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What critics thought of the Batman villain’s standalone debut

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The Joker is one of the most famous comic book characters of all time, which means he’s been depicted on screen by so many people that it can be hard to remember them all. Whether it’s the hyperactive and goofy Cesar Romero, the hilarious and witty Jack Nicholson, the menacing and magnetic Heath Ledger, or Jared Leto, everybody has a favorite live-action Joker.

One thing none of those actors got to do, however, was carry an entire movie as the Clown Prince of Crime. Joaquin Phoenix is the latest to don the clown makeup in Joker, the villain’s standalone film debut from director Todd Philips of the Hangover trilogy. Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, a clown for hire and standup comedian who gradually becomes the character we’re all too familiar with amid a backdrop of social unrest and income inequality.

This new Joker is more of a sympathetic figure at the center of a darker, more realistic story. Reviews dropped on Saturday and we know what you’re wondering: Is it any good?

Phoenix’s performance is the draw, for better or worse

Marlow Stern, The Daily Beast

Much has been made of how the 44-year-old recast his body for the role, dropping 52 pounds to depict this disturbed shell of a man, all raised shoulders and sunken chest. But more than that, he and Phillips have presented us with a compelling portrait of “God’s lonely man” whose simmering rage turns to a boil.

Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

I’ve not always gotten along with Phoenix’s mannered, muscle-strained approach to his craft, but here he makes a compelling case for going full-tilt. He somehow doesn’t condescend to Arthur’s condition, even if the movie around him sometimes does. There’s a softness cutting through the affect, a sorrow of soul that gives Joker a pale, tragic glow.

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter

But this is Phoenix’s film, and he inhabits it with an insanity by turns pitiful and fearsome in an out-there performance that’s no laughing matter. Not to discredit the imaginative vision of the writer-director, his co-scripter and invaluable tech and design teams, but Phoenix is the prime force that makes Joker such a distinctively edgy entry in the Hollywood comics industrial complex.

Stephanie Zacharek, Time

In Joker — playing in competition here at the Venice Film Festival — Phoenix is acting so hard you can feel the desperation throbbing in his veins. He leaves you wanting to start him a GoFundMe, so he won’t have to pour so much sweat into his job again. But the aggressive terribleness of his performance isn’t completely his fault. (He has often been, and generally remains, a superb actor. Just not here.)

This is darker than your average comic book movie

Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

There is undeniable style and propulsive charge to Joker, a film that looms and leers with nasty inexorability. It’s exhilarating in the most prurient of ways, a snuff film about the death of order, about the rot of a governing ethos. But from a step back, outside in the baking Venetian heat, it also may be irresponsible propaganda for the very men it pathologizes. Is Joker celebratory or horrified? Or is there simply no difference, the way there wasn’t in Natural Born Killers or myriad other “America, man” movies about the freeing allure of depravity?

Jessica Kiang, The Playlist

And here is what is even more frightening than Phoenix’ hacking cackle, or the moments of gruesome bloodiness, or the portrait of a society teetering on the brink of breakdown: “Joker,” based on recognisable IP and now given the seal of critical and possible awards-consideration approval too, is so aesthetically impressive, effective and persuasive of its own reality that you see clearly how easily it could be (mis)interpreted and co-opted by the very 4Chan/Incel/”mentally ill loner” element it purports to darkly satirize.

Jim Vejvoda, IGN

Joker is an indictment of a society’s collective disregard for the well-being of its citizens rather than necessarily critiquing any one type of individual or class. As much as you sympathize with their plight, Gotham’s downtrodden can be as callous and vicious as the rich and powerful. Arthur is at one point or another injured emotionally or physically by individuals at every level, as well as by the institutions they populate. If Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle called himself “God’s lonely man” then Arthur Fleck is certainly Gotham’s lonely man.

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

The mounting violence is intensely unpleasant, shocking if not particularly surprising; in scene after scene, the buildup is so agonizingly drawn out that you’re unsure whether the movie is depicting or embracing its protagonist’s cruelty. Perhaps the distinction matters less than we like to think.

Whether it all comes together in the end, well…

Stephanie Zacharek, Time

Joker is dark only in a stupidly adolescent way, but it wants us to think it’s imparting subtle political or cultural wisdom. Just before one of his more violent tirades, Arthur muses, “Everybody just screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore.” Who doesn’t feel that way in our terrible modern times? But Arthur’s observation is one of those truisms that’s so true it just slides off the wall, a message that both the left and the right can get behind and use for their own aims. It means nothing.

Jessica Kiang, The Playlist

At the press conference after the Venice press screening, Phillips asserted his belief that while movies mirror society, they do not mold it. While not usually ones to deny cinema one iota of its power, this time we just have to hope that he’s right because whatever monumentally unfunny funhouse we’re in, we’re barely hanging on in the world “Joker” reflects. I’m not sure we’d survive the one it would build.

Owen Gleiberman, Variety

Many have asked, and with good reason: Do we need another Joker movie? Yet what we do need — badly — are comic-book films that have a verité gravitas, that unfold in the real world, so that there’s something more dramatic at stake than whether the film in question is going to rack up a billion-and-a-half dollars worldwide. “Joker” manages the nimble feat of telling the Joker’s origin story as if it were unprecedented. We feel a tingle when Bruce Wayne comes into the picture; he’s there less as a force than an omen. And we feel a deeply deranged thrill when Arthur, having come out the other side of his rage, emerges wearing smeary make-up, green hair, an orange vest and a rust-colored suit.

David Ehrlich, IndieWire

Todd Phillips’ “Joker” is unquestionably the boldest reinvention of “superhero” cinema since “The Dark Knight”; a true original that’s sure to be remembered as one of the most transgressive studio blockbusters of the 21st Century. It’s also a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels, and a hyper-familiar origin story so indebted to “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” that Martin Scorsese probably deserves an executive producer credit.

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