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SYFY WIRE reviews

Early 'Joker' reviews laugh in triumph at haunting, awards-worthy turn from Joaquin Phoenix

By Josh Weiss
Joker Joaquin Phoenix


Joker reviews are starting to pour in from the Venice Film Festival, and they're putting a big dumb grin on our faces. Director/co-writer Todd Phillips and main lead Joaquin Phoenix seem to have done the impossible: crafted a cinematic interpretation of the iconic Batman villain that can stand toe to toe with (or even surpass) Heath Ledger's terrifying performance in 2008's The Dark Knight.

This is not a drill, people—the film (which opens in theaters for the rest of us Friday, Oct. 4) is being hailed not only as one of the best/most timely features of this year, but as one of the best comic book projects ever made. Across the board, Phoenix is receiving acclaim for his unhinged, haunting, and Oscar-worthy (yes, we just used the "O" word) performance as Arthur Fleck, a failed Gotham City comedian who begins a descent into madness (and infamy) when his stand-up career doesn't pan out the way he planned. Set in the early 1980s, the movie is meant to be an homage to onscreen psychological character studies like Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. According to the reviews, Joker doesn't even feel like a superhero movie; it's a wholly new specimen that could change the way Hollywood approaches the genre.

Following its world premiere at Venice today, the flick received an eight-minute standing ovation from the crowd, writes Variety.

"I didn’t refer to any past iteration of the character," Phoenix reportedly said. "It just felt like something that was our creation in some ways."

In another tribute to Scorsese, Robert De Niro appears in the film as Murray Franklin, a talk show host character meant to echo Rupert Pupkin from 1982's The King of Comedy. The rest of the supporting cast is just as impressive, consisting of Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen (playing Thomas Wayne, BTW), Frances Conroy,  Marc Maron, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, and Brian Tyree Henry.

Okay, it's time to stop clowning around and find out what critics are saying below ...

"This is very much tethered to the superhero universe and intersects in ways both familiar and not with canonical Batman lore. But Joker could also be a film for audiences who don't much care about the usual Hollywood comic-strip assembly line. The smart screenplay by Phillips and Scott Silver anchors the story in a fiercely divided city with echoes of a contemporary, morally bankrupt America, albeit in the dire economic straits of a decade ago, or the next crisis that's just around the corner, depending on which financial forecasts you believe ... Some of the best moments of Phoenix's highly physical performance are the transformative interludes in which the increasingly unhinged Arthur applies his clown makeup and later dyes his hair, becoming the Joker." -David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter

"Phoenix’s performance is astonishing. He appears to have lost weight for the role, so that his ribs and shoulder blades protrude, and the leanness burns his face down to its expressive essence: black eyebrows, sallow cheeks sunk in gloom, a mouth so rubbery it seems to be snarking at the very notion of expression, all set off by a greasy mop of hair. Phoenix is playing a geek with an unhinged mind, yet he’s so controlled that he’s mesmerizing. He stays true to the desperate logic of Arthur’s unhappiness." -Owen Glieberman, Variety

"Joker is a comic book origin story with very little comic book in it. The whole thing very purposefully feels like a love letter to cinema of the late ‘70s, early ‘80s rather than other dark DC superhero movies like Tim Burton’s Batman or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Using that gritty aesthetic, Phillips is much more interested in dissecting what makes a comic book character real than making a real comic book character and, in that aim, he’s successful. Arthur is a fascinating and endlessly compelling person. He’s also terrifying and, for most of the film, sympathetic." -Germain Lussier, io9

"With Joker, Todd Phillips has proven that he is much more than 'The Hangover guy' and created one of the most unexpected and rewarding comic book movies since Logan. But simply calling Joker a 'comic book movie' does it a disservice; it is a story that feels like it could be about any number of disaffected people who are marginalized by the ruthless world in which we live. If you aren’t convinced of the merits of universal healthcare after this, then you might just be a bad person." -Dan Casey, Nerdist

