This article contains spoilers for Joker.
After months of buzz, backlash, backlash to the backlash, and just general Internet chatter, Joker is finally in cinemas. It’s certainly a bold film and one I enjoyed greatly. Joaquin Phoenix stars as the eponymous clown prince of crime and he delivers a phenomenal performance, and the film itself is a mesmerizing, unflinching portrayal of a battered man becoming one of popular culture’s greatest villains. Joker spawned a huge amount of discussion in the run-up towards its release but now that it has been released, to some very positive reviews and commercial success, the discussion moves to what impact the film will have. The comic-book genre is currently dominated by bloated CGI-heavy mass entertainment and so the darker and more intimate psychological aspects of Joker are a breath of fresh air, and have proven a hit with audiences. Could the success of the film be a turning point for the genre and open the floodgates to further unique takes of these beloved characters, and what will be the aftereffects and legacy of Joker’s cinematic achievement?
The most straightforward aftereffect of Joker’s success would surely be a sequel, but I hope that doesn’t happen. While most stories focusing on The Joker wisely avoid his origin – the character himself stating he prefers his past to be ‘multiple choice’ – the story we got in the latest film was nothing but his origin, and I get the feeling that that’s the only interesting story to tell about this incarnation of the comic-book villain. Once he fully becomes Joker, he’s a lot less interesting. It works at the end of the movie as the ultimate payoff to the character progression, but this isn’t the kind of Joker I want a full film focused on. Arthur: yes. Joker: no. And by the end of the film I feel Arthur’s journey is complete. I think I would feel otherwise if this was a different style of The Joker, but in presenting him as a mentally ill, abused and pitiful outcast with a twisted logic (and possible political motivation) to his actions, he’s not a Joker I could see planning elaborate crimes or being much of a test for Batman. Or for anybody for that matter. And as for Batman, we would have to jump over a decade in time to see them face off, or have find a different character for Joker to combat.
If the film somehow does spawn a new continuity then retroactively that would bring about some problems I have with Joker. I’ve never cared for the idea of The Joker being instrumental in the death of the Waynes and the creation of Batman, but as a small part of this one-off film I quite like it, especially so because I think the film makes it ambiguous as to whether he was or not. But if a new film series uses this as a jumping off point and we see this universe’s version of Batman then I would have a problem with it. The same goes for the film’s interpretation of Gotham City. I like it in terms of this film because it plays into the more realistic tone and homages the late 70’s/early 80’s New York of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, two big influences of Joker. But if this were a Batman movie or a Joker sequel then I feel the style of Gotham would be fairly uninteresting. And speaking of ambiguity, a sequel would have to answer which parts of the first film were real and which were merely Arthur’s imagination. Even though I don’t subscribe to many, I like that Joker has spawned so many theories and it’d be a shame to definitively answer them. But if the sequel does answer what the “super rats” mentioned a few times early in the film are then maybe I’d welcome it, but as it stands, I don’t think I want a Joker sequel. But I’m happy to be surprised if we do get one and it ends up being just as good.
I think a direct sequel is unlikely but that’s not to say Joker won’t have any sort of legacy. I’ve seen people online saying that they’ll be a ‘before Joker’ and an ‘after Joker’ in terms of the kinds of comic-book movies that are produced. I think that’s hyperbole but I absolutely think the film will have an impact. It’s a dark R-rated DC movie that’s managed to make an awful lot of money on a relatively low budget for this genre of film. The so-called ‘Deadpool effect’ could kick in as studios become more open to making these kinds of movies after seeing the buzz and dollars they can produce. But did Deadpool really make the waves in the industry some predicted? Not really. Yes, it allowed for some more adult-focused films to be produced – Joker arguably being one of them – but comic-book movies haven’t changed dramatically. Marvel didn’t take much notice then and I doubt they’ll take much notice now with Joker. I don’t see them changing their plans for the MCU, and nor should they. But I could see DC specifically making movies inspired by Joker’s success and I both fear and anticipate the copy cats. The movie should inspire further unique stories and not just bring forth lots of films coping the specific look, style and tone of Joker.
In a recent Q&A (which you can watch here), Joker co-writer and director Todd Philips says that he pitched the idea of a ‘black label’ of DC films that would allow particular visionary directors to make a unique film featuring a DC character, inspired by Joker but each having a unique flavour. I think this is a fantastic idea and a way to branch out into lesser-known characters. I love The Joker but I’m just pretty tired of the character at the moment and he could do with a rest; I hope he’s not in Matt Reeve’s upcoming Batman movie for instance. Give me a David Fincher serial killer movie about Professor Pyg, or better yet Victor Zsasz. Zsasz is a character the Arkham games made me interested in but we’ve yet to see a good portrayal in live-action. He briefly appears in little more than a cameo in Batman Begins, he’s going to appear in next year’s Birds of Prey/Harley Quinn movie (but I don’t have much faith in that) and while he’s one of the best parts of the Gotham TV series, that version is so totally different from his characterisation in the comics. Or how about a Firefly movie where he’s a realistic arsonist? A freak show-performer Killer Croc film? A Scorsese-style Penguin gangster film? Riddler? Clock King? Whatever character is ultimately chosen, I hope they keep the film standalone and don’t try and turn all these villain origin stories into a shared universe.
Yes, if you want origin stories for most of these characters then there’s always Gotham but, while that show is a lot of fun and very watchable, it’s objectively pretty terrible. But the fact that there are origin stories already told for those characters is an interesting point. Joker is quite unique in the Batman canon because, while he has had origins stories like those in The Killing Joke comic, the 1989 Batman movie and the aforementioned Gotham, he doesn’t have a definitive origin story as such. But many of the others in Batman’s rogues’ gallery do and so would these new films re-tell them or come up with something new? Can a Mr Freeze film for example really be better than the 22-minute episode ‘Heart of Ice’ from Batman: The Animated Series? But these films don’t necessarily have to be origin stories, I guess. The issue is that because The Joker is such a popular and well-known character, would films focused on other villains be as successful? Or can the success Joker received only ever be captured with the character of The Joker?
Whatever Joker’s impact on the film industry, and the comic-book genre specifically, turns out to be, I’ll be fascinated to watch it happen. While I’m always open to be proven wrong, I don’t think a sequel would be the right move and further villain movies, with unique styles and voices behind them, seems to me to be the far more interesting prospect. What do you think Joker’s legacy will be? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.