When Todd Phillips’ Joker movie hit theatres in 2019 it swiftly generated a whirlwind of discussion and debate. Was Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck in danger of being interpreted as an antihero by audiences? Or, would the movie simply be understood as a psychological thriller and portrait of a society failing to look in on the little guy? Both, perhaps?
Todd and Scott Silver’s screenplay dealt with some particularly lofty themes, tackling mental illness, trauma and the public’s troubling tendency to elevate agents of chaos to prophetic status.
In a nutshell, Joker was an important moment in modern American cinema.
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It’s not that these types of movies aren’t being made regularly. They are. However, by projecting these themes and topics on to a character so prominent in pop culture, Todd Phillips was able to ensure Joker reached a far wider audience than such films are ever able to achieve.
The superhero cinema canvas has rarely been used to explore such an imperative story and it’s honestly such a shame a sequel has officially been announced under the working title of Joker: Folie A Deux, which refers to delusion or mental illness.
This title makes sense considering we left Arthur Fleck in Arkham Asylum. What makes less sense, on the other hand, is making a sequel to Joker for anything other than the inevitable financial gain it will reap.
Of course, this all comes down to opinion, but hear me out – it’s a hot take many will find easy to dismiss.
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When Joker was released, Todd Phillips was interviewed by Comic Book and explained that, when comparing his film to the superhero genre, “it’s really not one of those movies”. He even went on to describe it as an “anti-comic book movie, so to speak”.
Not only that, but he addressed whether there would be another movie: “As for a sequel, it’s way too early (to tell). I swear I haven’t even talked to Joaquin about that yet or what that would even be.”
This is clear confirmation that Joker wasn’t made with a franchise or sequels in mind and what could be more anti-comic book movie than that? I remember reading Todd Phillips’ comments on the film when it was released and couldn’t help but admire how refreshing it was to hear him say that, reducing his film to a building block.
It was just as refreshing as the movie itself; an origin story that serves as a satisfying story which stands on its own merits. Isolated but all the better for it.
The ending of Joker, on the surface, appeared to conform to other efforts of the genre, setting up sequels in which the central character will now be what we expect of them. The development is done and it’s time to have some fun.
However, Joker’s ending felt like a comment on the traditional origin story rather than just another predictable example, encouraging us not to expect a sequel but instead reflect on the end of Arthur’s journey. He will no doubt inspire others to take his place but the man who started the movement is caged, stripped of all the qualities that made him a sympathetic and tragic figure before the pivotal moment of toxic self-empowerment in the harshly lit public bathroom.
In a world where audiences have grown to anticipate the next instalment of everything, especially in the realm of superhero cinema, Joker dared to suggest this was the end of the line for Arthur Fleck. Arkham Asylum is the villain’s stage and, like the citizens of Gotham he disturbingly inspired or intrinsically disturbed, the credits locked us out of his life, severing our ties with him. Spat out just in time for the viewer to hold on to some sense of sanity and security.
Heading out of the cinema it was hard not to feel the film’s incredible impact take hold of your arms and legs. I felt heavy but most of all shocked because Todd Phillips did, successfully and provocatively, make an anti-comic book movie.
Hell, but never mind about that. Who doesn’t love a franchise after all? Who doesn’t want to return to Arkham and watch Arthur become the Joker more akin to what we’ve already seen portrayed by countless others?
You may want to see that but it honestly feels like a betrayal of everything Joaquin Phoenix managed to achieve with the character. Instead of being held up and scrutinised against other portrayals, Joaquin escaped that by offering a performance so far removed from what we’ve grown to expect from the character.
Just as the joker is born, truly, Todd Phillips’ film ended. It’s hard to imagine a sequel that doesn’t play into the traits of the character other actors and comic book artists have navigated. If Joker was the anti-comic book movie, Joker: Folie A Deux may just be the comic book movie we expected in the first place.
Make no mistake, nobody wants this not to be the case more than me. Joaquin Phoenix’s incredible work deserves to be immortalised – not as a franchise kickstarter but rather as an unforgettable performance.