Joker, the much-discussed new movie featuring Joaquin Phoenix as DC’s dark Clown Prince, creates a never-before-seen origin story for the infamous super-villain. Introduced as Arthur Fleck, Phoenix embodies a man struggling with both mental illness and to find some sort of meaning in an existence that feels like it was doomed from the start. It’s a powerful, intense and often harrowing story brought to life by one of the world’s foremost actors and guided by director Todd Phillips, who shows never before seen depth and range with the critically acclaimed new film. But for comic book fans, the most impressive thing about Joker may be that it provides something that’s never been definitively provided before—a backstory that’s nearly 80 years in the making.
But does it? Aside from the fact that movie continuity doesn’t necessarily inform what takes place in the comics, part of why the Joker’s origin is still considered a mystery is because when it comes to the Joker, seeing and hearing aren’t necessarily believing. Remember Heath Ledger’s continually changing story of how he got his scars in The Dark Knight? Or the Valeska family twists and turns on Gotham? As the Joker put it himself in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke (arguably the closest thing we’ve gotten to a definitive Joker origin prior to now), “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”
While Joker’s not an adaptation of The Killing Joke, it’s clear that it was an influence on Phillips and co-screenwriter Scott Silver, who not only make Arthur an aspiring standup comedian, but also cast plenty of doubt over the truthfulness of their own story. What we’re seeing may not be what’s actually happening.
As Phillips puts it, “Not only does the story have an unreliable narrator, but it’s Joker, so it’s almost an unreliable unreliable narrator.”
That does create a challenge for the performer. When you’re unsure whether what you’re seeing and believing is real, how do you respond to it? In Phoenix’s case, it’s a matter of whether Arthur sees fit to question what he believes—something that ultimately has some pretty severe repercussions in the film.
“You never know if what he’s saying is real,” explains Phoenix. “Whatever he’s saying, it’s very real to him. Whether it is objectively real, that’s questionable. But for him, it always felt real. So, I felt like I had to approach it sincerely every time, no matter what the scene was. But it’s really left up to you, to the audience, to decide what you think is real or isn’t.”
At times, this proves to be a pretty easy task, but those moments just invite you to question others. If all this time, that wasn’t what it seemed to be, what about all of this? While Joker isn’t a surreal or hallucinogenic film, it does invite viewers to build their own interpretations.
“I think there are several different reactions that people can have and they’re all valid,” Phoenix shares. “There’s something really exciting about being in a movie that requires the audience to participate with a character in a different way. Usually, a character’s motivations are so clearly defined that we’re telling the audience precisely what to feel and when, and what I like about this movie is it’s really up to interpretation.”
One thing that’s likely to yield much conversation is Arthur’s relationship with his neighbor Sophie Dumond, played by Zazie Beetz. Sophie is a single mother who ultimately becomes a big part of Arthur’s life, for better or for worse.
“She struggles like him,” explains Beetz. “Not necessarily on an emotional level in the same way he does, but in other parts of her life. I think that’s a place where they find equal ground. But also, she is kind of this interpretation of what he wants her to be for him as a friend, as a companion, and so it’s interesting because she’s this fabrication a little bit of what he needs and wants from her.”
That may well be true of much of what we see in Joker…or possibly not. And much as we may not always trust what’s on the screen, we also may find ourselves unsure about how we feel about Arthur. Do we sympathize with him? Fear for him? Are we shocked and horrified by him? The answer probably lies somewhere between all three, much of which has to be credited to Phoenix’s remarkable performance. While the actor has built his reputation on challenging characters and material, Joker sets a new benchmark for him, ensuring that no matter how you ultimately feel about his Clown Prince of Crime, you’ll never forget him.
“To me, Joaquin is just one of the greats,” admits Phillips. “It’s hard to explain to people what an actor brings to a role. You might see it and think everything in there was written down for him to do when it’s just not that way ever. Joaquin is one of those guys who just takes it and makes it his own in a very specific way that you would have never guessed.”
As someone who had to act opposite him as his character suffers some pretty challenging moments, Beetz found Phoenix to be surprisingly playful with the role.
“He loves to explore,” she shares. “At least on this set, he was constantly finding new things. I think when he becomes the Joker it’s inherently sort of this playful person or creature almost. Joaquin brings a lot of that while also bringing a lot of humanity to a role that I think we would usually kind of keep at arm’s length. I think he brings a lot of soul to it.”
Whether it’s for Phoenix’s performance, the provocative points the film makes about today’s society or for what it adds to the legacy of the world’s most infamous comic book villain, Joker is unlikely to be a movie that’s soon forgotten by viewers, whether you see it as the Joker’s definitive origin or not.
“There’s a million ways to view this movie and…what lens you view it through depends on your experience,” suggests Phillips. “So, I hate to tell people what to feel from the movie. I just think you go in with an open mind and you’ll take with it what you take from it.”