It seems that every generation gets a new version of Batman, and with it comes a new take on his arch-nemesis, the Joker. On October 4, Gotham City’s Clown Prince of Crime is at the center of JOKER, his very own solo movie. Joaquin Phoenix plays the iconic villain. The award-winning actor has some very big clown shoes to fill, as he follows in the footsteps of actors like Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger.
This movie, however, is nothing like any previous BATMAN film. In fact, it is completely different from any comic book movie you’ve seen before. Let’s take a closer look at the trailer for JOKER and break down the five most important things you need to know about this exciting new take on the classic villain.
Watch even a few seconds of the trailer above, and it will be immediately obvious that this Joker is nothing like the ones who came before. JOKER is an origin story, which is probably the only thing it has in common with other standalone superhero films. Set in 1981, JOKER stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, an aspiring stand-up comedian who is down on his luck, to say the least. Arthur lives at home with his mom and desperately wants to make people smile, but a series of disturbing events in his life inspires him to enter a life of crime. The film co-stars Zazie Beetz (“Atlanta”), Marc Maron (“GLOW”), and Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under”), with Robert De Niro appearing as a talk show host who unwittingly helps guide Arthur onto a new path.
In the 1989 BATMAN movie, Jack Nicholson’s Joker is a mobster who becomes the Joker after he’s thrown into a vat of dangerous chemicals. The origins of Heath Ledger’s version of the villain, from THE DARK KNIGHT, are unknown, adding to his frightening mystique. The JOKER’s iteration of the character is similar to Ledger’s version in that both offer a dark, gritty reimagining of the villain. But JOKER humanizes Arthur. He has a "real" name, a sad backstory, a failed career and mental health issues. Although set in 1981 (historically the most violent year in New York City), JOKER feels relevant in its depiction of a person coping with very real problems.
You’d probably never expect a gritty origin story about the Joker from the guy behind the HANGOVER movies, but that’s exactly who directed JOKER. Todd Phillips, whose credits also include OLD SCHOOL and WAR DOGS, directed and co-wrote JOKER. His involvement might not surprise those who are familiar with his early career. He directed a documentary about punk music legend G.G. Allin, a violent and controversial figure… not unlike this version of the Joker.
JOKER is partly based on the comic book BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE. Much of its inspiration, however, comes from two classic Martin Scorsese films: TAXI DRIVER, starring Robert De Niro as a delusional loner who takes a violent approach to making New York City a better place; and THE KING OF COMEDY, which also stars De Niro, this time as an aspiring comedian who kidnaps his hero, a late-night talk show host played by Jerry Lewis. Phillips actually got Robert De Niro to appear in JOKER, playing a talk show host who mocks Arthur. It’s a really cool tribute to the Scorsese and De Niro collaborations that inspired this movie.
While JOKER is not related to recent DC movies like JUSTICE LEAGUE and WONDER WOMAN, it does have one important connection to the world of Batman. Brett Cullen (“Narcos”) plays Thomas Wayne, one of Gotham City's wealthy elite. He's the father of Bruce Wayne, the young man who grows up to become the Dark Knight. In Batman lore, Thomas and his wife Martha are famously murdered outside a cinema, in an act that becomes a tragic piece of Bruce Wayne’s history, and the event which begins his transformation into Batman.
It’s rare for a comic book movie to receive awards nominations. BLACK PANTHER opened the door for the genre to be taken more seriously, after it earned multiple Oscar nominations and three gold trophies. Now, there are a few reasons why JOKER might be heading to the Oscars. It stars one of modern cinema’s greatest actors, Joaquin Phoenix, who has been nominated for three Oscars in the past. He is arguably long overdue for his own gold statue. JOKER has also already won a crucial award: the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. That's the highest honor a movie can be given at the Italian fest, and is often a good sign that a movie will be nominated for an Oscar. (Recent winners include THE SHAPE OF WATER, ROMA, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and THE WRESTLER.)
All images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.