The Joker has always been known as a wildcard in the DC Universe. He has been a sadistic sociopath with no concern for what is legal or illegal. He is the master of mischief and the ever darkening shadow over Gotham. His his origins have always been shrouded in a black veil, with his onlookers never knowing what about him is true or not true, until the moment we meet him before his dark transformation into a non-feeling, soulless murderer.
In ‘Joker’, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a frail man who lives at home with his mother, Penny Fleck, and works as a clown. Fleck also possess a psychological disorder, which brings about violent outbursts of laughter. However, as we see in the film, many people either don’t know or simply don’t care about his disorder. Fleck faces constant challenges and frequent attacks of both physical and verbal abuse from people of all, and encounters only a few people that are ever truly nice to him. This constant abuse leads to his transformation into the “Joker”, when he learns just how relieving it is to feel more powerful than those that hurt him.
From the first looks at the Joker trailers, the fanbase was initially worried about a stand alone film explaining the backstory of the “Clown Prince of Crime”. And even more worrisome was the man impersonating him – Phoenix. Most of those that took on the role of the Joker in previous incarnations of the villain, have done nothing less than bring him to life. Mark Hamill’s voice as the Joker is often the first one brought to a fan’s mind, reminiscing of the days at home watching ‘Batman: The Animated Series’. And for many reviewers, the star of ‘The Dark Knight’ was not Christian Bale, but Heath Ledger. So when a newcomer was proposed and displayed in these new trailers for an origin story of one of the most fascinating comic book villains in history, nervousness in the fanbase was not unwarranted.
However, the style in which Phoenix portrays Arthur Fleck before his transformation is one where an audience can actually sympathize with this mass murderer. From his first brutal beating in an alley way and being blamed for the loss of a sign for a business going bankrupt, to even the murder of his later realized foster mother, the audience watches Fleck grow into a frail man just trying to live the life he believes to be worthless, to realizing that the only way to make his life worth living is to take out his pain on others.
This picture of a person suffering from mental instability and depression not only displays why Fleck eventually becomes the Joker, but also illuminates the audience to the fact that this is the way many people who suffer from poor mental health live their lives, constantly battling against those who think they’re only seeking attention, never offering to help them.
Phoenix uses his own iconic laugh, and it is a perfect fit for the menacing laughter of the Clown Prince, and the fact that this is a mental condition and not quite a revelation of joy, makes it all the more meaningful. Phoenix explains through Fleck that the Joker doesn’t necessarily laugh because he is happy, but simply because he cannot control himself. In this way, Phoenix all but tears off the precedent of the comic books alluding to the Joker being solely a maniac. Even in the comic books, before becoming the Joker, Fleck was a man with a wife and daughter, who was lured into crime to earn money, and fell into toxic waste to become his deranged new self. This retold, dark origin of a man turned clown is almost too painful to watch, but not for a moment can the audience look away from the breathtaking movement of Phoenix as Fleck as he undergoes the transformation.
For Phoenix himself, the actor usually stars in darker films, so Joker wasn’t necessarily beyond his realm of expertise, and the way he portrays the inside of Fleck’s mind is stunning. Fleck dreams of being a stand-up comedian, and looks to Murray Franklin (played by Robert De Niro) as his inspiration. But when his first opportunity as a stand-up is presented and fails, it lands him on Murray’s talk show to be ridiculed, which then turns Fleck’s adoration into hatred. The talk show scene is possibly the most memorable in all the movie, and it’s here where we first see the Joker in action. Phoenix masterfully plays up the crowd, and paints a picture of terrifying revenge when he suddenly pulls out his gun and murders Murray on live television. Here, Phoenix displays the full force of a man with no remorse, especially for those that put him under the spotlight of twisted comedy.
Whether you’re a DC comics fan or not, Joker is a movie that speaks volumes about the world around us and the people that live in it, and reminds us to be kind no matter what. And Phoenix portrays the perfect picture of what can happen when you push a man over the edge.