I don’t know if the new Todd Phillips–directed, Joaquin Phoenix–starring Joker is going to be any good, but it is absolutely going to be interesting.
Comic book adaptations have so thoroughly saturated the major film studio landscape that even complaining about such saturation has become a hackneyed trope. It was nearly five years ago that Jason Concepcion ranked the 13 deaths of Thomas Wayne. Since then we’ve had three more movies featuring Ben Affleck as the Caped Crusader, who himself has handed the keys to the Batmobile over to Robert Pattinson. Joaquin Phoenix is in fact the second actor to take on the Joker since Heath Ledger’s definitive portrayal in The Dark Knight, after Jared Leto’s bizarre turn in Suicide Squad. These films are so lucrative, and as a result so pervasive, that they get rebooted and remade at a furious pace, which means that every major actor who wants to take a crack at playing a superhero or supervillain seems to get one. No one actor owns an individual character the way Christopher Reeve once owned Superman, and the constant churn makes it difficult for one actor or one director to stand above the pack.
Ledger did, and so did Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, who took the raw material of the Batman comics and shaped them into an epic crime thriller. Making a comic book movie into a work of literary fiction is a gamble—sometimes we end up having to pretend that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a spiritual successor to Three Days of the Condor—but it is possible for a film, or a performance, to transcend the genre. The most enticing thing about Joker is how seriously both Phoenix and Phillips seem to be taking it, from the boldness of the overwhelmingly yellow color palette to the ferocity with which Phoenix attempts to imbue one of the weirdest and most mysterious villains in modern pop culture with a measure of humanity.
Ledger’s Joker was compelling not because he was as brutal as he was charismatic, but because of how eerily mysterious he was. He had no name, no backstory, and even Ledger himself disappeared into the character more completely than previously thought possible for a movie star. With just a smattering of face paint and hair dye, a distinctive accent choice, and a couple of prosthetic scars, the hunky guy from 10 Things I Hate About You and Brokeback Mountain vanished totally.
Because we’ll see Phoenix evolve into the Joker, we’ll always know it’s him under the face paint, and we’ll have a better (read: any) idea of why he’s sowing mayhem across Gotham. It’s upon this evolution that Phoenix is hanging his performance. And this is without doubt A Performance, an attempt not just to try on the Joker for a laugh, or even to ascend to parity with Ledger in terms of owning the character, but a big, possibly career-defining swing.
Phoenix has always been an intelligent but weird performer, and as such is perhaps uniquely suited to play such an intelligent and weird character. Certainly he’ll do more with it than Leto did with his trip to Hot Topic, and the target here is clearly Oscar-level critical acclaim. That’s always the upside for a role in which a talented and well-known actor has so much to do, so many emotions to portray, in a blockbuster studio drama opposite Robert De Niro. That ultimate prize, the Academy Award, has eluded Phoenix even as he’s spent the past 20 years delivering acclaimed and interesting performances in award-gobbling films like Her, The Master, Walk the Line, and Gladiator, which won five Oscars from 12 nominations but left Phoenix—whose menacing weirdo performance as Commodus not only predicted the Joker but was the best part of the film—clapping politely for Benicio Del Toro.
The proximity to Ledger, the last actor from a superhero film to so much as win an Oscar nomination, will likely make that pursuit futile. Maybe, with character reinventions coming thick and fast as they are, Leto and Suicide Squad were enough of a palette cleanser, the Bill Guthridge and Matt Doherty that prepared the public to go from Ledger’s Dean Smith to Phoenix’s Roy Williams.
Even in this furious reboot culture—and even though in 1999, Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench both earned Oscar nominations for playing a character in white face paint bent on world domination (Queen Elizabeth I)—it’s hard to imagine Phoenix so totally capturing the imagination of fans, to say nothing of critics and voters, at least not to the extent necessary to finally take home the biggest prize in acting. This exact performance, with similar aesthetics, in a film about some other criminal psychopath, would have benefited from existing outside Ledger’s shadow, and outside the silo of comic book movies. But then again, a movie like that likely wouldn’t have been made at all.