The Joker is the kind of comic book character who never gets old. Everyone from Heath Ledger to Jack Nicholson to Jared Leto has had their own spin on Batman's grinning nemesis, who's almost as old as Batman, having made his comics debut in 1940.
Joaquin Phoenix offers his own version of DC Comics' laughing psychopath in the upcoming Warner Bros. Joker movie. The movie has gotten rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. In September 2019, Joker took home the Golden Lion top prize at the Venice Film Festival. That's no surprise since a week earlier, it got an eight-minute standing ovation from festival audience members who watched an early screening.
"As the mentally ill and socially ignored Arthur, Phoenix burns a hole in the screen," our CNET reviewer Rich Trenholm writes. "From the opening moment when he cracks his mouth into an unnerving fake smile, the three-time Oscar nominee commands your attention."
But initially when Phoenix was asked to portray the Joker, he said he hesitated.
"There was a lot of fear; but I always say there's motivating fear and debilitating fear," Phoenix said in the August 2019 issue of Total Film magazine. "Now, when I look back, I don't understand why. There's the fear where you cannot make a step, and there's the kind where it's like, 'OK, what do we do? That's not good enough.' And you're digging deeper and deeper. I love that kind of fear. It guides us, makes us work harder."
Concerns about violence in film
"I wouldn't quite classify this as like any genre," Phoenix said in an interview with ComicBook.com in 2018. "I would not say it's a superhero movie, or a studio movie. Underneath the excitement of these films, and the size of them, there are these incredible characters that are dealing with real-life struggles."
The film's R rating means a darker and more violent version of the Clown Prince of Crime will take center stage, and that's got theater chains, the movie studio and some fans worried about possible real-life violence at screenings.
The DC Comics supervillain movie has been the subject of concern, in part because in 2012 a shooter killed 12 people at an Aurora, Colorado, showing of Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises. Warner Bros. released a statement on Sept. 24 extending its sympathy to all victims and families impacted by gun violence, and said it has a "long history of donating to victims of violence, including Aurora."
Joker didn't play at the theater where the shooting took place. AMC Theatres and Landmark banned fans from dressing up as the Joker at screenings. The Alamo Drafthouse chain also issued a statement reminding parents that Joker is not a kids' movie.
Is it based on a comic?
"We didn't follow anything from the comic books, which people are gonna be mad about," director Todd Phillips said in the August 2019 issue of Empire magazine. "We just wrote our own version of where a guy like Joker might come from. That's what was interesting to me. We're not even doing Joker, but the story of becoming Joker."
Phillips also revealed the film's story will be completely original, and won't follow any previously published comic books that feature the Joker.
Is Batman in it?
The movie is not connected to the DC Extended Universe series of movies, so it's a different version of the Joker than appeared in Suicide Squad.
This movie is unconnected to the Gotham TV show, which also recounts the younger days of Bruce Wayne. Gotham will have its own, very different version of the Joker appearing in its upcoming final episode.
Who made it?
Todd Phillips is best known for adult comedies like The Hangover. Scott Silver, who wrote rap movie 8 Mile, is the other scriptwriter. And it's executive-produced by cinematic legend Martin Scorsese.
"There's been a lot of chatter about what this film is and what it is not," Phillips said at CinemaCon 2019 in April. "When the marketing department at Warner asked me the other day to describe the movie, I said 'I can not.' They said at least tell us the genre, and I thought about it for a minute and said, 'It's a tragedy.'"
This is an original story for the Joker, whose real name in this version of the story is downtrodden Arthur, a clown by day and a stand-up comic by night.
"My mother always tells me to smile and put on a happy face," Arthur says in voiceover in the first trailer. "She told me I had a purpose, to bring laughter and joy to the world."
When Arthur is attacked in the street, he fights back. "Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?" Arthur says. We then see Arthur slowly transforming into the Joker as he tries different clown looks. He goes from a green clown wig to dying his real hair green.
"I used to think my life was a tragedy," he says. "But now I realize it's a comedy." But as our reviewer notes, no one's laughing in this bleak Batman spin-off.
When will Joker hit theaters?
Joker was released in Australia on Oct. 3, 2019, and worldwide on Oct. 4.
Meet the cast
- Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck/Joker
- Marc Maron as Ted Marco
- Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin
- Alec Baldwin
- Shea Whigham
- Zazie Beetz as Sophie Dumond
- Brett Cllen as Thomas Wayne
- Dante Pereira-Olson as Young Bruce Wayne
- Douglas Hodge as Alfred Pennyworth
- Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck
- Glenn Fleshler
- Josh Pais as Hoyt Vaughn
- Bill Camp
The Joker: See all the actors who've played the DC Comics villainSee all photos
This article was originally published on April 3, 2019, and will be updated as news rolls in.