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Joaquin Phoenix’s ‘Joker’ Movie Sounds … Interesting

And by interesting we mean possibly disastrous

A Joker-themed photo illustration of Alec Baldwin, Joanquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Marc Maron, and Frances Conroy Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The DC Extended Universe doesn’t appear to operate on any guiding principles so much as it just desperately tries to stay relevant in the shadow of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After the dark and dreary Zack Snyder–style films Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—plus whatever the hell Suicide Squad was—the DCEU was given a lifeline with 2017’s bright, colorful, and supremely entertaining Wonder Woman and then followed that up with … more darkness in the form of Snyder’s Justice League. The DCEU appeared to course-correct after that: Following in Wonder Woman’s footsteps, upcoming DCEU movies like Shazam! and Aquaman appear to have similarly breezy, unserious tones.

So, naturally, the DC Universe is now cooking up [squints] a dark, gritty character drama about the Joker? No, not kidding. After initial rumors that Joaquin Phoenix would be starring in a stand-alone Joker movie in February, we got official confirmation in July that this Phoenix-led Joker movie is a go, and that it will be called, simply, Joker. It’s being described as an “exploration of a man disregarded by society,” and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

What’s made this bizarre project even more peculiar is the series of hires and updates that have followed the initial announcement—not to mention the unignorable fact Joker muddies the pool that is the ever-expansive, perpetually confusing DCEU. This feels like the superhero equivalent of A Star Is Born: Joker is either going to be a stupendous success and a fine entry into the Prestige Superhero Film lexicon or a calamitous trainwreck, with no in between. Let us count the ways in which this movie is rapidly becoming the most befuddling project of 2019.

There’s Too Many Jokers!

Remember when Jared Leto went full Joker-method for, like, 15 minutes of screentime in Suicide Squad—and then those 15 minutes were transcendently terrible? Well, instead of cutting the cord on Leto’s half-mobster, half-emo take on the Joker, Warner Bros. decided to give him his own full Joker movie. (Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is also getting her own spinoff movie, Birds of Prey, and it’s entirely possible he’ll have a cameo there, too.)

So, yes, your math is correct: one studio is currently producing multiple stand-alone Joker movies. To try to clear up the very understandable confusion, Warner Bros. is insisting that there won’t be any Joker overlap because Phoenix’s Joker is going to be part of the studio’s “new origins banner,” which is separate from the current DCEU and is instead focused solely on stand-alone stories. Oh, OK, that makes sense—oh wait, no it doesn’t. Wouldn’t a Leto-led Joker movie also, technically, count as a stand-alone movie? Where does this madness end? Does this mean we might also have multiple Batmans—sorry Ben!—for no discernible purpose? All so that we can have two Jokers at the same time, one of which we know is nowhere near as good as Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger?

That Todd Phillips?

Joker will be directed and cowritten by veteran filmmaker Todd Phillips. The good news: Phillips does have an Oscar nomination to his name. The bad news: that Oscar nom was a Best Adapted Screenplay nod for … Borat. Phillips is probably best known for making Old School and the Hangover trilogy. His movies are entertaining, well-made comedies, but also crass and without a modicum of subtlety.

So yes, that Todd Phillips is going to write and direct a movie in the gritty style of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. It seems fair to be skeptical of this. And for those hoping that Martin Scorsese’s involvement in Joker as a coproducer would at least bring some crime-drama expertise to the movie, I must regretfully inform you that Scorsese left the project last month. [Insert “This Is Fine” meme here.]

WTF With the Casting?

First of all, one of the greatest living actors, Robert De Niro, is dipping his toes into the superhero IP pool. While you’d think the Oscar-winning actor from mob movies like The Godfather: Part II and Goodfellas would be a fitting—if a little aged—choice to play an antagonistic mob boss, in Joker De Niro is … not doing that. Instead, per Variety, he will be a “talk-show host who plays a part” in turning Phoenix’s Joker into the psychopathic villain Hollywood can’t seem to get enough of. Basically, De Niro will be Evil Johnny Carson, telling the Joker he won’t be making it in showbiz and putting him on a path toward depravity. I suppose that’s better, at least, than having James Corden kick the Joker out of a Carpool Karaoke video because he couldn’t handle the falsettos in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

But De Niro’s casting isn’t even one of the weird ones—Marc Maron (?!) is going to be in this movie! Unfortunately, this will not be a meta addition to the movie in which the Joker goes on the WTF With Marc Maron podcast (though that really needs to happen). Instead, Maron will play an agent for De Niro’s fictional late-night show who books a presumably pre-Joker Joker—it sounds like it could be a bit role. For what it’s worth, Maron said on his podcast earlier this month that Joker has a “pretty great script” and that he’s stoked about the opportunity to work alongside the star of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. This movie has a lot of question marks, but “More Marc Maron Acting Really Marc Maron-ish” isn’t one of them. (See: GLOW.)

Lastly, the latest casting decision is one that could make or break Joker—emphasis on the latter. On Monday, The Hollywood Reporter confirmed that Alec Baldwin wouldn’t just be playing Bruce Wayne’s father, Thomas Wayne, but that he’d be a “cheesy and tanned businessman who is more in the mold of a 1980s Donald Trump.” This makes it sound like Baldwin will be bringing along his tiresome Trump impression from Saturday Night Live, to which I say: please, God, no.

Why Must We Kill Bruce Wayne’s Dad Again?

As if “Baldwin Doing His Trump Impression for Two Hours” isn’t concerning enough, add in the fact he’s playing yet another iteration of a character we don’t need reminding of. Yes, it is Batman canon that Thomas Wayne and his wife are shot—and yes, that’s crucial to Bruce Wayne’s transformation into the Caped Crusader. But how many times do we need to be reminded of this traumatic moment in Bruce’s life? And why do we need to see it for the gazillionth time, in a stand-alone Joker movie? At this point who’s gonna feel anything when Thomas Wayne is gunned down, especially if this time he’s some kind of Trumpian asshole?

I’m not sure what’d be worse for Joker: Killing Bruce Wayne’s dad for the umpteenth time, or not killing Bruce’s dad and letting Baldwin run wild with his Trump antics for an entire film.

Update, 4:46 p.m. ET, August 29: Two days after his casting was confirmed by The Hollywood Reporter, Baldwin dropped out of the film, telling USA Today, “I’m no longer doing that movie.” In case you’re wondering, the answer is yes, this news does bolster the argument that Joker sounds like a glorious mess.

Every bit of news that comes out about Joker is like a Chinese finger trap for the brain, and because the film likely isn’t done rounding out its cast, this may just be the beginning. Maybe Parker Posey as an older Harley Quinn? Rising star Glen Powell as a young, pre-commissioner Jim Gordon? Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy—Round 2? I’ll say it again: This movie is either going to be amazing or the biggest superhero joke of all.