Review: Joaquin Phoenix’s JOKER (2019) Is A Villain Story That Mimics A Superhero Origin Tale

Published by Shah Shahid on

I’m writing this Joker movie review minutes after seeing the movie. And it’s definitely a doozy, that’s for sure. The movie of the year, in terms of buzz and controversy, of course. Joker had the most Oscar nominations of the 92nd Academy Awards. And became a huge commercial success for Warner Bros. and all involved. So the reactions of Joker run from ‘genius’ to ‘toxic’. I usually spend less time worrying about those things and leave it to people much smarter than me, like Anupama Chopra. My concern was more, ‘is Joker a good movie?’. And let me tell you folks; it is. But not for the reasons everyone’s been saying.

Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is different than other Jokers we’ve ever seen.

Image via Warner Bros.

Joker is an origin story about one of comic book’s most iconic villains. The nemesis to Batman is the protagonist of this movie like he has never been before. Joker is not any part of the current DC Extended Universe films, but a movie that stands on its own. Many have referred to the movie as a character study into a supervillain. Joker is supposedly separate from its comic book roots. But despite that, I feel that Joker canonizes and contextualizes the Joker that we know. Here’s how. 

Joker’s story is that of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled man with a troubled past. Fleck sufers from a condition like Tourettes, causing uncontrollable laughter when nervous. So Fleck is… odd, to say the least. His condition makes him socially inept. His anxiety and other, plethora of mental health issues affect his place in society. And the society he lives in is that of a 70’s Gotham city, rife with problems relating to crime and poverty. 

Joker is a subversion of the trope of the hero’s journey, made for a villain.

The serenity behind Joker | Image via Warner Bros.

It’s in this city, at this time, that Fleck has a series of bad days. Culminating in some heinous actions that should cause audiences to sympathize with him. However, his plight instead, frees him to be the person that he believes he’s always meant to be. His decisions bring forth a persona more confident. His actions create a person more comfortable in the world. Eventually leading to the Joker that we’re familiar with. 

This is sort of why I very much enjoyed Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. It’s a subversion of the trope of the hero’s journey. The typical hero starts in similar ways to the story of Arthur Fleck. Awkward. Shy. Misunderstood. Socially inept. Until situations out of their control cause them to realize their true purpose in life. Get powers. Become braver. Focus their existing moral compass. Make decisions that lead them down to the path of heroism. Joker follows those exact same character development beats. But instead of heroism, the destination here is villainy instead. 

Joker canonizes and contextualizes the comic book Joker that we know.

The calm behind the storm. | Image via Warner Bros.

It’s a remarkable take on the concept of heroes and villains. For those that feel Joker glorifies or creates a sympathetic character, I disagree. Moments in the movie never feel glorified, or portraying Fleck in a positive light. Despite his history, the character’s decisions are villainous. There are no two ways about it. What’s intriguing is that the journey makes sense. The character is easily extrapolated into the comic book character we know. I can see Phoenix’s Joker become the Joker from the comic books, as part of his natural evolution. 

This is a Spoiler-free Joker movie review. But, there are two moments in the climax that give proper context to the status of Joker in the Batman universe. As well as one of the biggest origin moments of the DC Comics property. Despite us having seen it countless times. 

Phoenix’s powerhouse, almost one-man, performance in Joker is impressive. But it’s Joker’s world that impresses me the most. A good story is always bolstered by what’s happening around it. And director Todd Phillips is able to create a world that’s almost as interesting as the character himself. The political climate of Gotham at the time of the story is incredibly unique. And much less sanitized than we’ve ever seen. Even Batman Begins gave a criminally rotting Gotham that still looked good. With its villains looking highly stylized and clean. Whereas Joker’s Gotham takes a realistic downturn to hell, all in the background of the main story. Which is just plain brilliant!

Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker Movie Trailer

Joker’s deserving of its Oscar nominations is up for debate. But Phoenix’s performance, and subsequent win, shouldn’t be. For most of this feature film, it’s almost always Phoenix in every scene, acting his butt off. His depiction of Arthur that can go from pathetic and sullen to confident and dangerous. Even that, in mere seconds, through facial expression alone, which rightfully deserves accolades. 

What did you think of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter @theshahshahid.


Shah Shahid

Entertainment Writer | Film & TV Critic | Bollywood Blogger | Host of Split Screen Podcast | Proud Geek Girl Dad

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