Out of the five actors to play the Joker, Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal is the scariest for one looming reason: It’s the most plausible origin for a crazed clown killer yet. The much anticipated Joker origin story, simply titled “Joker,” highlights the character like never seen before. Grounded in a cruel society that forces him to lash out, the comic book villain’s origin is an imperfect storm of mental illness and zero compassion.
Even though the film does come with an end card shouting “based on characters by DC comics,” the film isn’t a superhero adventure but a psychological thriller that tackles many deep themes that are common issues of debate and discussion, the most prominent being mental health. Arthur Fleck’s innate troubles are the mental problems he faces.
The very on-brand condition of inappropriate laughter deeply affects his ability to be comfortable, make connections and live his life normally. Though he does get help from a state-assigned social worker, it is obvious that the path to help is rough for him when the social worker informs Arthur of the state cut funding and he can no longer receive help. This direct blow to Arthur’s much-needed support is a sort of commentary on the impact of mental health. Arthur’s descent into the persona of the Joker snapshots an outlandish worst-case scenario of how untended mental health can potentially sprout darkness.
True credit for the film’s depiction of this mentally-ill struggling man goes to Joaquin Phoenix for his excellent portrayal. Phoenix’s performance both engrosses the viewer into the character’s miserable life and spins an animosity towards the vile monster that blossoms. While much love rightfully goes to the late Heath Ledger for his portrayal in the “Dark Knight Trilogy,” this incarnation is wonderfully acted and takes much of comic book canon into account to form the character.
Speaking of previous incarnations, it is almost impossible to compare all versions of live-action Joker equally. All four previous Jokers (played chronologically by Ceasar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger and Jared Leto) are opposing characters to a Batman. Phoenix’s Joker isn’t a supporting character to a heroic Batman, but the lead character in opposition to the society enveloping him in hate.
This, in addition to the genre and style, gives a completely new light to the character. Since the villainous Joker possesses no moral compass, there is nothing stopping him from embracing his descent into evil. His inherent existence and experience with mental illness isn’t heinous, but dreary. It is the way society kicks him to the curb, which causes his massive powder keg eruption as the Joker. With no Batman to face, the Joker is just looking for a way to cause chaos, which he creates in abundance.
The film really takes advantage of the R rating. What could be considered excessive violence drives the point that there is something wrong with this world. A society that torments the lesser off and kicks them to the curb is the same society where a clown would want a gun to protect himself and where that clown might use that gun when the time comes.
Whilst the character’s roots in comics find a mystery man falling into a pit of chemicals, the Joker is just an especially troubled man. The telling of his tale fires on all cylinders and rightfully depicts the character’s descent into madness. “Joker” is worth the watch.
Photo Credit: “Joker” was released into theaters Oct. 4. Photo by Shesh Batni.