Todd Phillips’ Joker Might Be Great, But It Can’t Save DCEU

An original standalone origin story of the iconic villain not seen before on the big screen, it’s a gritty character study of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man disregarded by society, and a broader cautionary tale.

There might not be a more intriguing film releasing in the second half of 2019 than Todd Phillips’ Joker. The film is a standalone origin story of one of the most infamous criminals of comic book lore. While his legacy in DC comics as the archnemesis to Batman dates all the way back to 1940, Warner Bros new film promises an origin story we’ve never read or seen before.

Although Joker has the potential to be a truly great film, it won’t be enough to save the sinking WB/DC comic book film universe (aka DCEU).

A One Trick Pony

After the unmitigated disaster that was Justice League (2017) and the fallout between WB and the legions of DC loyalists, the studio has navigated its comic book film strategy in somewhat of a vacuum. The antithesis of Disney/Marvel that seemingly runs a well oiled multi-billion dollar machine, WB/DC seems to lack any big picture perspective in the post Zack Snyder world.

Instead of picking up the pieces of Snyder’s vision for a shared universe of superheroes and villains (mirroring the approach of rival Marvel), WB/DC appears content to rely on standalone projects where characters operate in separate (but perhaps parallel universes).

That’s how we can get a standalone origin story about the greatest villain in DC’s history and yet not get obsessed about that character be portrayed by a different actor. The Joker being played by Phoenix is not related to the Joker played by Jared Leto ( Suicide Squad). The same character but in two different plays in space and time.

Confusing? Well, it will be for general audiences. That has been one of the beauties of the concept of “shared universes” that has worked so well for Marvel. It’s a concept that comic books have employed for years, but it is still relatively new to film.

And Marvel has shown that it works. The highest grossing film of all-time is the culmination of 11 years of this shared universe approach ( Avengers: Endgame).

Which makes it a real headscratcher why WB/DC is willing to do the exact opposite? Sure they can earn some creative points for not copying Marvel on every step. But creative points don’t equal dollars and that’s the bottom line that really counts.

Joker Will Not Be a Comic Book Film

In a recent interview that seems to be getting widely ignored by comic book fans, director Todd Phillips made it clear that he expects a good deal of backlash over Joker:

“We didn’t follow anything from the comic-books, which people are gonna be mad about. 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. It’s about this man.”

Todd Phillips interview with Empire (July 8, 2019)

Look, the comments by Phillips are clear: he made the movie that he wanted to make based off of an original script. He never felt beholden to any comic book lore, legends or fan expectations. While I think that’s going to make for an interesting and unpredictable film, there are plenty of Batman/Joker fans who are going to be pissed.

Phillips is a bit of renegade filmmaker who has made some of the biggest comedies of last twenty years including Road Trip (2000), Old School (2003), The Hangover (2009) and Due Date (2010). His solo film featuring Gotham’s crown prince of crime will certainly be his darkest film to date.

Even though creating a non-comic book film with a popular comic book character is an intriguing notion, there is likely nothing that will come from Joker that will help the DCEU going forward.

If anything, Joker could be seen as an aberration not an inspiration or blueprint. That might not prevent the film from being a hit at the box office and a darling for the critics. But that’s not going to be enough to help WB/DC figure out where it’s going in the foreseeable future.

Joker opens October 4 in US Theaters

Originally published at on August 7, 2019.

Indie author, journalist and film enthusiast. Follow me on Twitter and read more of my work at (contributor)

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