With Joker hitting cinemas, it's time to evaluate how Joaquin Phoenix's performance stacks up to all previous takes on the Joker. While the movie is expected to do great business at the box office, Joker has been shrouded in controversy since it first screened for critics at the Venice Film Festival (where Joker won the Golden Lion). Debates continue over the movie’s treatment of violence, its central character, and the impact it could have on the wider culture during such politically tumultuous times. Truly, there are no easy answers here. Joker was a film that was always going to be tough to talk about and mired in unease.
However, the film is still there and deserves to be discussed on its own merits, both as part of and separately from the greater cultural and political discourse. Joker is many things but easy to ignore it is not. One conversation fans have been itching to have since the movie was announced centered on its depiction of the Clown Prince of Crime himself. The Joker has been part of Batman’s lore since the character was invented, and he remains arguably the most iconic comic book villain ever created. His brand of chaotic evil, devoid of superhuman abilities and rooted in unbridled anarchy, has endured for decades, even as the character has received multiple re-imaginings.
He's been voiced by countless actors in cartoons, but is most iconically defined in this medium by the performance of Mark Hamill. Cesar Romero made him a giggling prankster as was befitting the technicolor '60s spectacle of the Adam West series. Jack Nicholson stole the show from Michael Keaton in trademark fashion. Heath Ledger redefined the character and won a posthumous Oscar for it. Jared Leto leaned into the neon gangster aesthetic. And this doesn’t even include people like Tony Hale, Zach Galifianakis, John DiMaggio, and Cameron Monaghan, all of whom put their own stamp on the character. We’d be here all day if we talked about every single Joker actor beyond the big ones. But now there’s Joaquin Phoenix. So, just how does Joker's Arthur Fleck compare to what's come before?
How Can You Even Compare Phoenix’s Joker to the Others?
For many, the Joker is the perfect adversary to the stoic, deeply moral, and ethically focused Batman. This is partly what makes comparing Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker to the others so tricky. The film and its marketing are so heavily defining Joker as being its own thing, separate from the wider DC canon (even though it does take place in Gotham City and the Waynes are named characters). Joker is not so much an origin story for the Joker as it is a possible origin story – one of conceivably many – for a figure who could, under the right circumstances, become a Joker-esque figure.
There are no plans to have Phoenix’s Joker fight Robert Pattinson in his upcoming Batman film and he still operates outside of the DCEU, where Jared Leto technically remains the canon Joker. This Joker is not designed to be a definitive origin story for the character and its primary influences are outside of the comics. All in all, the material actively roots against the notion of comparing Phoenix’s Joker to the others, but it’s also pretty impossible not to do so. As comic book movies become more entrenched in long-running continuity and cement single actors as the only version of certain characters (for example, it’s unlikely we’ll see someone else play Iron Man after Robert Downey Jr., or at least we won’t do so for many many years), there’s a novelty in seeing how all these disparate versions stack up, and in particular how different actors have put their own unique spin on playing the Joker.
Which Joker is Most Accurate to the Comics?
There is no such thing as the singular Batman canon. The narrative of Gotham and its myriad residents has evolved, been rebooted, rewritten, and subverted countless times over by hundreds of writers and artists, each of whom put their own stamp on the material. As is often the case with frequently adapted characters and stories, the basic structures of those ideas are often used loosely by writers as a means to explore contemporary concerns, changing tastes in entertainment, or to adhere to an auteur’s specific style.
Some Jokers are also accurate to the comics of their time but wouldn’t necessarily hold up so for today’s readers. Cesar Romero’s Joker in the Adam West Batman series is pretty close to how he was in the comics during the late 1960s when light comedy and a family-friendly appeal was the focus over thematic darkness. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is arguably the one who most embodies the great defining traits of the character – the purple suit, the laugh, the gag weapons – but even then, he was given a definitive origin story that the comics always rejected.
Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight was its own creation, one where director Christopher Nolan was more interested in changing the character to suit the movie and performance than vice versa. There are subtle elements that feel distinctly rooted in the character’s origins, especially his bleak sense of humor and more visual moments like his Hello Nurse dress-up. Nolan’s work borrowed elements from the comics but barely, which is partly what makes Ledger’s Joker so singular. Jared Leto went more hip-hop gangster for his Joker in Suicide Squad, which isn’t wholly without source material origins, but for many viewers, it was too incongruous with what they knew and expected from the character. Overall, the most accurate would probably be Mark Hamill’s turn in Batman: The Animated Series, which captures the malevolent spirit of the character through sheer voice work alone.
