Joaquin Phoenix’s ‘Joker’ Is ‘Brooding,’ ‘Fearless,’ ‘Divisive,’ Critics Say

The crime-crazed clown is back and gigglier than ever

The first reviews of “Joker” are in, and critics are weighing in on whether they think Joaquin Phoenix’s manic portrayal of Batman’s arch-nemesis is heartbreakingly-unhinged or verges on over-the-top.

Critics were quick to point out that the Todd Phillips-directed film pays a distinct homage to Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” with TheWrap’s Alonso Duralde writing that Phoenix’s Joker resembles “an amalgam of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin from those two classics.”

Several critics thought Phoenix was at the top of his game — Forbes’ Mark Hughes went so far as to say that Phoenix’s performance “matches and potentially exceeds that of The Dark Knight’s Clown Prince of Crime,” portrayed by the late Heath Ledger. “Everyone is going to be stunned by what Phoenix accomplishes, because it’s what many thought impossible.”

Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang saw both sides, writing that Phoenix’s Joker is “a raw, festering wound of a performance that flirts with virtuosity and redundancy alike.”

But Time’s Stephanie Zacharek was not convinced. She criticizes Phoenix’s “funky chicken-style dance moves” and accused him of “acting so hard you can feel the desperation throbbing in his veins.”

The film’s political nature also drew comments from some critics, with IndieWire’s David Ehrlich comparing the film’s version of Thomas Wayne to a “Trumpian billionaire.”

“The Joker claims to have no personal politics, but he certainly is political. Phillips may be making a point here about the perils of revolutionary populism, about the risk of courting anarchy. Then again, it’s Gotham’s most famous family, the richest and most omnipotent of the bunch, who are also painted as villains,” wrote Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair wrote.

Check out more reactions to the film below. “Joker” opens in theaters on Oct. 4.

Alonso Duralde, TheWrap

“If you strip the Joker and his nearly 80-year history as a cultural icon out of this film, as well as all the 1970s movie homages, there’s not a whole lot left except for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, and it’s the kind of turn that’s destined to be divisive. If you like an actor who disappears into a role and effects what appears to be organic human behavior on the screen, this is not your jam. Phoenix puts the “perform” in “performance”; he’s never not twitching or laughing (it’s part of Arthur’s psychiatric condition) or hyperventilating or dancing. Some will love it and some will look askance, but he’s definitely doing the kind of work that fits the tone of the film.”

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. It’s possessed by the kind of provocative spirit that’s seldom found in any sort of mainstream entertainment, but also directed by a glorified edgelord who lacks the discipline or nuance to responsibly handle such hazardous material, and who reliably takes the coward’s way out of the narrative’s most critical moments.”

Mark Hughes, Forbes

“Joaquin Phoenix gives a tour de force performance, fearless and stunning in its emotional depth and physicality. It’s impossible to talk about this without referencing Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance from ‘The Dark Knight,’ widely considered the definitive live-action portrayal of the Joker, so let’s talk about it. The fact is, everyone is going to be stunned by what Phoenix accomplishes, because it’s what many thought impossible — a portrayal that matches and potentially exceeds that of ‘The Dark Knight’s’ Clown Prince of Crime.”

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

“Directed with striking intensity and concentration by Todd Phillips (“The Hangover” movies, “War Dogs”), “Joker” is a dark, brooding and psychologically plausible origin story, a vision of cartoon sociopathy made flesh… Arthur inhabits a realm of broken dreams, deep-seated traumas and increasingly warped, violent fantasies. Which is another way of saying that he is the latest troubled soul to be played by Phoenix, who delivers the kind of meticulously detailed psychotic breakdown that he does better than just about any American actor now working. It’s a raw, festering wound of a performance that flirts with virtuosity and redundancy alike; when you see Arthur in the dingy apartment he shares with his mother (Frances Conroy), you may be reminded less of Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero than of Phoenix’s superb work in “You Were Never Really Here.”

Marlow Stern, The Daily Beast

“‘Joker’ owes more to ’70s-era Scorsese than its period detail and Stygian lighting, of course. Arthur combines the PTSD-fueled anarchist rage of Travis Bickle (whom De Niro modeled after an underground New York comedian) with the star-chasing delusions of Rupert Pupkin, and Phoenix is more than up to the task, his world-beaten face transmogrifying from gaiety to menace in an instant. 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. And Phillips, utilizing clever tracking shots, tight close-ups and lost-in-the-crowd framing to convey Arthur’s existential angst, has made us forget about those agonizing ‘Hangover’ sequels.”

Stephanie Zacharek, Time

“Director Todd Phillips — who made frat-boy comedies like ‘Road Trip’ and ‘Old School’ before graduating to dude-bro comedies like ‘The Hangover ‘movies — bears at least some of the blame, and the aggressive and possibly irresponsible idiocy of ‘Joker’ overall is his alone to answer for. Phillips may want us to think he’s giving us a movie all about the emptiness of our culture, but really, he’s just offering a prime example of it.”

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?”

Eric Eisenberg, CinemaBlend

“‘Joker’ is bound to be the subject of controversy upon its release, but it’s a controversy that it invites by leaving a great deal open for interpretation. Everybody is going to have their own moment where they view Arthur going one step past “the line.” Everybody is going to have their own take on what’s real, and what’s fantasy. Everybody is going to have their own particular political read. And then all of those opinions are going to flip when the movie is screened a second time. You’ll definitely feel like you’ll need a shower after seeing it, but once you’ve dried off and changed clothes, you’ll want to do nothing else but parse and dissect it.”