There are a lot of hopes among comic book fans (I’m one of them) that are riding on Todd Philips’s Joker origin movie, starring Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role as the Clown Prince of Crime. Two main hopes are to give us a Joker that finally lives up to the legendary performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight.
The other hope is to finally have a comic-book movie win the best picture Oscar and provide the ultimate stamp of approval on comic book movies as serious fare worthy of the highest critical acclaim and acknowledgment. Unfortunately, in shooting for these two lofty goals, the actual movie itself turns away so completely from its comic book roots that it might as well not be a Joker movie at all, just a story of a mentally ill guy who happens to wear clown makeup.
For starters, let me just say that any comparison between Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix are rendered null by the fact that the characters they portray, aside from sharing the same name, are so wildly different that they might as well be two separate people. Ledger’s Joker was a criminal mastermind who hid his nihilistic outlook under the guise of insanity. The world saw the Joker as a madman, but he was in every way an evil genius capable of pushing the world’s greatest detective to his mental limits.
Related: Joaquin Phoenix Is Not Totally Opposed to Doing Joker 2
This idea of the Joker as a mastermind has stayed consistent across every comic, cartoon and movie adaptation. Until Phoenix came along. His Joker is an exceedingly ordinary man, driven by his violent impulses and being swept up in the tide of events. His first murder is a defensive act against three bullies. His next few crimes are intensely personal, spur-of-the-moment acts that are the actions of a victim finally acting out against his oppressors, rather than those of a villain reveling in his evil nature. Even after he starts a revolution on the streets, it is made clear that was never his intention, nor were the events ever in his control after he accidentally lit the fuse on the powder keg that is Gotham’s lower, disenfranchised classes.
So the character we finally get is more in the vein of the unnamed narrator from Fight Club than the master of chaotic evil that is the comic book Joker. We can imagine the Jokers played by Ledger, Hamill, Nicholson, or even Leto giving Batman a hard time. Phoenix’s Joker, on the other hand, would barely last a second in such a scenario. He is not a supervillain or even a villain. In one scene, we see him kill a man who had wronged him and spare another who had been his friend. That was not the action of the comic book Joker, but simply a deranged but kind-hearted man who was acting out against a particular person he felt had wronged him.
Todd Philips has repeatedly insisted that there is not going to be a Joker meets Batman sequel for his movie, and that completely makes sense. This Joker is in no way suited to become Batman’s arch-enemy. And that is why, from the perspective of a comic book fan, this movie ultimately disappointed me, despite Phoenix’s masterful performance. I came to the theater hoping to see the origin of comicdom’s most diabolical villain, the madman who is renowned for carrying out the most sadistic acts of torture and mayhem with unsuppressed glee, the unstoppable force of nature pitted against the immovable Batman, the charismatic cult leader who rules the Gotham underworld and practically hypnotizes his army of lackeys into doing his bidding.
Instead, I saw a movie about a sad, lonely man struggling to deal with his mental illness while beset by poverty and an uncaring society, until he finally snaps and goes on a vengeful rampage, accidentally starting a revolution and becoming a folk hero of sorts in the process. Something like The Killing Joke, but sadder and bleaker. Whereas in The Killing Joke, the simple, kind-hearted man is turned into a madman by falling into a toxic vat of chemicals that warp his mind, here Arthur Fleck AKA Joker stays the same, sad, lonely man, only with a more violent streak.
It was a good, enjoyable movie within its parameters, but I’m still waiting to watch a Joker origin movie that does justice to the character I grew up reading about. Until then I can always rewatch Breaking Bad, whose lead character follows a more satisfying trajectory of transforming from a simple, regular guy into a scheming, diabolical and ultimately unrepentant crime lord.