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Joker director is 'backwards-engineering' origin to a more realistic place than the acid vat

By Jacob Oller
Joker TIFF

The R-rated Joker film coming from director Todd Phillips has built its pop-culture conversation around its realism, its character focus, and its difference from the superhero standard fare. Some of that comes from a cast that includes the likes of Robert De Niro, but some also comes from reinterpreting the canon — typically a cardinal sin when it comes to adapting a comic book. But with a character like the Joker, whose origins are anything but solid and whose character is anything but trustworthy, it’s hard to say what’s canonical or not. So Phillips is using the same barometer he’s using for the rest of the character, and letting realism guide his hand.

Speaking to The Los Angeles Times, Phillips explained that in creating a clear tale of how Joaquin Phoenix’s mentally-ill Arthur Fleck becomes the biggest bane of Batman not actually named Bane, the path still ultimately came from the comics.

“We wanted to look at everything through as real and authentic a lens as possible,” Phillips said. “I don’t believe that in the real world if you fell into a vat of acid you would turn white and have a smile and your hair would be green. So you start backwards-engineering these things and it becomes really interesting. ‘How about if he’s a clown at one of these places where you rent out entertainment?’” 

Working from the classic aesthetic vision of the Joker, and referencing the Ace Chemicals plant accident where Red Hood became the Joker, goes against Phillips’ claims that his complete abandonment of the comics would rile fans. Jettisoning this oft-revised element leaves a lot of room for interpretation, but still the same endpoint that many comic writers trekked toward while rewriting origins. The Killing Joke doesn’t necessarily share the same emotions and faults behind Joker’s dive into the chemical bath as the similar story in Detective Comics’ "Mystery of the Red Hood." Phillips looks to add to this uncertain character history in his own way — something he hoped could be a common theme moving forward for DC.

While working on Joker, the director suggested the creation of DC Black, a label at Warner Bros. specifically used to test out alternate takes on famous comic characters. Rather than Marvel’s What If? series, these would be “independent-minded films about these characters.” The studio’s response? “They’re like, ‘Calm down with the label — how about you do one movie?’” Phillips said.

Joker will rewrite his origins (and perhaps the future of whatever DC Black could become) when it hits theaters on Oct. 4.