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The ‘Joker’ Syllabus

A primer before you see Todd Phillips’s controversial take on the iconic Batman villain

Ringer illustration

For the first time on the big screen, the Joker will star in a movie without his perpetual sparring partner around to steal the spotlight. Joker, helmed by Hangover director Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix, is the rare superhero origin film focused solely on the villain. DC half-attempted it with 2016’s blockbuster Suicide Squad, but the even narrower focus on the life of Arthur Fleck—set long before the time of Batman or Harley Quinn—makes Joker an entirely different type of movie. One of the only R-rated films DC has ever made, it eschews most of the theatrics of superhero movies to zero in on how the injustices of society and everyday life turned a man into the Joker. The movie performed well on the festival circuit—even winning the top prize at the Venice Film Festival—but because of its gritty nature and potentially too-sympathetic portrayal of a murderer, it’s generated an immense level of controversy before its release.

But even though Joker is unlike any comic book movie that’s come before it, it’s still based in source material—and heavily inspired by several other movies. So ahead of Joker’s highly anticipated release on Friday, let’s break down the Clown Prince of Crime and everything that shaped his first solo act at the movies.

The Comic Books

The Joker has a long, storied history in comics dating all the way back to Batman No. 1 in 1940, when the Clown Prince squared off against the Dark Knight for the first time. And yet, beyond the presence of a pre-Batman Bruce Wayne and his prominent parents, Thomas and Martha, as well as the film’s setting in the crime-ridden Gotham City, Joker largely distances itself from decades’ worth of comic book canon. “The movie is very liberating because DC—just speaking about comic books—DC as a company and Warner Bros. as a studio really just let us do whatever we wanted with it,” Phillips explained to CBR last month. “It wasn’t like ‘Oh, and you have to mention the Batmobile and you have to …’ none of that. It was literally like ‘Yeah, we’re going to take this leap on this movie. Just go for it and do it.’”

The only direct comic book influence on the film appears to be Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, which is often credited for finally giving the villain a true backstory. The lauded 1988 graphic novel was a groundbreaking take on Batman’s archnemesis, as it humanized its villain by showing his past life as a guy trying to provide for his wife and their baby on the way. Like Phillips’s Joker, Killing Joke introduces the man who becomes the Joker as a failing stand-up comedian who eventually cracks as his failures and misfortunes lead him down a path of crime. Moore heightens the Joker’s capacity for evil to new, sadistic levels, while also suggesting that the insanity that fuels the clown’s penchant for terrorism is not so dissimilar to what motivates Bruce Wayne’s crime-fighting alter ego.

It’s worth noting, however, that while often praised as being the definitive Joker story that set the bar for writers in the years to follow, it’s also one of the most controversial Batman story lines to this day. The Joker paralyzes and sexually assaults Barbara Gordon (Batgirl), which was rightly criticized at the time and was again recently when the story was adapted into an animated film in 2016. For better or worse, The Killing Joke altered comic readers’ perception of the Joker forever.

Inspired by the most controversial take on the Joker to date, it’s no surprise that Joker has endured a controversy of its own.

The Dark Knight

At this point, it’s hard not to associate the Joker character with the late Heath Ledger’s iconic performance in 2008’s The Dark Knight.

Unanimously considered the greatest superhero movie of all time (at least here at The Ringer), the second installment of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is in a league of its own thanks in large part to Ledger’s Oscar-winning supporting role. In The Dark Knight, the Joker proves to be the perfect foil to Batman’s strict moral practices of trusting the justice system and never killing his enemies. Ledger masterfully blends the character’s devilish humor with his terrifying volatility in every single scene. Above all else, the film successfully encapsulates one of the Joker’s defining characteristics: While most villains have some sort of motive—most likely to attain power and wealth—Joker is just a guy who wants to watch the world burn. Nolan’s trilogy struck the perfect balance of action and fanfare with realism and nuanced storytelling, a far cry from the CGI Snyder-verse that (a much beefier) Batman was subsequently thrust into.

In a time when superhero films dominate Hollywood, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe have helped usher in an era when IP reigns and a frightening amount of “-verses” are taking form, it’s refreshing for a superhero flick to exist entirely on its own. Granted, Joker is obviously built upon some pretty substantial IP itself, but similar to Nolan’s trilogy, Phillips’s film lives in its own world, unencumbered by long-term corporate agendas or the restraints of cinematic universe continuity; you won’t be seeing Robert Pattinson dawning the cowl or a bald Jesse Eisenberg getting the boys together in this one. Following up on Nolan’s masterpiece and Ledger’s brilliance is a daunting task, but from the looks of it, Phillips and Phoenix—in their superhero-averse character study—aim to create an entirely different experience altogether.

