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Why Joaquin Phoenix's Joker will be the best yet

Joaquin Phoenix's Joker performance is no joke.

The actor's turn as the Clown Prince of Crime in Todd Phillips' dark origin story is already receiving critical praise, and deservedly so. Phoenix's Joker is different than any other Joker we've seen on the big screen — and we're willing to bet that it will go down as one of the best portrayals of all time.

2019's Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck (played by Phoenix), an unsuccessful comic who finds himself on the outskirts of society. Warner Bros. describes it as "not only a gritty character study, but also a broader cautionary tale." The film is a standalone story — which means that you won't have to catch up on any Batman or Dark Knight movies prior to heading into the theater, but you also won't be able to prepare yourself for the Joker that Phillips and Phoenix have crafted.

For Phoenix's part, playing such an iconic character took some convincing. He told Total Film (via GamesRadar) that he was initially fearful of taking on the role, stating, "I always say there's motivating fear and debilitating fear." It was that motivating fear that wound up driving his decision: "I love that kind of fear. It guides us, makes us work harder."

There was another reason Phoenix had reservations about taking on the Joker, which he considers a "simplified, reductive archetype." Specifically, Phoenix says it's easy for people to go into a Joker movie already hating the character because he's always been portrayed as straight evil. But that isn't the case with Phillips' Joker, which Phoenix has said presents the character as more relatable than ever before — for both good and bad reasons. He's complex and complicated, something viewers will likely be surprised by. As Phoenix explained to Total Film, "I thought that here was this film, and these characters, where it wouldn't be easy for you as an audience. There are times where you're going to feel yourself connected to him, and rooting for him, and times when you should be repulsed by him. And I like that idea of challenging the audience, and challenging myself to explore a character like that. It's rare to explore characters like that in any movies, but specifically in the superhero genre."

Seeing a multi-faceted Joker on the big screen is something new for fans. In the past, audiences have only ever watched Jokers who are already well-established sociopaths. Heath Ledger's version in 2008's The Dark Knight — considered to be one of the greatest Joker portrayals all time — made his entrance in full comic book villain glory. Even Jack Nicholson's Joker in 1989's Batman was an established mob guy before he ever got dropped into a vat of acid. Phoenix's Joker is different: Arthur Fleck is a regular guy — albeit one who very clearly struggles with mental illness — and what we're seeing in Joker is his descent into madness that hasn't been explored on the big screen before.

That's another thing that sets Phoenix's Joker apart from all the others, and why his version will be the best yet — Phillips' film focuses on mental illness and the toll it takes on those ignored and mistreated by the system. This Joker serves as a metaphor for society's lost: he's more than just a comic villain in a comic film, and viewers should know by now that Joker is far from just a comic film. 

Perhaps that's the real reason why Phoenix was so attracted to playing this role. In the past, the actor has appeared in films that are quite literally on the opposite end of the spectrum as far as comic book movies go. He's been nominated for three Academy Awards for his work in a trio of highly regarded films: 2001's Gladiator, 2006's Walk the Line, and 2013's The Master. In 2018, he played a man in search of a young sex trafficking victim in Lynne Ramsay's critically acclaimed You Were Never Really Here. He's made an entire career out of playing characters who stray from the norm, so taking on a Joker who's more human than others we've seen falls right in line with Phoenix's wheelhouse. 

It also helps that Joker was written specifically with Phoenix in mind. Phillips told Total Film that he and co-writer Scott Silver wrote the script for the actor, and they took the character as far as they did because they imagined Phoenix playing it. "The goal was never to introduce Joaquin Phoenix into the comic book movie universe," he said. "The goal was to introduce comic book movies into the Joaquin Phoenix universe." 

With a role that's been tailor-made for him, it's hard to imagine Phoenix will do anything short of stunning with Joker. And according to critics, he's already surpassed expectations. GQ Magazine UK said of the actor's performance, "If Joker ultimately proves anything it's that he's the best actor of his generation." 

Time will ultimately tell, but it's looking like Joaquin Phoenix will be putting on a happy face come awards season, knowing that he delivered the best iteration of the Joker yet. 

Joker hits theaters on October 4.