Joker is a 2019 American psychological thriller film directed by Todd Phillips, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver. The film, based on DC Comics characters, stars Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker and serves as a standalone origin story for the character. Set in 1981, it follows Arthur Fleck, a failed clown and aspiring stand-up comic whose descent into mental illness and nihilism inspires a violent countercultural revolution against the prosperous in a decaying Gotham City. Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz and Frances Conroy appear in supporting roles. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, Joker was produced by Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Films in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, Bron Creative and Joint Effort.
Phillips conceived Joker in 2016 and wrote the script with Silver throughout 2017. The two were inspired by 1970s character studies and the films of Martin Scorsese, particularly Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982), who was initially attached to the project as a producer. The film loosely adapts plot elements from Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), but Phillips and Silver otherwise did not look to specific comics for inspiration. Phoenix became attached in February 2018 and was cast that July, while the majority of the cast signed on by August. Principal photography took place in New York City, Jersey City and Newark, from September to December 2018. Joker is the first live-action theatrical Batman film to receive an R rating from the Motion Picture Association.
Joker premiered at the 76th Venice International Film Festival on August 31, 2019, where it won the Golden Lion and was theatrically released in the United States on October 4, 2019. While Phoenix’s performance, Phillips’ direction, the visual style, editing, musical score, and cinematography were praised, the tone, portrayal of mental illness, and handling of violence divided opinions. The film was a box office success and set records for an October release. It grossed over $1 billion, the first R-rated film to do so and became the sixth-highest-grossing film of 2019 during its theatrical run. The film also received numerous accolades, including the Academy Award for Best Actor for Phoenix.
A sequel, Joker: Folie à Deux, is scheduled to be released on October 4, 2024.
Between 2014 and 2015, Joaquin Phoenix expressed interest to his agent in acting in a low-budget “character study” type of film about a comic book villain, like DC Comics character the Joker. Phoenix had thought of the idea 1 to 2 years before Phillips conceived Joker in 2016. Phoenix had previously declined to act in the Marvel Cinematic Universe because he would have been required to reprise a role, such as the Hulk (initially portrayed by Edward Norton before he was recast by Mark Ruffalo) or Doctor Strange, in multiple films. Phoenix ruled out the Joker for his “character study” idea and tried to think of a different one. “I thought, ‘You can’t do the Joker, because, you know, it’s just you can’t do that character, it’s just been done.'” Phoenix’s agent suggested setting up an exploratory meeting with Warner Bros., but he declined and let go of the idea. Similarly, Todd Phillips had been offered to direct comic-based films a number of times, but declined because he thought they were “loud” and did not interest him. According to Phillips, Joker was created from his idea to create a different, more grounded comic book film. He was attracted to the Joker because he did not think there was a definitive portrayal of the character, which he knew would provide considerable creative freedom.
Phillips pitched the idea for Joker to Warner Bros. after his film War Dogs premiered in August 2016. Prior to War Dogs, Phillips was mostly known for his comedy films, such as Road Trip (2000), Old School (2003) and The Hangover (2009); War Dogs marked a venture into more unsettling territory. During the premiere, Phillips realized “War Dogs wasn’t going to set the world on fire and I was thinking, ‘What do people really want to see?'” In addition, he found that it was difficult to make comedy films in the “woke culture”, throughout opposition of “30 million people on Twitter”. He finally thought that “How do I do something irreverent, but fuck comedy? Oh I know, let’s take the comic book movie universe and turn it on its head with this”. He proposed that DC Films differentiate its slate from the competing Marvel Studios’ by producing low-budget, standalone films. After the successful release of Wonder Woman (2017), DC Films decided to deemphasize the shared nature of its DC-based film franchise, the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). In August 2017, Warner Bros. and DC Films revealed plans for the film, with Phillips directing and co-writing with Scott Silver and Martin Scorsese set to co-produce with Phillips. According to Tatiana Siegel of The Hollywood Reporter, Scorsese considered directing Joker before Phillips was chosen, though a Warner Bros. source said he only became involved because the film needed a New York City-based producer.
