The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Breaking down the Joaquin Phoenix Joker origin movie

Written by: Cesar Perez, CC2K Staff Writer

Whether it be through television or film, one can argue that no other character has had more iconic interpretations than Batman’s arch-nemesis the Joker, from the ultra-campy and often times silly Joker played by Cesar Romero in the 1960’s television series to Heath Ledger’s Academy Award winning performance as the supreme agent of chaos in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). We are less than two years removed from seeing what Jared Leto did with the role in Suicide Squad (2016), which was met with mixed reactions, but Warner Bros. has officially announced that Joaquin Phoenix will be the latest actor to take on the role of the Clown Prince of Crime and will don the legendary purple suit. The film is reportedly an origin story directed by The Hangover’s Todd Phillips, and although it was previously reported that Martin Scorsese would be producing the film, that is no longer the case.

Even with the loss of Scorsese as producer there are plenty of reasons to be excited for the forthcoming picture just off the strength of Joaquin Phoenix’s talent and passion he will surely bring to the role. Nevertheless, the project is still unwelcome to fans as they feel that the mysterious nature of the character’s past adds to his appeal. It’s important to understand the immortal quality of the Joker lies within the numerous interpretations of the character that allow for fresh perspectives that supplement the character’s historic legacy.

Origin stories are not new to the Joker. The Joker’s mysterious past is evident in Heath Ledger’s performance when the Joker recalls multiple possibilities on how his face was scarred, each memory just as twisted as the next. In Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film, Burton reshaped the Joker’s backstory and depicted the character as the man responsible for murdering Bruce Wayne’s parents. Despite the massive revision to the  backstory, audiences looked past this fundamental change because of Jack Nicholson’s timeless performance. If we are willing to accept this change in the 1989 Batman film then audiences should be willing to take a leap of faith with Phillips’ Joker.

Alan Moore delivered one of the most important stories in the Joker’s rich history with The Killing Joke. Moore illustrated The Joker as a failed comedian who lost everything, including his pregnant wife, after getting involved with the criminal underworld. The Todd Phillips-directed feature will possibly draw inspiration from The Killing Joke as the film is said to have a relatively low budget of $55 million and is described as “an exploration of a man disregarded by society [that] is not only a gritty character study, but also a broader cautionary tale.” If there were ever a comic book film that could detail a person’s descent into madness, a gritty Joker origin film is the most compelling.

Keep in mind the Jared Leto Joker solo film is in production, and the decision by Warner Bros. to release two separate Joker films might be seen as a gamble since the separate universes and continuity may confuse audiences. However, this approach offers a unique opportunity for Warner Bros. to gain some serious traction with their films, as well as distinguish themselves after years of playing catch up to the Marvel empire. Warner Bros. can have a connected cinematic universe in full swing while developing films outside of the cinematic universe that don’t feel weighed down with the need to be linked to a larger story. Warner Bros. can afford to experiment and take chances with character driven stories while providing the big-budget films that are expected from mass audiences.

The new approach from Warner Bros. may seem ill-advised and viewed as an unproven formula, but there was a time when studios did not need to build cinematic universes to attract moviegoers. Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) are still the gold standard of superhero films and did very well at the box office as standalone franchises; one can also look at contemporary superhero films such as Deadpool (2016) and Logan (2017), which featured stories that felt independent from their respected cinematic universes. With Warner Bros.’ shaky track record, it remains to be seen if the studio can stick the landing with their new bold blueprint, but if they succeed it will make for an exciting time in superhero films as the genre continues to innovate and flourish. Perhaps Joaquin Phoenix will add his name to the list of great actors that have delivered an iconic Joker performance. For now, Warner Bros. has my full attention.