Heath Ledger’s Joker was one of the best versions of the character precisely because he has no backstory. He is an idea, a manifestation of chaos that the Dark Knight doesn’t fight but rather has to prove wrong in order to defeat. A backstory for such a recognisable villain is risky – giving Hannibal Lecter a reason behind his cannibalism in Hannibal Rising removes something that made Lecter chill audiences to the bone, as the sense of mystery is stripped away from the character.
But, with everything that we’ve seen from the upcoming Joker, this new take on the iconic DC character’s origin looks very promising and somewhat unique compared to other recent comic-book films, potentially making it worth the risk.
Set in the 1980s, Joker appears to be more of a dark character study than your average superhero plot, following Arthur Fleck, an aspiring stand-up comedian, as he descends into madness and a world of crime in Gotham City. This latest reworking of the Joker, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a radical one with a trailer showcasing much darker content than we’re used to seeing in these films. The tone is bleak, the mood grim, with clear inspiration from Martin Scorsese and ‘70s cinema. Just as Guardians of the Galaxy was a breath of fresh air for the genre, Joker will be too, allowing audiences to see another aspect of what DC can offer, especially with the disappointing Justice League still fresh in the memory.
Warner Bros. unexpectedly brought on Todd Phillips as director, producer and co-writer for the film. Known for his raunchy comedies, most prominently The Hangover trilogy, this feels like a departure from his usual works. Then again, Phillips was the one to pitch the project to the studio. Nothing that we’ve seen from Joker so far suggests that he won’t be able to deliver on high expectations.
Of course, Joaquin Phoenix’s casting is a major reason to be excited. The character has been portrayed on-screen several times, with Ledger’s portrayal standing out. After Jared Leto’s lacklustre take on the Clown Prince of Crime in Suicide Squad, the very selective and methodical Phoenix seems ideal for the role and surely won’t disappoint.
Despite speculation that the narrative will borrow from one of the Joker’s most famous comic-book storylines, The Killing Joke, Phillips has stated Joker will be its own creation. In an interview with Empire, the director said “we didn’t follow anything from the comic-books, which people are gonna be mad about…We just wrote our own version of where a guy like Joker might come from. That’s what was interesting to me. We’re not even doing Joker, but the story of becoming Joker.”
Phoenix isn’t the only big name in front of the cameras. Robert De Niro will play a talk show host with a pivotal role in setting Fleck down a road of insanity. Zazie Beetz, who played Domino in Deadpool 2, plays a single mother that Fleck becomes infatuated with. Despite being marketed as a low-budget film, the studio has managed to bring in a variety of talents old and new to fill out the cast. What’s perhaps most exciting is that Joker will be a standalone movie with no ties to the DCEU, giving the film plenty of room to manoeuvre in its own style with limited constraints. This small-scale crime drama could completely revolutionise the DC cinematic brand.
Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, will be released in the UK via Warner Bros. on the 4th October. Watch the trailer below: