Is Joaquin Phoenix playing the real version of Batman’s iconic nemesis in Joker, or some kind of alternate imitation or precursor? After the disappointing reception afforded to Batman v. Superman and Justice League, Warner Bros. have relaxed their shared universe approach to DC movies and are stepping up their efforts to offer more diverse, standalone ventures. Next on the studio’s superhero schedule is Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Clown Prince of Crime.
Originally billed as a character exploration of the infamous comic villain, Joker‘s striking imagery and unique premise has caught fans’ intrigue and is being touted as a potential Oscar contender. However, Joker doesn’t appear to be part of any established DC movie universe. Although the trailer does confirm a Gotham City setting, the DCEU’s version of Joker is, much to fans’ chagrin, the tattooed, grill-toothed Jared Leto. This would seem to imply that the new Joker takes place in an separate iteration of Gotham or during a completely different era.
From the trailer alone, it’s difficult to judge Joker‘s plot, with the footage instead centering around Phoenix’s transformation from man to clown, and this could suggest Warner Bros. have some secrets in store. Hollywood is partial to a superhero villain twist, on both sides of the DC/Marvel divide, and while some don’t quite land as intended (The Dark Knight Rises’ Bane and Talia al Ghul reveal, for example), the technique can be incredibly effective when done right. Here’s why Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker may not be the genuine article.
While Joker remains shrouded in secrecy, one nugget of truth fans can be sure of is that the film acts as an origin story for the villain. As teased in the trailer, Joker chronicles Arthur Fleck’s transition from an aspiring clown caring for his mother and struggling with depression to a reckless symbol of chaos , crime and comedy. While Phoenix’s acting talent is undeniable, the man is currently in his mid-forties, and assuming his character is of a similar age, this Joker is surely too old to begin a lengthy rivalry with the Caped Crusader. Every version of the Batman story paints Joker as the vigilante’s arch-nemesis for the bulk of his crime-fighting career, but this wouldn’t make come to pass if Joker only began his path of criminality as a middle-aged man.
Set in the 1980s, Joker‘s Bruce Wayne is played by 9-year old Dante Pereira-Olson. By the time this fresh-faced rich kid puts on the famous cape and cowl, therefore, Phoenix’s Joker would already be well into his late 50s. How much of a rivalry could Batman and the Joker really have with an age gap of more than 30 years? The Dark Knight is already physically superior to his nemesis, but the comic books do show the villain landing a few heavy blows on the superhero (and some heavier ones on his sidekicks). Even if Arthur Fleck remained fit into his later years, his age doesn’t leave much time for the storied rivalry between Batman and Joker to develop.
A huge part of the Joker’s appeal is the ongoing sense of mystery surrounding him. Various comic and film stories have attempted to pin some element of backstory onto the character, but the constantly-changing nature of Joker’s history creates an everlasting sense of mystery. Even the villain’s real name is a source of much debate with no clear answer. The Joker movie arguably betrays these principles by providing the character with both a real name and a clear, substantiated backstory that may almost humanize Joker in the audience’s mind.
As eagerly anticipated as Joker has become, it’s impossible to avoid the fact that some of the Joker’s appeal is lost when his background is explicitly revealed. If Joaquin Phoenix wasn’t actually playing the true Bat-bothering version of the Joker, however, this problem is circumvented entirely.
The story of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker also feels quite far removed from any of his previous comic beginnings. Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke offers perhaps the most widely accepted version of Joker’s origins, and shows a young man struggling to provide for his family as a failing comedian, who then falls in with Gotham’s criminal contingent. There are certainly parallels between this story and what can be gleaned from the Joker trailer – the struggling comic element, for instance – but largely, Joker seems to be forging its own path, once again hinting that this isn’t the true version of the character.
Calling a movie “Joker” when the lead character isn’t actually the villain fans know and love may feel like somewhat of a cop out, however, this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. The idea of a prototype Joker – a criminal that serves as inspiration to the actual Joker – has already been broached in the Batman mythology, most recently in Gotham, and this could be a potential route for Joker to take. This kind of prequel setup would also fit neatly with Bruce Wayne being a child during the film’s time period.
Interestingly, it’s still possible that Joker could work as an origin story for the real version of the character. In the Joker teaser trailer, one scene depicts a protest where several people are wearing clown masks, implying that Arthur Fleck might develop some kind of cult following over the course of his story. One of these acolytes could easily be the real Joker that becomes Batman’s nemesis in the years to come, and Joker could feature some kind of passing of the torch moment from Fleck to his unidentified successor that sets up the established character dynamic. Perhaps this scene could even feature a digitally de-aged Jared Leto to shockingly tie back into the wider DCEU.
In this way, Joker would technically still work as an origin story, but subvert expectations by largely focusing on the villain’s source of inspiration, rather than Gotham City’s Clown Prince himself. Fleck, meanwhile, could bow out as a martyr, dying in a blaze of glory after committing a truly heinous scheme.
More: The Possible Inspirations For Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker Makeup