Joaquin Phoenix

Though not quite as long as his life in the comics, the Joker’s history in film and television spans decades and includes many famous actors. Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Ledger, and—somewhat unfortunately—Jared Leto are only a portion of the many actors who have brought the villain to life. All the ridiculous behind-the-scenes stories and hype surrounding Leto’s take on the character leading up to the release of 2016’s Suicide Squad resulted in little more than an over-the-top performance in an underwhelming film (though the box office would argue otherwise) that the Joker probably shouldn’t have even been a part of in the first place. And while a third live-action iteration of the Joker in a little more than a decade could have been cause for potential “superhero fatigue,” the casting of Joaquin Phoenix automatically catapulted Phillips’s film to must-watch status.

Phoenix has a history of going all in on his roles, subsuming himself into the lives of his characters, oftentimes reaching dark depths that blur the lines between fiction and reality. 2005’s Walk the Line earned him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, as he tapped into Johnny Cash’s struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction. Though he told CNN in 2005 that he never reached low enough of a place that he felt that his “personal life or work was suffering really,” Phoenix checked himself into rehab after finishing the film to deal with his own personal issues with alcohol use.

Four years later, a scraggly-bearded Phoenix made a confounding appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman, where he mumbled his way through a painfully awkward interview that covered topics ranging from his most recent film, Two Lovers, to how he was retiring from acting to launch a rap career. The stunt later proved to be performance art, a piece for the 2010 semifictional mockumentary I’m Still Here, about celebrity culture, that Phoenix created with director Casey Affleck. The film itself lives on in ignominy—Affleck was later accused of sexual harassment and verbal abuse by two female crew members. Meanwhile, it remains as evidence of Phoenix’s often borderline scary dedication to a role.

In order to portray the slow deterioration of Joker’s Arthur Fleck, Phoenix dropped 52 pounds for the role, telling the Associated Press: “Once you reach the target weight, everything changes. Like so much of what’s difficult is waking up every day and being obsessed over like 0.3 pounds. Right? And you really develop like a disorder. I mean, it’s wild.” Whether he’s falling in love with (basically) Siri in Her, or playing a cult devotee and traumatized WWII veteran in The Master, Phoenix commits himself to every one of his performances, no matter what state of mind he has to bring himself to. And having experienced the tragic loss of his older brother, River, at a young age, Phoenix has applied a heightened sense of realism to heartbroken characters like Fleck for years.

Martin Scorsese

Early reports slated Martin Scorsese as a producer on Joker, but—as later revealed by Phillips—the Oscar-winning director was already busy working on his own upcoming movie, The Irishman. However, even though his name will be absent as the film’s credits roll, Scorsese’s influence on Joker is undeniable. Speaking on the impact of the Scorsese classics like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, which similarly focus on deranged loners struggling to acclimate to society, Phillips told IMDb:

“It’s steeped in that world—and not taking anything away from his influence over us—but it was really a group of movies and a time of movies. I would almost argue that it was movies from 1973 to 1981—there’s a ton of movies that influence this film. Everything from Network, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, obviously Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, Dog Day Afternoon. … So I wouldn’t personally call it Scorsese as much as it was sort of this time.”

Still, the influences of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy on Joker are most apparent. Both films star Robert De Niro—who also stars in Joker as a late-night talk-show host—and each story follows its character’s psychological journey as he slowly detaches himself further and further from acceptable societal norms. In Taxi Driver, De Niro portrays the insomniac Travis Bickle, who bides his time by driving night shifts, frequenting porn theaters, and preaching to whoever will listen about how someone needs to expunge the human “filth” of the streets. In The King of Comedy, De Niro plays a failing comedian—sound familiar?—who stalks his idol, star comedian Jerry Langford, desperately trying to break onto the comedy circuit by opening on his show. As each film progresses, and each protagonist fails in their attempts to play by the rules, they eventually resolve that the only way to succeed is to bend them.

Whether or not Todd Phillips, a director who built his career on frat-humor comedies, is capable of and willing to truly push the boundaries as Scorsese did decades ago, remains to be seen. But if his primary goal was to create a reaction, based on the noise that’s arisen even before Joker’s release, he may have succeeded.