A Spoiler-Free Analysis of Joaquin Phoenix’s New Role as the Joker (and how he compares to his predecessors)

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A Spoiler-Free Analysis of Joaquin Phoenix’s New Role as the Joker (and how he compares to his predecessors)

Sean Kern, Contributing Writer

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Superheros. They have a huge following. New movies seem to be constantly in theatres. In 2019 alone, 8 superhero movies have been released, including the highest grossing film of all time: Avengers: Endgame. However, only 7 of those 8 movies were primarily about superheros. One of them focused on a villain. In fact, it focused on one of the best known villains to date.

I’m talking, of course, about Todd Phillips’s Joker, a movie entirely dedicated to Batman’s arch nemesis, a man who is just as obsessed with destruction as he is obsessed with clowns. The movie has been subject to incredibly polarizing reviews, receiving an 8.8 out of 10 on IMDB and a 59% on Metacritic. One explanation is that people have different opinions on what makes a good portrayal of the Joker. Many believe that Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal in the new movie deserves to be called the best, whereas others believe there hasn’t been a good portrayal of the Joker since Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. However, it can be argued that many versions of the Joker must be considered in order to deliver a verdict on Phoenix’s performance. So, it would be beneficial to analyze all of the modern portrayals of the Clown Prince of Crime. Let us analyze the four best known portrayals of this century: Jared Leto, Heath Ledger, Mark Hamill, and lastly, Joaquin Phoenix.

Note: This analysis focuses on the portrayals of the Joker themselves, not the content in which they were a part of. These analyses are not meant to criticize the movies/television they were in, they are meant to look at the actor’s portrayals of the Joker.

Jared Leto, Suicide Squad (2016)

Strengths

  • Provides new angle, completely different take on character
  • Provides a consistent “What Joker wants, Joker does” personality

Weaknesses

  • Creepy, but in an unsettling way
  • No genuine humor
  • Obsession with Harley distracts from his character

Analysis

You would have to look very hard to find someone who thinks Jared Leto played the best Joker. Many fans cried foul after Suicide Squad’s release, saying Leto’s performance was over the top and didn’t live up to previous portrayals. This is very evident from the movie. Leto plays a very dark and creepy character, which some believe was just too much. Others believe this was a good thing, however, arguing that Leto provides a unique take on the classic villain, and that the completely crazed version of Mister J provides a breath of fresh air. However, this might not entirely be Leto’s fault. Suicide Squad writer/director David Ayer was reportedly only given 6 weeks to write the script. The movie also went through extensive reshoots in order to lighten the tone of the movie, leading to very little screen time for Joker (ironic, isn’t it?). However, I’ll let you decide who is to blame for Leto’s poorly-reviewed performance.

 

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight (2008)

Strengths

  • Appealing motivation, not in it for money or power
  • Isn’t too scary, and is able to add friendliness and humor to the character
  • Very believable, really dives deep into Joker’s psyche while staying organic and raw

Weaknesses

  • Character is more of a terrorist than a super-villain
  • Seems to lack a personal connection with Batman

Analysis

Heath Ledger was one of the biggest heartthrob actors of the early 2000s, starring in romantic, light-hearted movies such as A Knight’s Tale and 10 Things I Hate About You. That was why many were furious when Christopher Nolan announced Ledger would be portraying the Joker in The Dark Knight. However, Ledger blew away audiences with an Oscar-winning performance which has since become the gold standard for many in analyzing subsequent portrayals of Joker. Fans were thrilled with Ledger’s organic and original performance which provided chills and even some laughs throughout the movie. Just do a Google search, and you can find many different opinions on why Heath Ledger played by far the best Joker to date. Criticisms on Ledger’s performance are much harder to come by. I had to enter the “Unpopular Opinion” Reddit page in order to find a truly negative review of Heath Ledger. So, it appears that almost all fans agree that Heath Ledger’s portrayal was great, but it is up to you whether other performances have topped it.

 

Mark Hamill, Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), Batman: Arkham Series (2009-2015), Various Movies (1993-2016)

Strengths

  • Great variation, can be very dark or very light-hearted
  • The vocal aspects, such as the iconic laugh, are spot on
  • Instantly recognizable, set the bar for other voice actors in his wake

Weaknesses

  • Doesn’t always seem like a crazy person, instead just seems like a funny guy who kills people
  • Doesn’t feature much character development throughout his roles, he acts very predictably

Analysis

Moving away from live-action for a moment, Mark Hamill is the clear champion of voice acting for the Joker. The Star Wars actor expanded his fame when he took on the role in Batman: The Animated Series, staying on the show for its entire eighty-five episode run. Hamill continued to reprise his role in many other movies and TV shows, some as recent as 2016. As a result, Hamill was required to adapt his character into many different environments. He needed to be light-hearted at times for his many roles in children’s TV, but also very dark and mature, such as in 2016’s R-rated Batman: The Killing Joke. Many agree that Hamill did this very well. However, this requirement for variation has some drawbacks. It could be argued that Hamill’s characters are very static, and he always has the same motivations: a madman who hates Batman, and not much else. However, with his iconic laugh and incredible one-liners, Mark Hamill will surely go down in the history books for his role as Mister J.

 

Joaquin Phoenix, Joker (2019)

Strengths

  • Shows realistic descent into madness
  • Connects well to previous Jokers
  • Effectively utilizes sick humor

Weaknesses

  • Unnaturally quick switch from troubled to psychotic
  • Not light-hearted at all, can be seen as too disturbing

Analysis

Now, we must talk about the new Joker in the house: Joaquin Phoenix. Many were thrilled to hear the three-time Oscar nominee was cast in the main role of Todd Phillips’ stand-alone Joker film. Phoenix is known as a method actor, which led fans to expect a deep, emotional, performance from him. Surprisingly, many fans believe Phoenix met, if not surpassed these high expectations. Many praise Phoenix for his realistic portrayal which also addressed mental illness and income inequality. The movie itself garnered a lot of attention, in part due to the darkness and disturbing nature of the film. The NYPD, for example, was so worried about violence erupting because of the movie that it placed extra officers in theatres where the movie was being shown. However, some are critical of Phoenix’s performance. Some believe Phoenix doesn’t represent the Clown Prince of Crime, instead just representing a man who suffers a psychotic breakdown as a result of money problems and mental health issues. In the end, you can decide whether Phoenix’s new addition to the Joker universe is worthy of praise or criticism. It is very interesting to analyze how the same character can be the basis for so many different interpretations. You can create a kid-friendly TV show character, a careless terrorist, a crazed criminal, and a realistic madman from just one character outline. When it comes to the Joker, everyone has their own expectations and preferences. Some believe humor is what should define the character, whereas others believe the character should be dramatic and emotional. In fact, Joaquin Phoenix said it best whilst acting as the Joker, saying, “I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize, it’s a comedy.” Quotes like that coupled with the disagreements between fans over what defines the Joker likely contributed to the polarizing reviews given to the movie. However, I believe past Jokers provide some context. We can see that Phoenix is able to use humor, like Heath Ledger and Mark Hamill, but is also able to be incredibly dark, like all three actors analyzed in this article. Overall, I hope you better understand the character of the Joker and are better able to make a decision for yourself about whether Joaquin Phoenix should be revered for his new addition to the Joker universe or not.

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