It has been only a few days since the release of Joaquin Phoenix starrer Joker and the film is already one of the most controversial movies of the year. Directed by Todd Phillips and co-written by Phillips and Scott Silver, Joker tells the story of the DC Comics supervillain of the same name.
While Joker as a character has had multiple iterations, this is the first time the character is at the centre of the narrative. He is not a foil to Batman in Joker, and the film is an intimate character study of a mentally ill man and his descent into madness, thanks to various factors including outside forces like an uncaring society, bullying and so on.
The controversy stems from the fact that the film’s primary protagonist commits murders that mirror some of the incidents of gun violence in the US. Also, his atrocities whip up frenzy among the supposedly disenfranchised citizens of Gotham and fuels anti-rich sentiment, instigating riots and utter chaos. Many fear that the film itself might have that effect. Thus, the multiple security measures.
That being said, Joker is a mostly solid film thanks to an absolutely storming central performance by Phoenix, excellent writing, and stunning cinematography which provides some unsettlingly pretty visuals, especially one towards the end (those who have seen the movie know what I am talking about).
The film was envisioned by Phillips, best known for the Hangover trilogy. He pitched his idea to Warner Bros after the premiere of 2016’s War Dogs. By that time, the DC Extended Universe was struggling with twin failures of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad.
He said DC Films could do what Marvel Studios could not. “It really came from this idea: What if you just did a comic-book movie differently? We all grew up on these character studies, and they’re few and far between nowadays. So it was like, ‘Let’s do a deep dive on one of these guys in a real way.’ No one is going to fly in it. No buildings are going to collapse. It’s just going to be on the ground, so to speak,” Phillips told Los Angeles Times earlier this year.
This way, Warner Bros and DC would not have to spend too much money and could focus on off-beat characters from the comics that were not Superman or Batman. Joker was R-Rated, which is unusual for comic-book movies, the big part of whose audience is children. It was made on an estimated 55 million dollars, which, while not exactly cheap, is a pittance for this genre. As promised, Joker turned out to be a character piece, boasting of minimal CGI, big action set pieces.
When the reports of a Joker movie came out, Leonardo DiCaprio was one of the names that was allegedly being discussed by the makers. But Phillips denied this, saying he and Silver wrote the script exclusively for Phoenix. He told GamesRadar, “We wrote this script for Joaquin. It’s true. Joaquin knows it. Half the reason we wanted to even attempt writing it was, ‘Man, imagine if we get Joaquin. Think of what we could do.’ The goal was never to introduce Joaquin Phoenix into the comic book movie universe. The goal was to introduce comic book movies into the Joaquin Phoenix universe.”
While taking a few cues from the iconic Joker stories in comics like Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joker, Phillips was most influenced by Martin Scorsese’s films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The King of Comedy. Scorsese was at one point attached as an executive producer on the film. Though he quit, WB was successful in getting Robert De Niro, the star of all the three Joker inspirations.
Joker was greenlit in July 2018 and the release date was also unveiled. The synopsis posited the film as “an exploration of a man disregarded by society [that] is not only a gritty character study, but also a broader cautionary tale.”
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While the early reviews were laudatory when Joker screened at the Venice Film Festival, nobody expected the film to win the big prize: the Golden Lion. But it did, prompting speculation as to its Oscar chances. Later reviews, at the Toronto International Film Festival, were more mixed and the by then the film was surrounded by controversy I briefly touched upon before.
Despite all that, Joker opened to a frankly ridiculous 96 million dollars in North America. This is more than what the 350 million dollar film Justice League opened with in 2017. A report in Forbes says it could end up being a 500 million dollar worldwide earner if early trends are anything to go by.
The reviews of Joker, which also starred Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, and Marc Maron, are also mostly positive. It holds a 69 per cent rating at Rotten Tomatoes. The consensus reads, “Joker gives its infamous central character a chillingly plausible origin story that serves as a brilliant showcase for its star — and a dark evolution for comics-inspired cinema.”