Joaquin Phoenix gives us yet another performance on the Joker. (Illustration by Alice (Xinhe) Yuan, Maryland Institute College of Art)

‘Joker’ Fuels Arguments Over Acting, Social Responsibility and More

Heath Ledger versus Joaquin Phoenix. Incel bait versus empathetic portrayal of mental illness. There’s plenty to argue about.

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Joaquin Phoenix gives us yet another performance on the Joker. (Illustration by Alice (Xinhe) Yuan, Maryland Institute College of Art)

Heath Ledger versus Joaquin Phoenix. Incel bait versus empathetic portrayal of mental illness. There’s plenty to argue about.

In 2019, another “We live in a society” film is breaking records at the box office. Eleven years after Heath Ledger’s iconic performance in the “The Dark Knight,” the trailer for Todd Phillip’s “Joker” starring Joaquin Phoenix promised the world a Heath-worthy performance rather than another Jared Leto disaster. After being shot down, the bar for the role of the *clowned* villain was again raised impossibly high.

Reviews for “Joker” are polarized, ranging from “bold and devastating,” to “juvenile” and “irresponsible.” The film seems to either strike a nerve, disappoint or just make you feel really bad. However, there are a few things that nobody can deny. The first is the outstanding performance by Phoenix. The second is the film’s painfully obvious reflection on the present time: the story of the outcast turned lone shooter, the backdrop of civil unrest and the dire need for a better superhero film. This time around, a personal, sympathetic character study of Joker might have been exactly what we needed — or not.

In a time of political turmoil and unexplained obsession with movie clowns, “Joker” offers something else to argue about.

Phoenix vs. Ledger

Phoenix had big shoes to fill, yet the “Joker” was one of his best performances, perhaps the best of them all. Most people agree he was a close second, or even equal, to Ledger, regardless of their opinions on their respective films. This being said, the two versions of the clown couldn’t be more different, which makes them hard to compare.

Both actors developed a presence that elevated films characterized by a darkness and an eerie realism not typical of a “superhero” movie. However, Ledger’s sociopathic unpredictability makes “The Dark Knight” far colder. We’re never allowed to see a human side to him, which we’re convinced in his first 10 seconds on screen does not exist.

His explosive, terrorizing acting makes you feel personally attacked, but the discomfort you’ll feel watching Phoenix is more of a slow burn, forcing us to look in on someone’s life that we’d rather not for far too long. The portrayal of the “Joker” offered was extremely empathetic. It also was possibly overkill. His defining characteristic was not being a sociopath; rather it was his being both well-meaning and unstable. Unlike “The Dark Knight,” the origin story was predictable but upsettingly feasible, and the dread of knowing what was coming only intensified the experience.

While Ledger was the Joker” and only the Joker, Phoenix is not the Joker at all, rather, a man in the process of becoming him. They both have their charms, but the two exist within separate universes and could never be linearly connected to each other. As far as the role, I’d give Ledger the win. As far as actually being the Joker, Heath wins again.

Too Far?

To make an overgeneralization, the comments section loves “Joker” and critics do not, which strangely feels like a reflection of its content. While I’ve heard or read hundreds of comments raving, “This was the best movie I’ve ever seen,” others think its message lacks nuance, that it’s emotionally one-sided and risky. With the main storyline following a societal reject’s journey to becoming a “somebody” shooter, it seems to almost give weird props to or at least justify, this kind of reaction in a way that seems — what’s been referred to as — “incel-friendly”.

The film reflects on underlying social unrest and economic disparity reminiscent of, well, now. A man forgotten about by society becomes a symbol for a movement to take on the system. His first line in the film is, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” There’s a political statement, but it sometimes feels incomplete, if not unclear. The superhero genre, mental illness, the 1% and mass murder were all great topics to throw into the blender, but the smoothie had a weird aftertaste.

While “Joker” strays a little too far from the DC universe, it echoes a sympathetic story for the “wronged by society” white guy who reacts with violence. This casts an eerie shadow on the past decade of mass shootings, and the Joker subject, in particular, has generated fear of a reoccurrence of the Aurora shooting in 2012 during a showing of “The Dark Knight.” However, while the protagonist is a white male, the film’s underlying social unrest doesn’t concern gender or race, but rather economic class. That being said, the film leaves plenty of room for interpretation. Still, the Joker still shoots at least three “finance bros” on the subway and Robert De Niro on live TV while his relationship with the protestors remains unclear.

In its defense, there is outstanding acting and cinematography, a great soundtrack, improvised Tai Chi and a cool ‘70s visual feel. It’s a movie that is hard to forget. It holds a mirror up to our society’s neglect and abuse of the less fortunate, forcing us to look directly at the things that we so often pretend not to see. “Joker” isn’t exactly subtle, but it holds an ugly truth. 

A Little Moore?

The Joker as we know him originated from the 1988 graphic novel “The Killing Joke,” written by the same anarchist, occultist and comic book writer as “Watchmen” and “V For Vendetta” — Alan Moore. The premise was that anyone can become the Joker after “one bad day” (if the day was bad enough), and 20 years later, Ledger’s Joker reiterates that “Madness is like gravity, all it takes is a little push”.

Batman and The Joker’s conflicting philosophies in “The Dark Knight” represent the balance between chaos and order by which we live and the argument for anarchy versus government. Neither will kill the other when, as the Joker says, an “unstoppable force meets an immovable object”. While Ledger’s Joker tries to achieve the chaos he sees as true and “fair,” Phoenix’s doesn’t seem to have a clear philosophy, at least not yet. Nobody knows when the clown’s next appearance will be, but maybe we don’t need one.

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