As Warner Bros. try to bring some semblance of order back to the DC Extended Universe, conversations remain over how on earth one of the major entertainment studios on the planet could take something as instantly iconic and beloved as the comic book narratives of Batman, Superman, and friends, and turn them into something so messy and uninteresting. Over the course of five films in as many years, the DCEU has spent over $1bn in order to gross around $3.77bn. That’s nothing to sneeze at but the margins remain impossibly tight for something that was supposedly a sure-fire hit. How the hell do you lose money on a Justice League movie, for example? How do you make a hugely well-known actor-director with Oscars on his shelf so publicly miserable at the prospect of playing the world’s greatest detective? What the hell was with that CGI on Henry Cavill’s face? Why is Jared Leto?
Aside from Wonder Woman, the DCEU hasn’t had any undeniable successes. Even the ones that made a lot of money didn’t reach the heights they were predicted to. Walter Hamada, who has now been brought on board as President of DC Films, was reported to have called the franchise and the behind-the-scenes chaos a ‘shitshow’. Clearly, changes need to be made. While I’m personally hoping the DCEU just embraces the madness and goes full on Fuck It, there have been signs of growth over the past couple of months. Wonder Woman 1984 has fans excited for more of Diana and her exploits; James Wan’s Aquaman looks visually fascinating and utterly unlike anything the franchise has done before; even Shazam! has people intrigued by the possibility of a campy blockbuster with a knowing self-awareness. Yet the film that seems to signal the biggest evolution for Warner Bros. and their tactics is the planned origin movie for The Joker.
Todd Phillips, director of The Hangover trilogy and War Dogs, was announced as the mind behind a spin-off film outside of the DCEU that would give an origin story to Gotham’s most iconic villain. Martin Scorsese was originally attached as a producer, although his name no longer seems to be associated with the project, it was compared to King of Comedy, it was going to be set in the 1980s, and reports indicated that Warner Bros. wanted none other than Leonardo Di Caprio in the lead role. Fans didn’t seem all that enthused by the pitch and neither did casual filmgoers who had begun to turn away from DC’s movies. The most commonly asked question seemed to be ‘Who asked for this?’ Once it was revealed that Joaquin Phoenix was interested in the lead role, people began to take notice, and now with the actor confirming his involvement, shooting is said to begin in September. Most of the reporting around the next phase of DC’s cinematic universe centres on how this film could breathe new life into their strategy. If nothing else, it’s unlike anything their competition at Marvel is doing.
Creatively speaking, a Joker origin story has always felt like a misguided idea. How do you even give an origin to a character whose motivation is so inextricably tied to another character? There’s been no indication that Batman will appear in this movie, and nobody wants a repeat of surly teen Bruce in Gotham. The Joker has had stories in the comics without or with limited interactions with Batman, but they relied on the Joker being an established character whose personality and driving forces were already known to the reader. Even The Killing Joke, the much lauded and highly overexposed Alan Moore one-off that remains one of the genre’s most influential pieces, has an origin story that exists solely to fuck with Batman.
The Killing Joke has been connected to the Joker origin film since the beginning, either as the primary basis for the story or its biggest influence. Taking out the Batman and Batgirl stuff to focus solely on the potential origin the Joker gives himself feels naïve at best, especially since he admits he’s just screwing around with his faux sob story. If he is to have a past, he tells Batman, he’d prefer it to be multiple choice. Therein lies the issue of presenting a single and definitive version of the Joker’s origin on-screen: Why make the character so thoroughly uninteresting in that way?
The most recent descriptions of the film call it ‘an exploration of a man disregarded by society [that] is not only a gritty character study, but also a broader cautionary tale.’ Frankly, that doesn’t interest me much because a significant portion of pop culture is already obsessed with stories of straight white dudes who feel marginalized by society and lash out in unnerving ways. I’d be more impressed with this idea if they’d gone into production and put it in cinemas without ever revealing its Joker connection. Having that moment play out as a true surprise would have been worth the price of admission alone. Still, as an origin story, the tale of a disgruntled guy who gets retribution on an uncaring society could go so very wrong in indelicate hands, even without adding the green hair.
For me, The Joker works best with no concrete origin, and there would certainly be ways of doing that on the big screen. Presenting this one version of the story as a hazy and unreliable narrative presented by a sociopath with an agenda would offer more fascinating storytelling opportunities than a run-of-the-mill sad guy goes bad. The other option would be to have the Joker less as a person than an idea. Perhaps the Joker has always existed in some form or another and the title is a dishonourable mantle one inherits or is infected with. That way, Warner Bros. can bring the film into the DCEU canon should it perform well with audiences, and they can even tie it into Jared Leto’s Joker if they so desire. Apparently, he’s still sticking around and getting his own movie, but I personally question if that’ll ever happen.
There’s another problem with this project: What if it’s actually good? What if this Joker origin film, which still doesn’t have a title, is so critically and commercially successful, and Phoenix’s depiction of the Joker is so beloved, that Warner Bros. want more? What if they want Phoenix to officially take over from Leto? Is there even a viable and canon-logic route to making that a reality? For Phoenix, half the allure of the role is in its one-off nature - he didn’t sign on to play Doctor Strange for Marvel because of the multi-film contract - so even convincing him to stay on would be a task and a half. Yet, assuming he would be up for the franchise, does that mean DC start from scratch or just insert him into the movie and pretend Leto didn’t happen? That wouldn’t be the worst choice they could make. Leto’s depiction of the character has its fans, although his interpretation of the Joker as a Florida Juggalo raised some eyebrows, and he only appears in Suicide Squad for 10 minutes or so. His absence wouldn’t leave a hole in the franchise in the same way, say, Ben Affleck’s would (and let’s be honest, we’re all expecting that to happen at some point).
Production of the Joker origin film starts in September and will reportedly shoot in New York. Robert De Niro has been rumoured as a cast member, but little else has been revealed. It’s unknown whether the film will be featured at San Diego Comic Con this week, but it seems likely that it’ll at least warrant a mention. With a $55m budget and little expectations of bank breaking special effects, at the very least, this project can be an opportunity for DC to experiment beyond the limited confines of replicating Marvel’s franchise plan. The necessity of a Joker origin story is almost inconsequential in the long-term for Warner Bros. They just need to make more films that excite us.