Careful, or you’ll be laughing on the other side of your face
Joaquin Phoenix takes Heath Ledger’s frightful Joker to the sad, nasty and cautionary logical limits
Since the character was introduced to the comics universe in 1940, the Joker has been a famous villain in popular culture. As with any long-running character the Joker has acted as a vessel to express the changing fears and anxieties of society. At first he was a slapstick clown – unhinged certainly, definitely mad, but not too much of a challenge for the resourceful ingenuity of Batman. Then as the world changed and Cold War paranoia swept away the old geopolitical and social structures, he became a darker, more violent and destructive expression of the unchecked id.
It was that incarnation of the Joker that was expressed in two comic book appearances of the character in the 1980s – Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke and Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum, both of which gave full rein to the psychological dark side of the Dark Knight’s nemesis. It was that Joker who Heath Ledger so memorably tapped for his Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight, and now it’s taken to the logical limits of that exploration in Todd Phillips’s Joker.
Played with terrifying intensity by Joaquin Phoenix, Phillips’s Joker is not a character situated within the DC Universe but rather a reincarnation for the unsettling Trump era of the lonely, lost men pushed to the edge in the films of the 1970s American New Wave. He is Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, with some of the pig-headedness of Popeye Doyle from The French Connection thrown in for good measure...