Joker has obvious inspirations from Batman canon. The allusions to The Killing Joke are evident in how it positions the character’s origin as being rooted in his pre-Joker life as a failed stand-up. However, The Killing Joke is notable for how it reminds the audience that this version of events is just that – a version of the past that may be true but it really doesn’t matter to the Joker or anyone else. Other than that part, Joker’s biggest influences come not from DC Comics but auteur-driven cinema such as Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, and Network. In many ways, it’s a movie that does everything in its power to be as disassociated from the comics as possible. Accuracy is not what Todd Phillips is aiming for and that may prove controversial to some fans.
Which Joker Depicts Mental Illness The Best?
The connections between the Joker and mental illness have been much debated over the years, as has the more general question of how “madness” is utilized in pop culture as shorthand for villainy. Some versions of the Joker have him acting “crazy” while remaining lucid, and others lean in hard to the notion that he is suffering from some sort of condition that motivates his criminal chaos. There’s much to be said on the appropriateness of this and how far society has come in terms of not demonizing mental illness. This can be seen in many of the more major interpretations of the Joker, which typically lean towards the image of him as harnessing “madness” more as a force than something that controls him.
However, Phoenix and Phillips’s Joker is primarily a study of mental illness. Arthur Fleck is a man plagued by multiple physical, mental, and emotional illnesses for which he receives treatment and medication. The troubles, delusions, and isolation that are brought upon by Arthur’s mental illness are motivating factors in his transformative journey. It’s certainly a gutsy direction for this narrative to take with such a familiar character and it’s one that roots the story in a decidedly anti-comedic matter (Arthur may want to be a comedian but he is painfully unfunny).
What binds the Jokers together in this regard is how none of them are given official diagnoses by their respective narratives. This makes sense with stories where he’s a more performatively crazy figure, but with Joker, it’s a major blind spot. Phillips and Phoenix said they deliberately did not give Arthur a specific diagnosis, although there are various elements that could be seen as making him bipolar. This catch-all portrayal of “madness” has striking parts in the narrative – the film is at its best when it shows how cold political decisions to scrap services like mental health care can have a wide impact – but it still cannot help but weaken the overall story and character given that his mental state and the realistic setting surrounding it is key to the entire movie.
Which Joker Looks The Best?
There is one thing Phoenix’s Joker has in his corner and that is one hell of a wardrobe choice. The final Joker look he dons towards the end of the film is a striking mix of comic book influences, with a lot of Cesar Romero sprinkled on top. Designed by Mark Bridges (the Oscar-winning costume designer behind Phantom Thread), the combination of John Wayne Gacy-style make-up, dripping green hair, and retro dapper suit makes this Joker one that will make a lasting impression.
There’s a reason the Joker is such a staple for Halloween costumes: You really can’t go wrong with a look that iconic, even as it’s been reinvented multiple times over. Heath Ledger’s Joker was a great example of that, a uniform of sorts that seemed simultaneously neatly put together and thrown on at the last minute (the perfect exemplification of his ethos, as emphasized by the combination of rough scars and hastily applied make-up.) Cesar Romero’s suit was cut straight from the swinging ‘60s (and made all the better by his refusal to shave off his mustache, thus leaving it to be covered by make-up). Both Nicholson and Hamill’s looks are straight from the comics with their retro mob boss stylings. Jared Leto’s Joker look was at least complete. There was an obvious logic behind the Juggalo gangster inspiration, the tattoos, and the fashion, but there’s a reason most people don’t hold positive memories of that aesthetic. It seems far too neatly prepared and coordinated in a way that lacks true chaos.
So Who Is The Best Joker?
The wider conversation over which Joker will have the biggest cultural impact and define the character for years to come is one that will probably never stop, especially if DC and Warner Bros. choose to keep making movies and letting new actors take on the role. If nothing else, what Joaquin Phoenix’s version does is widen the discussion beyond the confines of a franchise and the often staid expectations placed upon such an iconic property.
As for whether or not he’s the best Joker? As mentioned above, it’s hard to judge him as such when the standards for his movie are so different compared to the others, but he is certainly a fascinating addition to the line-up. However, it’s tough to argue with the fact that the most impactful version of the Joker is Heath Ledger’s. He utterly reinvented the character for a new audience to the point where many people see him as The Joker, end of story. Regardless of comic book accuracy, Ledger’s version is so perfectly balanced for the narrative he inhabits, the Bruce Wayne he opposes, and the Gotham of the changing times. That will be hard for any actor to compete within the aftermath.
Still, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is a film and a character that demands to be understood by its own rules and independently of any wider preconceptions about the property and how audiences think he’s supposed to act. That’s part of the challenge of the film and one that will probably cause more than a few arguments. Whether he’s your best, worst, or middling Joker, he’s certainly tough to forget.
NEXT: Joker's Ending Explained
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- The Batman (2021) release date: Jun 25, 2021
- The Suicide Squad (2021) release date: Aug 06, 2021
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