In the best role of his already impressive career, Joaquin Phoenix "out-darks" the earlier mega-dark incarnation of DC Comics Joker supervillain as portrayed by the late Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight" (2008). After losing 51 pounds, Phoenix assumes the Arthur Fleck/Joker role as a whip-thin loner who lives in Gotham City with his sickly mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and works as a clown. Phoenix' tour-de-force highly physical as well as psychological performance deserves awards consideration.
Filmmaker Todd Phillips borrowed heavily from the Martin Scorsese playbook with homage paid to both "Taxi Driver" and "The King of Comedy" in a violent, disturbing and completely fascinating origin story. It's impossible to look away from the grungy images of garbage-filled and graffitti-tagged 1981 Gotham as Fleck transitions from would-be comedian to a murderous mad clown called Joker who inspires anarchy among the city's misfits.
Still a child, Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson) encounters his future archenemy when Fleck tries to enter the Wayne mansion to confront Gotham's billionaire mayoral candidate and Bruce's father Thomas Wayne (Brent Cullen).
Robert DeNiro, the star of the two Scorsese features mentioned earlier, is perfectly cast as late night talk show host Murray Franklin. Zazie Beetz shines as Fleck's love interest Sophie Dumond.
Some may be surprised at such a glowing recommendation for a movie that many will find shocking, distasteful and objectionable. But its stunning Oscar-worthy performance by Phoenix and its jet black comic and horrific creation of an iconic comic book character make this provocative entry into the new DC Black franchise worthy of viewers' attention.
THE VERDICT: 3 and 1/2 Stars
Joaquin Phoenix' role as the Joker follows several earlier portrayals of the DC Comics villain.
The following actors have played the Joker on-screen.
CESAR ROMERO portrayed the Joker on the campy "Batman" television series which originally aired from 1966-1968. In the big screen version of the TV series released in 1966, Romero also played the Joker.
JACK NICHOLSON was the Joker in Tim Burton's massively successful "Batman" movie in 1989. Nicholson's Joker started out as mobster Jack Napier who then transformed himself into the Clown Prince of Crime.
MARK HAMILL created the voice of the Joker for "Batman: the Animated Series," which began in 1992. Hamill continued as the voice of the Joker for other animated series including "Superman," "Justice League" and "Static Search."
HEATH LEDGER was the most celebrated actor to play the part of the Joker. Writer and director Christopher Nolan brought a new depth to the 2008 feature "The Dark Knight" with Christian Bale reprising his role as Bruce Wayne/Batman from "Batman Begins"(2005) and with Ledger as the criminal mastermind, the Joker. Ledger was awarded a posthumous Oscar shortly after his death at the age of 28.
JARED LETO was the Joker, just one of many supervillains in the 2016 DC Comics ensemble film "Suicide Squad." Directed by David Ayer, the anti-hero movie also starred Margot Robbie, Jai Courtney and Will Smith.
ZACH GALIFIANAKIS plays a lighthearted Joker in filmmaker Chris McKay's 2017 animated comedy, "The Batman LEGO Movie."