Riots, Politics, and Clowns | Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker Origin Story

But does the Clown Prince of Crime need an origin? And can Warner Bros. and DC even make a good one?

With the deluge of comic book movies inundating cinemas these days, it’s easy to not only feel overwhelmed or burned out but to find a wide variety of opinions as to which ones are good and which ones aren’t. But one thing pretty much everyone can agree on is that the movies based on DC Comics characters have been… mixed? Sometimes a little good? OK fine, they’ve mostly been terrible.

In another head-scratching move, DC and Warner Bros. are making a standalone movie about the origin of the Joker. Starring Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) as the Clown Prince of Crime, the Todd Phillips-directed film will feature Phoenix as Arthur Fleck (or A. Fleck…), a struggling stand-up comedian who comes to Gotham City to make it big, only to instead turn to a life of crime after some sort of mental breakdown.

Factoring into all this somehow is Zazie Beets (Domino in Deadpool 2), two-time Oscar winner Robert De Niro (Raging Bull) as a talk show host of some kind, and somewhat surprisingly, Brett Cullen (The Dark Knight Rises, as an unrelated character) as Thomas Wayne, who may or may not have political aspirations when we meet him in this movie.

While details have been relatively sparse — we only really have a press release from Warner Bros. that came out a week ago, and an incredibly brief make-up test — new videos and photos from the set have teased us with a taste of what to expect when Joker opens next October. Nerd It Here First took it upon ourselves to parse through these images carefully to see what we could decipher from them. Here’s what we got:

While there are plenty of photos leaks from the set, here are the highlights:


The protestors immediately give us a vibe of The Dark Knight Rises, which itself leaned heavily on arcs like “Knightfall” and “No Man’s Land” for inspiration, along with real-world events like the Occupy Wall Street movement. With similar groups like Black Lives Matter and Antifa still in the news, perhaps this is what Phillips (The Hangover trilogy, War Dogs) and co-screenwriter Scott Silver (Oscar-nominated for The Fighter) are drawing on for inspiration here.

Lending credence to that theory is the photo of Thomas Wayne’s campaign flyer. The part was initially offered to, and accepted by, Alec Baldwin, who then dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. The idea of Baldwin being cast to play a billionaire running for political office sets off some clear bells, and dovetails nicely with the anti-capitalist protests that appear to be going on in the subway station.

We do see a man in a suit, presumably some wealthy capitalist businessman, getting wrestled to the ground by an angry mob while the Joker gleefully walks away. What isn’t clear is whether or not that is Thomas Wayne. If it is, it hints at a personal backstory between the Joker and Waynes that calls back to one of the more famous controversies in Batman’s cinematic history: the decision to make the Joker the one who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, rather than homeless vagrant Joe Chill.

The studio’s press release notes that the film will be “not only a gritty character study but also a broader cautionary tale.” Set in the 1980s, a decade which is known for its excess, both financial and cultural, could that be seen as a parable for modern society? Rampant deregulation led to unmitigated economic growth and mostly got the ball rolling for the recession of 2008, leaving untold millions wallowing in poverty and, in some cases, turning to crime — could this be what makes Fleck snap into the Joker?

My thoughts? What we’ve seen on paper and in photos shows a film that will either be brilliant or terrible. Obviously, given Warner Bros. and DC’s track record, it’s easy to assume the latter. But the involvement of Phoenix, along with producer Bradley Cooper and a director in Philips who I’ve always found to be underrated when it comes to dark comedy, gives me just enough hope that Joker could be quite good. (De Niro’s participation means nothing, the man routinely stars in direct-to-video fare in between his more prestigious outings.) I’ll continue to hold out hope for this project, especially if it comes in with an R-rating, and the $55M budget hopefully means the film is more focused on drama and psychology than “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”