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Temperature Check: Joaquin Phoenix’s ‘Joker’

Now that we’ve got our first look at the latest iteration of DC’s most iconic villain, it’s time to ask: How is everyone feeling about this?

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

The Joker—not that one; and also not that one—has returned. When news first broke that Joaquin Phoenix would be starring in a stand-alone Joker film directed by Todd Phillips, it all seemed like a fever dream. Wasn’t Jared Leto already doing his thing (read: being over-the-top and low-key harassing his castmates via the United States Postal Service)? Didn’t Phoenix have indies to make? But over the past couple of days, actual footage and stills from the set have been released to confirm that, yes, this is actually happening. How do we feel about it, now that there’s visual evidence of Joker? The Ringer staff was asked that very question.

1. Has the new footage of Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker made you more or less excited for the upcoming movie?

Shea Serrano: I feel good about it, mostly because there’s one very, very quick moment in that video clip that’s been circulating. The camera is slowly pulling in closer and closer to Joaquin’s face, and as it does we keep getting those little flickers of him in the Joker’s makeup. Those are fine, and the effect it’s going for is fine, but once they get all the way in and we finally get to see a good shot of him in the complete getup, he does this thing where he smiles softly and his left eyebrow jumps up just a tiny amount. It’s like he’s experiencing great relief in that moment; as though the makeup has freed him; as though he can, after some great torment or distress or angst, finally be truly alive. And that’s an angle of the Joker we’ve not seen yet. Nicholson used the makeup as a shield. Ledger used it as a way to express his mania. Jared used it to be even more Jared-y than normal. Joaquin looks like he’s going to use it as an excuse to go fucking nuts. I’m in.

Micah Peters: So, in Young Justice—which is fair to bring up here since it’s a DC property—Robin, a Boy Wonder and a total dweeb, has this dad joke he uses a few too many times. “People are always ‘overwhelmed’ or ‘underwhelmed’—isn’t anybody ever just ... ‘whelmed’?” I’m interested in someone attempting a film about the Joker’s backstory and I’m glad the movie is set in the ’80s and not the present day, which might have spurred another XXXtreme take like Jared Leto’s. On the whole, I am whelmed by the prospect of The Joaquin Phoenix Joker movie.

Michael Baumann: I don’t think I could be less excited for yet another (a) DC superhero movie and (b) cultivated weirdo actor to take up a role Heath Ledger should’ve rendered unrebootable for decades. But I like Joaquin Phoenix, and at least—thank God—his Keith David–in–Cloud Atlas wardrobe and Javier Bardem–in–No Country for Old Men haircut lead me to believe he’s doing something more interesting than whatever the fuck Jared Leto did. My excitement level was a zero out of 100, but now it’s all the way up to one out of 100.

Zach Mack: I know we’re all a little hesitant to see another portrayal of the Joker after Jared Leto’s botched attempt and Heath Ledger’s incredible swan song, but as the resident Batman fan here, I must tell you to be excited! This is the Joker we’re talking about here. One of the most layered and compelling villains of all time being played by one of the best actors of this generation. While it’s not entirely clear what kind of Joker Phoenix will be, I have no doubt he will do the necessary work to make his take on the iconic villain a fresh one.

Miles Surrey: I still remain convinced this isn’t actually happening, and is instead some collective illusion the internet dredged up as a perfect amalgamation of all the crappy events of 2018. Either that, or Warner Bros. lacks any purposeful strategic direction with its DC Extended Universe. (OK, it’s probably the latter.)

Kate Halliwell: This movie comes out on October 4, 2019. I lack the capacity for excitement over a scattering of BTS photos and brief clips from something that far away; exhaustion has already set in over A Star Is Born clips, and that comes out this October. I have room for only one over-the-top diva at a time.

2. How much faith do you have in director Todd Phillips?

Peters: Phillips is responsible for Road Trip, Old School, The Hangover, and like five other films that are more or less the same movie. Faith is a strong word. But I had faith in David Ayer because I thought Fury was unflinching or whatever and look how Suicide Squad turned out.

Surrey: Very little, unless producer Martin Scorsese treats Phillips like a ventriloquist dummy and takes over the set, which seems unlikely. Don’t get me wrong, The Hangover movies are fun, but nothing about them screams, “I want to see that director make a dark, political supervillain origin story.”

Halliwell: I can’t say I’m a fan, so my expectations are nice and low. Arguably, that’s where they may need to be for this movie.

Baumann: Some. He’s still light-years behind Adam McKay on the totem pole of Frat Pack Directors Gone Legit, but he’s shown himself to be a clever writer-director in the past. It’s really a shame, though, that the only bad guys out there are supervillains, and the only supervillain you can make a movie about is the Joker. Joker will probably be fine, but it’ll probably suffer by inviting comparison to The Dark Knight.

Serrano: I don’t know how to answer this one. There are only a handful of directors I trust implicitly, because there are only a handful of directors who have made a movie so important to me that I felt like I needed to find out who the director of it was. Todd isn’t in that group, but he’s in that group for producers—Old School is still fun, and the first Hangover movie is still fun, and I haven’t seen A Star Is Born yet but I already love it—so I don’t know how to answer this one.

Mack: I have some honest-to-goodness faith. His background suggests he’ll be particularly comfortable understanding both the over-the-top comedic moments as well as the nuances of the Joker. But can he capture the terror?

3. Is the Joker too overworked, or can Joaquin Phoenix transcend the oversaturation?

Baumann: Yesterday it was Jared Leto, today it’s Joaquin Phoenix—in 10 years, every asshole who’s ever missed the meaning of Fight Club will get the chance to play the Joker in a studio blockbuster. Hollywood will just be a Joker monoculture, like how every restaurant in Demolition Man was Taco Bell.

Peters: I don’t know that the Joker character is necessarily overworked, but it’s going to take some kind of showing to outdo Heath Ledger. He teetered between humorous and homicidal just like Nicholson, but did deranged in a way that felt unique to his performance. But having seen Phoenix and his jelly beans in You Were Never Really There, it’s hard to bet against him.

Halliwell: Both Batman and the Joker should be retired from movies for good, but since DC has a knack for giving us exactly what we don’t want, I expect to see at least three films with Joaquin’s Joker. I’d say that would at least give us more screentime with Zazie Beetz, but we all know they’ll kill her off in the first movie, because DC is the worst.

Surrey: Let me put it this way: If the Joaquin Phoenix Joker meant never getting another minute of the Jared Leto Joker, then by all means—give him a trilogy.

Mack: The Joker is a complex character that has inspired a lot of compelling performances throughout the years in film, TV, video games, and comics. There’s no one way to play the character, so as long as the world (and myself) is still interested in seeing the Joker in movies, I’m glad the role is being placed in capable hands.

Serrano: The Joker is wonderful. He’s an all-time great movie villain. He’s not overworked. And Joaquin Phoenix is a brilliant, brilliant actor, particularly when he’s allowed to be villainous (his role as the petulant, whiny, evil Commodus in Gladiator was as perfectly played as it gets). Make 50 movies about the Joker, I’m gonna see 50 movies about the Joker.