Why Casting Joaquin Phoenix Could Be the Joker Up Warner Bros’ Sleeve

Kim Taylor-Foster
Movies DC
Movies DC

A new standalone Joker film has officially been given the go-ahead with Joaquin Phoenix in the lead. It’s a casting decision that just might be the best card the studio behind the DC Extended Universe could have played. Here’s why.

Lays Out The Studio’s Intent to Stick with a Dark Tone

Ben Affleck as the Joker's adversary, Batman.

We recently wrote about how Ben Affleck should be given the opportunity to make a standalone Batman film. Partly because a large proportion of fans want the DCEU to continue along a darker route. In Suicide Squad, and more recently Justice League, Warner Bros flirted with a more humorous approach, seemingly in response to Marvel’s success doing the same in its Cinematic Universe. While films in the DCEU have divided opinion, sometimes taking a critical mauling, it doesn’t mean that they’re off with treading the darker line per se.

Indeed, it wasn’t the dark approach that audiences and critics had problems with so much when it came to Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman. It was the film’s perceived lack of logic, inconsistency, anticlimactic feel and its inability to elicit an emotional response. Despite this, in the wake of the widely derided Justice League, which took a wildly different, lighter approach coinciding with director Zack Snyder’s departure from the project, fans have been calling for Snyder’s cut to be released. We know that darkness works with DC characters — Christopher Nolan proved it with his acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy, and many fans blame whatever may be going on behind the scenes at Warner Bros rather than Snyder himself.

Given Joaquin Phoenix’s back catalogue, and the studio’s description of the Todd Phillips-directed project as an “exploration of a man disregarded by society [that] is not only a gritty character study, but also a broader cautionary tale,” it’s a given that this Joker movie will walk a similarly dark line to the one Snyder has been traversing. The fans want it, and Phoenix will no doubt deliver it.

Harks Back to a Classic Incarnation

Jack Nicholson as the Joker in Batman.

When Jack Nicholson was first cast as the Joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film, it was improbable and consequently extremely exciting. Here was a highly acclaimed actor taking on the role of a comic-book villain. The possibilities stirred movie fans to a state of feverish anticipation. And Nicholson ultimately supplied the goods. Nicholson brought the character to vivid life for the first time in a big-screen blockbuster and bestowed the Joker with a terrifying evil streak, pulling him away from Cesar Romero’s altogether camper version from the 1960s’ TV series. It was jolting to audiences in the best way and a new generation embraced this darker, more real take.

Phoenix’s casting has fans feeling the way they did following Nicholson’s announcement in the role. An actor with a reputation not a million miles away from Nicholson’s, Phoenix is a maverick and his casting opens up the same avenues of possibility that were laid bare back then.

Builds on Ledger’s Legacy

The Superhero Oscars
Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight.

Of course, years later, Heath Ledger would go on to cement his own reputation in the role of the Joker, bringing another, even more unhinged edge to the iconic Batman villain. His performance has gone down in the annals of cinema history as one of the greatest ever in Hollywood. Playing the character in Christopher Nolan’s much darker reboot of a Batman franchise, Ledger’s turn was a chilling callback to Jack Nicholson. Albeit more deranged and disturbed.

Following in the footsteps of such a legendary performance isn’t an easy task. Jared Leto might have been attempting to channel Ledger in the messy Suicide Squad, but his version suffered from too-soon comparisons, and an edit that reportedly saw much of his work cut. If his reported spin-off movie comes to fruition alongside the Joaquin Phoenix origin story, it might be interesting to see where he can take the character. But if Phoenix blows us all away, as you’d expect he might, Leto might find himself floundering.

There aren’t many actors with the presence to follow the likes of Nicholson and Ledger in a role they both made their own. That have the credibility and the ability to bring so many extra dimensions to a character. Joaquin Phoenix has it.

It’s a great tragedy that Ledger is no longer with us, and that he never had the chance to make his own standalone Joker movie. But Phoenix is the actor to pick up the mantle, standing on the shoulders of two giants, with the ability to bring the same heavyweight acting chops and gravity as his forerunners, while also adding something unique to the classic villain. His casting is a masterstroke, harking back to the glory days when the Joker had real gravitas and didn’t descend into caricature. It could get the entire DCEU back on track.

Gets Us Excited For A New Take

We’ve said a lot about what a great actor Joaquin Phoenix is. So here’s the evidence, and why he’ll be superb in the role.

Phoenix is known for tackling complex, tortured characters. And he does it so well. Most recently in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, he played traumatised war veteran Joe, now a hired gun involved in tracking down trafficked girls and doling out brutal punishments against those responsible. In Spike Jonze’s dystopian romantic drama Her, he played lonely, depressed introvert, Theodore, who falls in love with an Operating System only to have his heart broken. While in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, Phoenix was a drug-fuelled antihero private investigator embroiled in a murky world.

And then there’s his turn as Johnny Cash in James Mangold’s Walk the Line – the ultimate tortured genius who could be both monstrous, and charm personified.

Many of Phoenix’s characters walk the line between hero and villain – a conflict we hope to see in his portrayal of the Joker. Phoenix will undoubtedly bring something distinctive to the role and make it entirely his own. It’s exciting to think of just how much he’ll delve into the character’s psyche and bring all the Joker’s different facets to the fore. Phoenix’s involvement will reignite interest — and faith — in the DC movies. And that’s not only within the existing fanbase but also outside it – the film could well draw in audiences that might not otherwise have gone to see a DC movie. And that may end up being the measure of its success.

Kim Taylor-Foster
Kim Taylor-Foster is Entertainment Editor for Fandom in the UK. She was raised on an unsteady diet of video nasties and violent action flicks.