'Joker': What the Critics are Saying

The first reviews are quick to praise the "stunning, fearsome and highly physical performance" of Phoenix in the title role, going so far as to predict Oscar buzz for the actor.

Reviews are in for Todd Phillips' standalone origin story Joker, which stars Joaquin Phoenix as the iconic villain. 

The film, written by Phillips and Scott Silver, is described as a gritty portrayal of a character ostracized by society. Robert De Niro, Marc Maron and Zazie Beetz also star.

For The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney declares the film "grippingly atmospheric," highlighting the sensational, unsettling and weirdly affecting performance from Phoenix who inhabits the Joker with an insanity both pitiful and fearsome. "He brings pathos to a pathetically disenfranchised character," emphasizes the critic. Rooney goes on to suggest that since the screenplay is smartly written, anchoring the story "in a fiercely divided city with echoes of a contemporary, morally bankrupt America," the movie may well appeal to a wide audience that includes those who don't typically seek out superhero fanfare. Praising the cinematography by Lawrence Sher and production design by Mark Friedberg, both of which visually support the protagonist's "simmering psychosis," Rooney concludes that this "neo-noir psychological character study" is "arguably the best Batman-adjacent movie since The Dark Knight."

Jim Vejvoda writes in IGN, "Drawing its spirit and style from classic '70s and '80s films like Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, A Clockwork Orange and Dog Day Afternoon, director Todd Phillips' Joker presents a Gotham City that is unmistakably a stand-in for the hellish New York City of the era." The critic goes on to say that the film may ask viewers to empathize with its central protagonist, "but it doesn't ask us to forgive him for his increasingly evil choices." Noting that Phoenix's character is in nearly every scene, Vejvoda describes feeling as if he were in "Arthur's tortured headspace" for the entire time. He says the film belongs to Phoenix, who "delivers a tour de force." Concluding his review, Vejvoda declares, Joker isn't just an awesome comic book movie, it's an awesome movie, period."

Forbes critic Mark Hughes calls Joker one of the best films in 2019, noting that the performance from Phoenix is "fearless and stunning in its emotional depth and physicality." He goes on to say, "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." Hughes suggests that Phoenix will be a frontrunner at the Academy Awards, going so far as predicting a win for the actor. "The Joker becomes a living, breathing, human manifestation of evil, and the film serves to both demystify him and also make it clear that even what we "see" of his origin is subject to question — unreliable narrators being what they are, the Joker being the most unreliable of all narrators, and the fact of his literal humanness doing nothing to remove our awareness something purely cruel and monstrous resides within his soul."

In CinemaBlend, Eric Eisenberg notes that the film is a "radical interpretation that requires a transformative, thoroughly committed performance, and it's remarkable to see Joaquin Phoenix take this role and play it as though he were the first actor to ever take it on (and in a way, he is)." The critic writes that Phillips deserves recognition for his reinvention of the story's classic setting, "with his vision of Gotham standing in sharp relief of the same city portrayed by Christopher Nolan or Tim Burton." Eisenberg concludes his review by recognizing the film may be viewed as controversial, but that it opens up many conversations about what is real and what is fantasy.

Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson writes that there is an "undeniable style and propulsive charge to Joker, a film that looms and leers with nasty inexorability." He calls the film exhilarating in a number of ways, but notes that it also may be "irresponsible propaganda for the very men it pathologizes." Lawson asks, "Is Joker celebratory or horrified? Or is there simply no difference, the way there wasn't in Natural Born Killers or a myriad of other "America, man" movies about the freeing allure of depravity?" The critic is unable to answer his own question, at least, not after a single viewing. He suggests that viewers seek out Joker to answer this question, and others, for themselves. 

Tim Grierson of Screen Daily says that a noticeably gaunt Phoenix "never lets us forget that a monster will soon emerge, but he's such a haunting figure that we lament when that transformation occurs. And although the actor skillfully illuminates Arthur's pre-Joker disintegration, he also proves to be a pretty terrific Joker during the film's final stretches." Grierson declares that Phoenix's take on the character is arguably the most human, and the most tragic. Echoing the words of other critics, Grierson writes that the film belongs to Phoenix, who offers a nuanced interpretation of someone who is helpless and troubled and struggling to find connection.

For the BBC, Nicholas Barber writes that Joker "is a dark, dingy drama about urban decay, alienation and anti-capitalist protests, with a distinctive retro vision and a riveting central performance by Joaquin Phoenix. Whether these differences make it much better than other supervillain movies, however, is open to question." Barber praises the styling and other performances of the film, but ultimately calls it "a flimsy, two-hour supervillain origin movie" where the viewer is waiting for Arthur to become the Clown Prince of Crime. While Barber admits that he might revisit the Joker in a sequel, he argues that — and his review rests on this debate — the idea that Phoenix's Joker is more mature and intelligent than previous supervillains is very questionable.