Don't underestimate the appeal of the Joker: the DC comic book villain has generated significant attention and box office success with his appearance in new movie, Joker.
In just two weeks, Joker has grossed more than $550 million worldwide, shattering October box office records and making back 10 times its budget. The film is directed by Todd Phillips and assimilates the moody, gritty atmosphere of Martin Scorsese classics Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. But the real reason for the film's success is the memorably tortured performance of Joaquin Phoenix in the title role.
He portrays Arthur Fleck, a downtrodden Gotham City resident whose litany of abuse and humiliation hastens his transformation into the Clown Prince of Crime. Given the movie's extraordinary – and controversial – success, one might imagine that studio Warner Bros are keen to develop the character further.
But given Phoenix signed up to the project as a one-time-only deal, where could the Joker possibly go from here?
WARNING: JOKER SPOILERS AHEAD
Recapping what happens at the end of Joker
The despairing climax of Joker marks Arthur's tragic – yet horribly ironic – slide from struggling wannabe funnyman to the clown who unites Gotham's dispossessed masses. Having shot and killed talk show host and idol Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) on live television, Arthur is embraced as a vigilante symbol as Gotham's streets spiral out of control.
The situation has largely been propelled by the glib comments of rich capitalist Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who described the angry hordes as 'clowns' themselves. However, he ultimately pays the price when he and his wife are executed in an alleyway in the midst of Arthur's 'coronation', leaving young Bruce Wayne to fend for himself.
The end of the movie returns to Arthur in Arkham Asylum (or at least that's what we assume), as he chats to his care worker. Both his piercing glare and delivery affirm that he is now psychotic, reinforced when he emerges from the office with bloody footprints that appear to point towards another murderous interlude. The film finishes as he is pursued by two orderlies, a visual riff on The King of Comedy in which deluded Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is chased by security guards working for his idol Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis).
Of course, there's another way one could read the movie...
They could continue the Joker story as taking place in Arthur's head
Did any of the events depicted in Joker actually happen? It's intriguing – and unnervingly plausible – to imagine that everything we see, from Arthur's steady breakdown to his emergence as a dangerous symbol, is in fact make-believe, and only occurred within the mind of the central character. One might imagine that he's been sat in Arkham Asylum all along, and that the narrative of the movie has been playing out in his mind as he chats to his care worker.
This would underline his narcissistic sense of self-belief, the fact that he always believed he was destined for great things. By denying the character the chance to actually commit any physical action, it makes him seem both more pitiable and more unnerving – all of the violence we see in the movie is instead a psychological manifestation of his boiling rage and alienation.
Zazie Beetz, who plays Fleck's neighbour in the movie (and whom he supposedly kills) has herself said that "the interpretation of everything can be questioned". This would actually be a liberating thing as far as potential Joker sequels are concerned: were they to take place exclusively inside Arthur's disturbed mind, there's no limit as to what could happen, or what could be depicted. Every scene would enhance our understanding of the character's fundamental derangement.
This might be a good way to lure the mercurial Phoenix back for another movie. Such narrative possibilities may offer a great deal of artistic potential that allow him to develop the character's emotional state and also physicality – just think if he were able to one-up that memorable bathroom dance sequence...
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Phoenix returns to battle Robert Pattinson's Batman
This is the most unlikely scenario, for two reasons. Firstly, it's established in Joker that Arthur is significantly older than his step-brother, Bruce Wayne – it would therefore prove confusing if Phoenix were to battle Robert Pattinson's Caped Crusader when the age gap between the two of them isn't discernible. It would make a lot more sense to recast the Joker role with an actor who's significantly older than Pattinson (more on that below).
Secondly, and most importantly, it may be tricky to get Phoenix on board for another movie. No doubt conversations are taking place between the actor and Warner Bros in light of Joker's lucrative box office takings, but he's not the kind of actor to tie himself down to blockbuster properties. After all, this is the man who stepped away from Doctor Strange after his interpretation of the character didn't mesh with that of Marvel.
Phoenix surely came on board for Joker because it plays to his strengths: a psychologically intense and physically overwhelming portrayal of a soul in chaos, a la his previous movies such as The Master and You Were Never Really Here. Director Todd Phillips has said that he lured the actor in with a promise they would fashion a gritty $50 million character drama in the guise of a comic book epic.
That being said, Phoenix has tentatively expressed interest in reprising the Joker role, telling Peter Travers on the Popcorn vodcast: "I talked to [director Todd Phillips] a lot about what else we might be able to do, in general, just working together, but also specifically, if there’s something else we can do with Joker that might be interesting."
Phillips, who initially seemed to indicate that a sequel was unlikely, then clarified his earlier comment: "The quote was, 'I will do anything Joaquin wants to do.' And I would. But the movie's not set up to [have] a sequel. We always pitched it as one movie, and that's it".
Given the level of box office success, not to mention the Oscar buzz swirling around Phoenix's performance, we wouldn't be surprised if the two were granted even more creative control over the sequel. Perhaps this is where the imagined narrative outlined above comes into play? Watch this space...
They could recast the Joker as an older man in the Robert Pattinson Batman movie
Robert Pattinson makes his screen debut as the Dark Knight in The Batman, due for release on 25th June 2021. Given Joker owes no affiliations to the wider DC Extended Universe (DCEU), and given The Batman is also being pitched as a standalone story, it remains to be seen if any connections will be forged between the two movies.
But let's run with the premise for now. Given Joker depicts Bruce Wayne as a young kid, one might imagine it takes place 20 to 30 years before the events of The Batman. That means that during the events of the latter movie, Arthur Fleck would be considerably older – probably knocking on his early sixties.
As mentioned above, it would be impractical to get Phoenix back, barring some potentially unconvincing ageing make-up. Were he reluctant to return altogether, possibly citing script or creative issues (after all, that's what pushed him away from Doctor Strange), why not recast the role with an older actor renowned for playing cranks and psychos?
This would leave Phoenix untethered from franchise responsibilities and refresh the potential of the character yet again. Someone like John Malkovich would likely be perfect, not least because he modelled the look of Jack Nicholson's Joker (among many other pop culture icons) during a 2014 photo shoot (skip to 44 seconds into the video below). Are you sensing the possibilities?