According to Kim Masters and Borys Kit of The Hollywood Reporter, Jared Leto, who portrayed the Joker in the DCEU, was displeased by the existence of a project separate from his interpretation. In October 2019, Masters reported that Leto “felt ‘alienated and upset'” when he learned that Warner Bros.—which had promised him a standalone DCEU Joker film—let Phillips proceed with Joker, going as far as to ask his music manager Irving Azoff to get the project canceled. Masters added that Leto’s irritation was what caused him to end his association with Creative Artists Agency (CAA), as he believed “his agents should have told him about the Phillips project earlier and fought harder for his version of Joker.” However, sources associated with Leto deny that he attempted to get Joker canceled and left CAA because of it.
Warner Bros. pushed for Phillips to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as the Joker, hoping to use his frequent collaborator Scorsese’s involvement to attract him. However, Phillips said that Phoenix was the only actor he considered, and that he and Silver wrote the script with Phoenix in mind, “The goal was never to introduce Joaquin Phoenix into the comic book movie universe. The goal was to introduce comic book movies into the Joaquin Phoenix universe.” Phoenix said when he learned of the film, he became excited because it was the kind he was looking to make, describing it as unique and stating it did not feel like a typical “studio movie.” It took him some time to commit to the role, as it intimidated him and he said “oftentimes, in these movies, we have these simplified, reductive archetypes and that allows for the audience to be distant from the character, just like we would do in real life, where it’s easy to label somebody as evil and therefore say, ‘Well, I’m not that.‘“
- Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck / Joker: A mentally ill, impoverished party clown and stand-up comedian disregarded by society, whose history of abuse causes him to become a nihilistic criminal with a clown-themed persona. Phoenix had been interested in a low-budget “character study” of a comic book character and said the film “feels unique, it is its own world in some ways and maybe It might as well be the thing that scares you the most.” Phoenix lost 52 pounds (23 kg) for his role in the film.
- Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin: A talk show host who plays a role in Arthur’s downfall. De Niro said his role in Joker pays homage to his character from The King of Comedy (1983), Rupert Pupkin, who is a comedian obsessed with a talk-show host.
- Zazie Beetz as Sophie Dumond: A cynical single mother and Arthur’s “love interest”. Beetz, a “huge fan” of Phoenix, said that it was “an honor” to costar with him and that she learned a lot working with him on set.
- Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck: Arthur’s mentally and physically ill mother, who formerly worked for Thomas Wayne. Canadian actress Hannah Gross portrays a young Penny.
Additionally, Brett Cullen portrays Thomas Wayne, a billionaire running for mayor of Gotham. Alec Baldwin was initially cast in the role, but dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. Carrie Louise Putrello portrays Thomas’s wife Martha, although the character has no lines and is never referred to by name. Douglas Hodge plays Alfred Pennyworth, the butler and caretaker of the Wayne family, and Dante Pereira-Olson plays Bruce Wayne, Thomas’ son, who becomes the Joker’s archenemy Batman as an adult.
Additional cast members include Glenn Fleshler and Leigh Gill as Randall and Gary, Arthur’s clown co-workers; Bill Camp and Shea Whigham as detectives Garrity and Burke in the Gotham City Police Department; Marc Maron as Gene Ufland, a producer on Franklin’s show; Sharon Washington as Arthur’s social worker; Josh Pais as Hoyt Vaughn, Arthur’s agent; Brian Tyree Henry as Clark, a clerk at Arkham State Hospital; Ben Warheit, Michael Benz and Carl Lundstedt as bankers who harass Arthur; Gary Gulman and Sam Morril as comedians at an open mic where Arthur performs; and Bryan Callen as Javier, a co-worker of Arthur. Justin Theroux has an uncredited cameo as Ethan Chase, a celebrity guest on Franklin’s show.
October 4, 2019
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