Last week, director Todd Phillips released the first photo of Joaquin Phoenix in his Joker movie. The image seemed rather pedestrian at first glance, with Phillips writing the caption “Arthur.” Arthur looked like just a guy — albeit maybe a sad, down on his luck guy.
But that seemed to be the point. The man who became the Joker — a homicidal maniac and criminal mastermind, Batman’s greatest foe — wasn’t anyone special. The photo of Phoenix might have even presented something of a blank canvas, if you took the time to stare at it. Is he smirking? Does he give off any sense of the maniac to be unleashed?
The non-descript photo also raised the question of how much “Joker” we’ll see in Phillips’s film. Will the movie mostly be the deterioration of a failed comedian and fledgling criminal into a mentally unhinged murderer whose life is eventually only completed by finding an adversary, maybe a funhouse mirror image, in Batman?
Even so, will Arthur (full name Arthur Fleck, according to reports) only become the Joker by the end of the film, opening the door to the character and storylines familiar to millions of comic book, cartoon and movie fans? Or will we see the so-called Clown Prince of Crime in action for, say, a full third act?
What would be really fun is if we don’t see Phoenix’s version of the Joker until he appears on screen in the finished him. But I realize we don’t live in that world — and maybe we never did. The Joker will surely appear in a trailer and promotional features. Maybe he’ll get an Entertainment Weekly cover too.
It didn’t even take a week for Phillips to provide a glimpse of what his Joker will look like. Returning to Instagram with a short video, the director posted a short clip of Arthur. Would this just be the photo come to life? It initially looked that way, but then we see projections of a clown onto Fleck, creating an unsettling glimpse of the Joker within.
Upon closer viewing, it becomes apparent that it’s not just any clown being projected. It’s Arthur as the Joker, complete with his signature purple jacket and orange vest. And then we see him. The make-up is on his face. The demented smile is there before turning deadly serious.
There it is: Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker. That could easily be a comic book cover. The question is whether or not that will be the final version we see in this movie. Phillips’s caption says “Camera test (w/ sound). Joker.” Maybe not exactly a definitive statement, though it feels that way.
Yet this doesn’t mean that what we see from Phoenix in that clip will be the newly redefined version of the character. Even if that’s the Joker we’re left with by the end of the film, he could still go on to become the more flamboyant version from the comic books or the 1989 Batman film. He could evolve into Heath Ledger’s grease-painted master of chaos in The Dark Knight or the tatted-up gangster portrayed by Jared Leto in Suicide Squad.
Personally, the idea of a standalone film depicting the Joker’s origin didn’t appeal to me initially. Joaquin Phoenix playing the role was interesting, however. I’ll watch him in just about anything he does. But now, interest is growing into intrigue. Curiosity is getting stronger. Phillips and Phoenix are doing a good job of making this movie enticing.
Joker has a scheduled release date of Oct. 4, 2019.