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Why Joker will be the most unique comic book movie yet


Joker director Todd Phillips has revealed that his take on the Clown Prince of Crime's origin story won't be based on any pre-existing comic book material.

Whether that notion makes you nervous or excited, it certainly helps cement the movie’s reputation as a bold and unique comic book movie.

There's been plenty of evidence already to suggest that this will be a 'comic book' movie unlike anything we have seen before, so we delve into the reasons why…

1. It’s directed by Todd Phillips

He may not be a household name, but his films certainly are. You may be surprised to read the filmography of Todd Phillips, as it includes broad comedies such as Old School (2003), The Hangover (2009) and both of its sequels (released in 2011 and 2013).

There may not be a single comic book movie on his portfolio, but Philips’ relative lack of experience may help him escape the conventions of the genre to establish a distinctive, exciting voice.

With his background in comedy direction (he also wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay of Borat), Phillips will surely be bringing a unique perspective to the character, so expect dark laughs and something a little unexpected as this director takes a big step away from his comfort zone.

2. It’s influenced by three Martin Scorsese masterpieces

There’s an interesting connection between this latest incarnation of the Joker, and a certain legendary film director.

Joker appears to be heavily influenced by Martin Scorsese classics Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The King of Comedy, not least because the star of those three movies is featuring in Phillips’ gritty film.

We’re talking about Robert De Niro, a frequent collaborator with Scorsese whose range is exemplified by the aforementioned trio of Scorsese offerings.

As Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta and Rupert Pupkin, respectively, De Niro embodies the idea of obsession and an ordinary guy on the very edge of madness. That link seems to be prevalent in Joker as well, with Joaquin Phoenix playing stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck who turns to crime after being beaten down by life in Gotham City.

De Niro appears as smarmy talk show host Murray Franklin, one of the individuals who helps plot Arthur’s downfall, and hastens his transformation into the Joker. In King of Comedy, De Niro plays a disturbed wannabe stand-up comedian who kidnaps his idol to make his dream come true, another clear parallel between the worlds of Phillips and Scorsese.

The film also seems to have the look and feel of a gritty Scorsese gangster thriller rather than a comic book movie, with the litter-infested, crime-ridden streets of Gotham owing a considerable debt to Scorsese’s unforgettable vision of New York in Taxi Driver.

3. It’ll be a completely new origin story

In a pretty brazen move, given that the film centres on arguably the most iconic villain of all time, Phillips says his film "didn’t follow anything from the comic books". He also acknowledges that "people are gonna be mad" about this decision, so the stage is certainly set for something completely different and new.

While fans might be a little apprehensive, if anything it completely opens up the creative opportunities to do something out of the ordinary with this character, and that is incredibly exciting.

The Joker has seen many incarnations in previous films, television shows and of course comic books, but Phillips’ interpretation will be going its own way.

4. It’s billed as a character study rather than a comic book movie

As soon as it was announced that Joaquin Phoenix would be playing the notorious villain, speculation began to mount as to his portrayal.

Acclaimed for playing morally dubious, often dark and misunderstood characters, Phoenix is the perfect choice for this latest version of the Clown Prince of Crime, as the likes of Gladiator, Walk the Line, You Were Never Really Here and The Master attest.

Podcast host and actor Marc Maron, who stars alongside Phoenix, says that Phillips’ offering is "an intimate and gritty movie with a very specific scope" and that it is "more of an origin story and a character study of a mentally ill person that becomes The Joker".

As previously mentioned, the film will not be taking any cues from the comic books, which leaves Phoenix very much free to interpret the character as he wishes.

Phoenix has proven he is capable of playing a wide range of characters, and some of his most memorable performances have been those that have taken him to the edge – exactly what’s needed to breathe fresh life into Batman’s nemesis.

5. It’s potentially headed for the awards circuit

Comic book movies winning Academy Awards isn’t unheard of – Christopher Nolan’s game-changing The Dark Knight won a posthumous Oscar for Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, and Logan was Oscar-nominated for its screenplay (the first superhero movie to receive such recognition).

However, there’s a distinct sense that both Phillips and Warner Bros are going to town in emphasising the artistic prestige of their movie, distinguishing it from its comic book brethren. The movie is playing at the prestigious Venice and Toronto Film Festivals, and the artistic director of the former, Alberto Barbera, reveals it was Phillips who pushed for its inclusion.

Barbera says: "It’s a really surprising film. It’s the most surprising film we’ve got this year. This one’s going straight to the Oscars even though it’s gritty, dark, violent. It has amazing ambition and scope."

Are we potentially looking at a new dawn for origin stories, ones that house troubling themes of identity and madness within a demonstrably comic book world?

Joker is released on 4th October, so let us know @Cineworld if you think this is poised to turn the genre inside out.

Sarah Buddery is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.