Nothing has polarised Hollywood as much as Todd Phillips’ Joker in recent times. While some critics are demonstrating how the film is enabling America’s incel groups, some have expressed their concern about how it makes anarchy look desirable in an already fraught society. Some have even criticised the film’s ideological hollowness, slamming it for not ‘saying anything’, while some sneer at its Golden Lion win in Venice Film Festival. These tense debates have resulted in glorious box office numbers for the film, which has reportedly pulled in $243 million during its opening weekend, with a record $93 million within North America alone.
To paraphrase Heath Ledger’s character in The Dark Knight – there’s no going back. Joker has changed things… forever. An R-rated supervillain origin story, Joker is following the foot-steps of James Mangold’s Logan, another film that reimagined its extraordinary protagonist in a genre film. Phillips does something similar with his latest, as he roots Arthur Fleck in 1970s New York, the noir era that Martin Scorsese immortalised in films like Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy (both starring Robert De Niro as the lead). Phoenix’s performance is as much physical, as it is psychological. It inhabits the disturbed mind of the downtrodden with no redemption in sight. It’s hard developing empathy for such a character, something Phoenix manages with a exasperating commitment to his character.
Made on a (comparatively) tight budget of $55 million, projections based on the film’s opening weekend suggest that it is going be the most profitable film in the DC stable, since 2017’s Wonder Woman. Phillips’ Joker is a major leap for superhero films, a style that till recently was dictated by Marvel’s chuckle-a-minute formula. Barring Patty Jenkins’ earnestness, no filmmaker in the DC Extended Universe has come even close to matching Chris Nolan’s gritty style. Phillips borrowed some of Nolan’s fantasy-rooted-in-realism approach and married it to a vigilante out of a Scorsese film. It’s an ambitious swerve in a world that has relied too heavily on Robert Downey Jr’s quips to fill theatres.
The success of Phillips’ Joker might mean that this isn’t the last time we see Joaquin Phoenix dancing to the music playing in his head. With Robert Pattinson’s Batman reboot (directed by Matt Reeves) to take place in Bruce Wayne’s early 20s, Phoenix might still be a ripe antagonist for Gotham’s caped crusader. Harley Quinn’s spinoff movie, Birds of Prey (directed by Cathy Yan), could also be a property that collides with the worlds of Phoenix’s Joker and Pattinson’s Batman. Phillips might not necessarily be the most equipped filmmaker to handle a film that sees these characters cross path, but give any able director the collective talents of Joaquin Phoenix, Margot Robbie and Robert Pattinson, and the prospect of the big screen catching fire come alive.
Joker‘s box office success might also go on to inspire directors to come up with a fresher, newer visual language for superhero films. Another recent supervillain origin story, which turned out to be massive critical failure, was Sony’s Venom. Essentially a film that sees Tom Hardy play a man with split personality, a sequel was commissioned after the film’s box office success. Being directed by Andy Serkis, one can be hopeful that Sony will take a page out of Warner Bros’ book and try to make the sequel less generic and significantly more cerebral.
Phillips’s Joker might or might not remain in public memory in a few weeks from now, but it has taken the first step by shaking things up. Imperfect perhaps, but the film has set the course for the next phase of superhero filmmaking. The big screen spectacle had anyway peaked with Avengers: Endgame‘s climax. The next stage of the superhero vehicle might not be that fantastical after all, which presents an opportunity to some bold ideas.