When it was first announced in July 2018 that acclaimed character actor Joaquin Phoenix had been officially cast as 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 on to 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 define the caped crusader in Tim Burton’s 1989 summer blockbuster.
Even as a teaser image was 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-evaluate 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, including an upcoming feature based on a new interpretation of Batman. ‘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.’
The character of the Joker had first been unleashed upon the world in 1940 and was portrayed as a megalomaniac criminal and psychotic serial killer, with his introductory story telling of a murder spree in which he publicly announces his intention to commit a robbery and take the life of his intended victim twelve hours from then. Despite around-the-clock police protection, his intended target dies at the predicted time, their lifeless face left sporting a sadistic clown-like grin. It is revealed that the Joker had infected each of his victims with a poison that would take twenty-four hours to take effect, thus by the time he had announced his next prey twelve hours later they were ostensibly already dead.
Taking his clown visage from the 1928 silent classic The Man Who Laughs, which featured German actor Conrad Veidt – perhaps best known for his monstrous turn in the horror masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – as the disfigured son of a murdered noblemen, the Joker would soon became a favourite among readers of the Detective Comics series and would prominently feature as one of the hero’s most dangerous adversaries. By the mid-1960s the character would make the transition to the small screen with the popular Batman TV series, in which veteran performer Cesar Romero would become the first actor to take on the role. Two decades later Academy Award winner Jack Nicholson would give a more deranged and over-the-top interpretation of the maniacal villain, a turn that would remain the pinnacle depiction of the character until Heath Ledger gave a more grounded performance in 2008.
This was considered daring and a potential risk in the modern cinematic climate
Despite being a comic book movie, Phillips would reveal 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, such as 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, perhaps it could that have an influence on future Batman features.
Most recently, however, the movie has courted controversy due to its violent content, specifically in relation to the mass shooting that took place during a screening of Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequel The Dark Knight Rises in July 2012. Considered the worst mass shooting in the state of Colorado since the Columbine High School massacre thirteen years earlier, thirty-minutes into the motion picture twenty-four-year-old James Holmes walked into the theatre armed with a shotgun, rifle and tear gas grenades and opened fire on the crowd, taking the lives of twelve and injuring dozens more. Three years after the incident Holmes was sentences to twelve consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Relatives of the victims along with survivors of the tragedy have spoken out against the upcoming Joker film in a letter penned to Warner Bros., in which they stated, ‘We are calling on you to be a part of the growing chorus of corporate leaders who understand that they have a social responsibility to keep us all safe.’ The statement, which was revealed via numerous entertainment websites, went on to add, ‘[The Aurora shooting], perpetrated by a socially isolated individual who felt ‘wronged’ by society, has changed the course of our lives. When we learned that Warner Bros. was releasing a movie called Joker that presents the character as a protagonist with a sympathetic origin story, it gave us pause.’
In a recent discussion with the Telegraph, Phoenix was asked about the relation between the shooting and his new movie, promoting the actor to walk out of the interview. Warner Bros., meanwhile, responded to the letter in an official statement in which they claimed, ‘Gun violence in our society is a critical issue and we extend our deepest sympathy to all victims and families impacted by these tragedies. Our company has a long history of donating to victims of violence, including Aurora and in recent weeks, our parent company joined other business leaders to call on policymakers to enact bi-partisan legislation to address this epidemic. At the same time, Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues.’
Now it has been revealed that the cinema in which the shooting took place, Century 16 in Aurora, will not be screening the Joker. ‘The theatre chain did not respond to a request for comment. But as of Monday night, no showtimes were listed online for Joker at the Aurora multiplex and a theatre employee told THR that advance ticket purchases were not available because the film will not be shown at the venue,’ explained the Hollywood Reporter. Despite his reluctance to discuss the issue in his prior interview, Phoenix recently told IGN, ‘Well, I think that, for most of us, you’re able to tell the difference between right and wrong. And those that aren’t are capable of interpreting anything in the way that they may want to. People misinterpret lyrics from songs. They misinterpret passages from books. So I don’t think it’s the responsibility of a filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong. I mean, to me, I think that that’s obvious.’