamill presented an elaborated version of the character over more than one format; Jack Nicholson portrayed the character as a mobster; Heath Ledger portrayed the character as a terrorist; Joaquin Phoenix portrayed the character as a man who was overlooked by society. Meanwhile, all Jared Leto did was turn the character into a punk rapper reminiscent of Tekashi 6ix9ine.