Your favorite Joker says a lot about you. Hipsters would plump for the ’66 Cesar Romero, 80s kids for Jack Nicholson, cinephiles for Heath Ledger and Hot Topic shoppers for Jared Leto. True Batman aficionados, meanwhile, would of course pick Mark Hamill. But now there’s a strong new contender: Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
So, when The Suicide Squad and Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn was asked to name his all-time favorite Clown Prince of Crime (having earlier named Christian Bale as his top Batman), our ears perked up. His answer?
“Probably Joaquin,” he said.
What does this tell us about Gunn? Well, we know that he has an encyclopedic knowledge of comic books and superhero movies, so him choosing Joaquin Phoenix isn’t just going with the hot new thing. I think that as a filmmaker and writer, Gunn appreciates the risks Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix took with the character. After all, it wasn’t easy to sell Warner Bros. on the idea of the movie, with rumors that they’d cut its budget and minimized their financial risk in the film (which also meant they didn’t see as much profit as they could have from its billion-dollar gross).
But beyond that, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is a kind of synthesis of the many Jokers that came before. When watching the film, you can easily detect the influence of Heath Ledger’s Mr. J, the costuming of Cesar Romero and, when it comes to story, the classic Alan Moore/Brian Bolland Joker origin tale The Killing Joke. Phoenix stands on their shoulders but also manages to make the role very much his own. While he’s certainly the new kid on the block, Gunn may well be right that he’s the best.
The new champ is going to have some pretenders to the crown soon, though. Matt Reeves’ The Batman sequels will introduce their own Joker, there’s talk that a Joker sequel will see Arthur Fleck versus a copycat and we may yet see the Flashpoint female Joker in The Flash.
Whatever else happens, it seems the 2020s are destined to be the decade of the Joker.