The controversy began almost immediately after the announcement of the movie. It then gained momentum when Joaquin Phoenix was brought on board to lead the film. The film was then released, and the controversy didn’t wane, though the film itself, as well as the movie’s star, gained critical acclaim.
The film we are talking about, of course, is the 2019 Todd Phillips surprise hit, Joker, a film that is finding new life on HBO Max, as well as popularity, as it sits at number six as the streaming service’s most-watched.
Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix, is a film that raised eyebrows at all levels. The film was based on the DC character, one who was Batman’s greatest foe. Fans immediately began to wonder what the film would look like, a film that was to follow and highlight the origins of a villain instead of a movie that told his story while dealing with Batman.
Todd Phillips, though, went in an entirely different direction with his Joker. Instead of having his film include Batman, his origin story followed Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a part-clown and struggling comedian, who lives with his mentally ill mother.
Joaqiun Pheonix’s Arthur suffers from a neurological disorder called Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA). This condition causes unexplained and pathological laughter, a condition that is most definitely real. Laughter isn’t the only result of PBA, whomever has this condition can also fall prey to uncontrollable crying.
Arthur’s condition resurfaces at the wrong time. After getting beat up by local delinquents, Arthur is given a gun by his co-worker Randall for protection.
Joaquin Pheonix’s Arthur then finds himself on a job at a children’s hospital. While performing, the gun falls out of his costume. Randall lies to their boss about the gun, prompting Arthur to lose his job.
Arthur is on the subway home when he is confronted by three drunk Wayne Enterprises businessmen, who beat him. Arthur pulls the gun, killing two of them and chasing the third off the subway before killing him as well.
As Joaquin Phoenix’s character falls deeper into his own mental illness, secrets are revealed. Penny, Arthur’s mother who is also mentally ill, claims that Arthur is actually the son of billionaire Thomas Wayne. Arthur then heads to Wayne Manor, where he meets a young Bruce Wayne, while confronting the elder Wayne about Penny’s revelation. Thomas denies everything, prompting the Wayne’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth, to toss him out.
Things continue to unravel for Arthur (Joaquin Phoenix). A horrendous stand-up routine Arthur performed begins to make its rounds over social media. Popular late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) first ridicules Arthur, then invites him to be part of his show when Arthur’s stand-up routine tanking becomes popular.
When Arthur finally makes it to Murray Franklin’s stage, Arthur is in full Joker costume, makeup and all, ready for his close-up. He then asks Murray to introduce him as Joker.
Joker is a rewriting of Batman and the Joker’s canon. While the Joaquin Phoenix film eventually was successful, among complaints were the fact that Joker’s origin story was changed along with the fact that Thomas Wayne was not portrayed in the film as he had been previously in comic books.
Another complaint was that Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) meets Bruce Wayne when Bruce is a child, leading many to feel Fleck is not the Joker that Batman eventually fights in the comics.
Todd Phillips wrote the script with co-writer Scott Silver. Phillips had been know for writing and directing comedies such as The Hangover trilogy, so Joker marked a major departure for Phillips. According to Phillips, his decision to delve into the dark was based specifically on today’s “woke culture.”
“Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” Phillips told Vanity Fair. “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore — I’ll tell you why, because all the f*cking funny guys are like, ‘F*ck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’”
It’s apparent that although Todd Phillip’s has been quite successful with his brand of comedy, it is now something he plans to avoid at all costs. He went further on how he came to his decision to tackle Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker.
“It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right? So you just go, ‘I’m out.’ I’m out, and you know what? With all my comedies — I think that what comedies, in general, all have in common — is they’re irreverent. So I go, ‘How do I do something irreverent, but f*ck comedy? Oh I know, let’s take the comic book movie universe and turn it on its head with this.’ And so that’s really where that came from.”
Ultimately, it was a move that paid off in spades for Warner Bros., Phillips, and the movie’s star Joaquin Phoenix. Their take on the Arthur Fleck character, highlighting a true mental condition, won over in the long run. Not only did the film win many accolades including a Best Actor Academy Award for Phoenix, but the R-rated film brought home nearly $1.1 billion at the box office, making it the highest-grossing R-rated film in movie history.
This says a lot for a film that was considered controversial and, believe it or not, dangerous. Before the Joaquin Phoenix film was released, the film’s portrayal of Arthur and what was considered his glorified violence had many on edge. Many feared that this glorification would lead to actual violence at movie theaters across the nation.
This fear led to warnings at cineplexes throughout the country. These warnings included bulletins from the FBI and DoD to active-duty service members to be on the lookout for “incel violence” at screenings. Police presence was also ramped up at movie theaters.
Thankfully, those fears were never realized, and Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker made box office history.
Joaquin Phoenix has never been one to conform to the norm. He’s always danced to the beat of his own drum and taking on Arthur Fleck wasn’t much of a surprise or a stretch for the well-regarded actor. His career has been defined by numerous roles that include Gladiator, Walk the Line, Mary Magdalene, and The Sisters Brothers.
Joaquin Phoenix continues to search for roles that don’t follow the norm and has a few projects lined up, one that will see him take on the role of Napoleon Bonaparte in Kitbag. There is also a rumor that Phoenix will return as Arthur Fleck in Joker 2.
For now, you can catch him in his award-winning, film history-making film, Joker on HBO Max.