"Phoenix is all in and then some, a performance so dazzling risky and original you might as well start engraving his name on the Oscar right now. No joke, this is a movie — premiering today at the Venice Film Festival — unlike any other from the DC universe, and you will find it impossible to shake off. At least I did ... The supporting cast couldn’t be better, and that includes De Niro and Frances Conroy as Arthur’s mother, along with many others along the way. This movie will have you reeling – and thinking. In a country of seemingly weekly mass murders at the hands of someone with a gun, this comic book origin tale of Joker is a must-see." -Peter Hammond, Deadline

"The key to that careful calibration is not only Todd Phillips’ sharp direction and clear vision but also Joaquin Phoenix’s indelible performance. Arthur’s uncontrollable laughter looks as though it physically pains him; his body is rail-thin and battered, his misery is etched on his deeply creased face. He looks healthier and livelier -- dare I say happier -- as he transforms into Joker than he ever does as Arthur ... As solid as Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz and Frances Conroy are in their small roles here, this is Phoenix’s film and he delivers a tour de force." -Jim Vejvoda, IGN

"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." -Mark Hughes, Forbes

"Joker is the human-sized and adult-oriented comic book movie that Marvel critics have been clamoring for — there’s no action, no spandex, no obvious visual effects, and the whole thing is so gritty and serious that DCEU fanboys will feel as if they’ve died and seen the Snyder Cut — but it’s also the worst-case scenario for the rest of the film world, as it points towards a grim future in which the inmates have taken over the asylum, and even the most repulsive of mid-budget character studies can be massive hits (and Oscar contenders) so long as they’re at least tangentially related to some popular intellectual property." -David Ehrlich, IndieWire

"Todd Phillips shows that he isn't checking in for the laughs -- unless they come from the deranged performance by his lead actor Joaquin Phoenix. Phillips focused more on the central character here, an abandoned and mentally ill Arthur Fleck, than on any larger DC Comics connections which fans of comic book movies have been trained to expect. It's not completely free of ties to a larger world but it has no desire to set any stage for future installments, spinoffs, sequels, or expansions -- which is almost a shame given how great of a launch it is for a compelling character." -Brandon Davis,

"As Arthur/Joker, Joaquin Phoenix is astonishing. Phillips has said he had a picture of the actor above his screen when writing the script and it’s a belief that has paid off. Phoenix inhabits Arthur: having lost weight for the role, he looks thin, frail, hungry. Shadows carve out his exposed bones. His physicality is precise — the way he moves, shuffles, runs, sits, smokes, shrinks. His usual intensity is on full display and it’s captivating, even overwhelming in moments. Comparing him to Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson feels like a nonsense: this is a Joker we’ve never seen — in many respects it isn’t the Joker, it’s Arthur." -Terri White, Empire Magazine

"This is the Joker show from first to last frame, and Phoenix brings the house down. Sure, he’s not performing magic tricks with pencils, or bringing Gotham to its knees with laughing gas, but this Joker is every bit as valid and fascinating as the ones before him, and works better for not being tied to a larger universe. If the result of the DCEU’s failure to hit on a successful, consistent tone in its films is radical standalones of this quality, it may be the once-struggling studio’s smartest move yet." -Jordan Farley, Total Film

"Phillips’ film is a little too slavishly indebted to its influences, which range from the specific, like Beetz making the Taxi Driver finger-gun shoot-me gesture, to the more generally aesthetic, as in the use of jaunty recordings of old songs to counterpoint the brutality and grimness of the imagery, whenever Hildur Guðnadóttir’s excellent, swirling, morose, foreboding score is not reinforcing it. And tonally, the film occupies such a relentlessly dour register that it becomes a little too easy to work out which bits might, in fact, not be real and be the products of Arthur’s disordered psyche instead: Basically, any time something nice happens, or someone is kind." -Jessica Kiang, The Playlist