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Keeping track of the actors who have played live action versions of the Joker feels a bit like picking your favorite James Bond. For the record, I’m a George Lazenby fan. By the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, audiences are given the best cinematic explanation for why Bond is the way he is. He’s never gonna dance again, guilty feet have got no rhythm and there’s no love in his heart because his mortal enemy plucked it out of his chest by killing his wife.

Anyway…clowns to the left of me / jokers to the right / here I am / stuck in the middle with you. I know, why bring these obvious lyrics into the mix, right?


Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Joker’ // Photo: Niko Tarernise, Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Well, blame it on Todd Phillips. Joker, his standalone DC film dares to dream up and present an origin story for the iconic homicidal fiend, when it still feels a bit too soon, if you ask me. I’m not quite over Heath Ledger’s portrayal in The Dark Knight (to say nothing of Jared Leto’s Suicide Squad iteration, really not much I care to say), which I honestly believe would have won an Academy Award no matter the circumstances. His Joker wasn’t crazy in the way Joaquin Phoenix presents him in Joker. Ledger shows him to be a mercurial creature, subject to whims (but not outright whimsy) that strike his fancy, usually in the midst of a plan in mid-execution.

Phoenix, on the other hand, is certifiably, criminally insane. His thoughts are always disturbed and his world is too. He’s a man of his time, a victim and a perpetrator, and the film attempts to explain that he comes by it honestly. He’s a mama’s boy, whose mama is fragile at best.

He’s a clown, working for a service that employs men seemingly one bad comment away from shooting up the place to put on the makeup and entertain the masses while Gotham burns. Arthur Fleck is the poster-child for mass-shooter in waiting, which is what this Joker is all about.

Ledger was devious, a movie creation, without the sad-clown posturing. I imagine Ledger’s Joker, in an alternative universe, being friends with Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass. Maybe they wind up in the same ward for criminal masterminds. Arkham Asylum is the wrong place for The Dark Knight‘s Joker, because like Mr. Glass, he’s not sick. He’s just ahead of the curve.

But Phoenix is sick. From the first moment we lay eyes on him, he shows signs of the darkness eating away at him from the inside. He wants to be good, dreams of being a good son or a funny guy or a boyfriend to his neighbor (Zazie Beetz), but he’s constitutionally not made up to be good. What’s the saying, you’re born dying. Well, Phoenix’s Joker came out of the womb on his way to being a Joker. Did he need the pitiful backstory that screenwriters Phillips and Scott Silver provide? Not really.

This Joker is, in full bloom towards the end, a sensationalized version of the guys with access to guns we see every month or so. They don’t inspire revolutions and anarchy. They just exist and express their rage in their moments and either meet their end along with their victims or fade back into the shadows.

I wonder what they would think of the Joaquin Phoenix Joker…