'Bonkers' new 'Joker' sidesteps controversy, 'Batman' hook-up

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

Some movies just want to watch the world burn. Joker, Todd Phillips’s ultra-dark, ultra-violent take on DC Comics’s resident Clown Prince of Crime (played by Joaquin Phoenix) rode into the Toronto International Film Festival last night on a wave of celebration and controversy. Celebration because the R-rated film had just won the coveted Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival — where it also received an eight-minute standing ovation — the first comic book-derived feature to claim that prize. Controversy because the film was perceived as potentially celebrating the violent actions of an emotionally disturbed loner at the same time that those stories are playing out in real world headlines, most recently in the case of a mass shooting perpetrated in West Texas.

Perhaps not surprisingly, that specific tragedy went unaddressed by Phillips in his opening remarks in Toronto, as well as during the Q&A that followed the screening. At the same time, the director didn’t shy away from discussing how his movie departed from the traditional superhero playbook. “I’ll warn you — it’s f*****g bonkers,” Phillips remarked before the lights went down. He wasn’t kidding: Joker ventures to some disturbing places in its presentation of the origin story for this particular Joker, amateur clown and would-be comedian Arthur Fleck. Set in a pre-Batman Gotham City deliberately modeled on Manhattan circa the late ’70s and early ’80s, the film touches on such eternally contemporary topics as class conflict between the privileged elite and the working poor, the neglect of the mentally ill and the public embrace of vigilantism as the only way to shake up a calcified society.

Joaquin Phoenix gets into character in 'Joker' (Photo: Warner Bros.)

After the film, Phillips reinforced the idea that Joker shouldn’t be watched as a traditional comic book movie, but instead as “a character study” as told by a notoriously unreliable narrator. “There was a real freedom with it,” the director said of the way he and co-writer Scott Silver as well as their leading man remixed the various origin stories that have been told about the Joker over the years. For his part, Phoenix described the film as “one of the greatest experiences of my career. It gave us back so much. Everything we put into it was so exciting and energizing and surprising.”

Comic fans will definitely recognize some of the source material that Phillips draws on. There’s a little Killing Joke, a little Dark Knight Returns and even a nod or two in the direction of Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which respectively featured Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger as Batman’s longtime nemesis. (Beyond Batman, there are also elements from seminal graphic novels like V for Vendetta and Watchmen incorporated into the narrative.) And yes, there are references to the larger Bat-mythos, including a brief encounter with a young Bruce Wayne — whose appearance includes a sly reference to the 1966 TV series — and several scenes with his doomed father Thomas, who in this version of events is light years removed from the kindly father figure that Bruce remembers.

Phoenix dances like nobody's watching in 'Joker' (Photo: Warner Bros.)

At the same time, don’t confuse those references as larger attempts to sync Joker up with the rest of the DC Extended Universe. Instead, this film — which comes to a fairly definitive ending — exists as part of a “side label” that Phillips says was part of his initial pitch to Warner Bros. “It was never meant to connect,” he insisted at the Q&A. “So I don’t see it connecting to anything in the future.” And the future includes Robert Pattinson’s debut as the Dark Knight in Matt Reeves’s upcoming franchise relaunch, The Batman, another movie whose connection to the larger DCEU currently seems tenuous. Phillips’s comments seemed aimed at speculation that Phoenix’s Joker would eventually run into Pattinson’s Batman on the big screen.

Meanwhile, Phoenix choked up while paying tribute to his late brother, River. “When I was 15 or 16 my brother River came home from work and he had a VHS copy of a movie called Raging Bull and he sat me down and made me watch it. And the next day he woke me up, and he made me watch it again. And he said, ‘You’re going to start acting again, this is what you’re going to do,’” the younger Phoenix recalled while receiving the TIFF Tribute Actor Award. “He didn’t ask me, he told me. And I am indebted to him for that because acting has given me such an incredible life.”

What initially appeared to be a curious experiment is shaping up to be a sure thing, at least in terms of box office. According to some forecasts, Joker is on track to enjoy a $100 million opening weekend, topping last year’s Venom, which also billed itself as a darker alternative to the usual superhero fare. And the Toronto audience largely greeted the movie with cheers and applause, with the majority of the praise being directed in Phoenix’s direction.

If these reactions continue, it seems all but assured that Phoenix will become the second cinematic Joker to be nominated for — and possibly win — an Oscar. And that’s no joke.

Joker opens in theaters on Oct. 4.

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