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When it was first announced in July 2018 that acclaimed character actor Joaquin Phoenix had been officially cast as the Batman’s arch nemesis the Joker in an upcoming standalone movie reactions among much of the fanbase echoed similar responses to the casting of both Heath Ledger, who would go onto earn a posthumous Academy Award for the role in 2009 and Michael Keaton who, despite strong criticism against an actor known for comedy landing the lead as Batman, would come to refine the caped crusader in Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster.
Even as a teaser image was released released a couple of months later showing how Phoenix intended on approaching the role the reaction from fans of the comics and earlier cinematic adaptations was anything but promising. Yet the actor himself was not to blame. After DC and Warner Bros. had failed so spectacularly with the Joker in 2016’s Suicide Squad and their attempt at an extended universe to rival Marvel’s had proved to be problematic at best, anticipation for yet another revival of the Joker was met with apprehension.
What was even more distressing was how a Batman-related picture had been entrusted to a comedy filmmaker most known for his adaptation of Starsky & Hutch and the successful Hangover trilogy, far-removed from the dark nature that a film focusing on such a diabolical and complex megalomanic as the Joker would deserve. Even with Phoenix having already proven his talents in the past with such diverse roles in Gladiator, Walk the Line and the experimental mockumentary I’m Still Here, fans were unsure whether or not the actor was the right choice for the role, following in the footsteps of an array of actors that included Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson and Jared Leto, as well as Mark Hamill’s widely praised vocal work on a series of animated films.
Yet many of those who had doubted the casting of Phoenix would re-evaluated their decision after a teaser trailer was released in early April 2019, in which viewers discovered that instead of the ridiculous camp irreverence of Suicide Squad, Phoenix and director Todd Phillips had instead crafted what would appear to be a dark and brooding character piece that instead of focusing on the Joker’s terrorising of Gotham would instead explore the alienation and anxiety that the character felt as he struggled to fit into society and, feeling cast out, had slowly been driven insane.
‘Three or four years ago, I called my agent and said ‘Why don’t they want to take one of these characters and just make a lower budget film about it, a movie but a character study, and why not take one of the villains?” claimed Phoenix in an interview with Collider shortly after the casting was announced. ‘And I thought, ‘You can’t do the Joker because, you know, it’s just you can’t do that character, it’s just been done.’ So I was trying to think of other characters and he said, ‘I’ll set up a general meeting with Warner Bros.’ And I said, ‘I’m not gonna go, I can’t go to a general meeting.’ So I completely forgot about it and so then I heard about this idea, I was like, ‘Oh that’s so exciting, that’s the kind of experience I wanted to have, with a movie based on a comic character.”
Phillips was aware during the development and filming of Joker that both fans and critics would have their own perceptions of what a standalone movie based on such an iconic character would entail and how it would relate to the recent extended universe of DC. ‘I don’t have a lot to say about the filming because it’s still taking shape but also I want it to be a surprise. That said, there’s been a lot of chatter about what this film is and isn’t and most of it hasn’t been very accurate,’ explained the director. ‘When the marketing department at Warners asked me the other day to describe the movie I said, I can’t.’ They said, ‘Well, at least tell us the genre.’ And I thought about it for a minute and I said, ‘It’s a tragedy.”
Co-Star Marc Maron would praise the new approach that the filmmakers have taken with the character, following the negative response to both Suicide Squad and the animated feature The Killing Joke. ‘I think it’s a very interesting approach to this world. I’ve been somewhat judgemental when it comes to comic book movies and I’ve got a little pushback in the press for being a hypocrite,’ he admitted in an interview with NME. ‘If it’s relative to what I think of Marvel movies then it’s like, ‘Yeah, of course I’m gonna do that.’ Oddly, it’s not that kind of movie. The approach that Todd Phillips has taken is more of an origin story and a character study of a mentally ill person that becomes the Joker.’
Phillips has now revealed that Joker will join the rising trend of R-rated superhero motion pictures, following in the footsteps of both Deadpool and the critically-acclaimed Logan. Yet while this was considered daring and a potential risk in the modern cinematic climate, there have been numerous superhero movies over the years that have received a similar rating, Dolph Lundgren’s take on The Punisher in 1989 to Wesley Snipes’ vampire horror flick Blade a decade later. Yet Joker would mark the first live action Batman-related movie to receive an R-rating and, if the film goes on to achieve critical and commercial success, could that have an influence on future Batman features?