CS Soapbox: Do We Really Want/Need a Joker Sequel?
The most profitable R-rated comic book movie ever made is very likely getting a sequel—but is that something we need? Joker director Todd Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix have expressed interest in returning to Arthur Fleck’s world prior to the announcement. Both men enjoyed making Joker with an Indie mentality—they created a character piece under the guise of a comic book movie.
Joker has more in common with movies like Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon than it does with Batman v Superman. Its smaller $55 million budget (compared to other projects in the genre) and daring material has struck a chord with audiences in a way CGI never could. The film’s $1 billion+ box office earnings now serve as a catalyst for the creative ambition of Phillips (and maybe Phoenix).
Phillips has been open about his disdain for the traditional blockbuster, as well as his issues with the comedic landscape. His venture into the DC universe was a unique and unexpected one. By incorporating comic book lore, such as the Joker’s murderous talk show appearance from The Dark Knight Returns and the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, Phillips was able to fill in the gapes of his Joker story with…whatever he wanted. It would seem that what Phillips wanted was a new brand of comic book movie, one that subway snuffs its audience’s expectations (in a good way).
A lot of what people have come to expect about the Joker stems from his lack of definition. The classic line from Alan Moore’s definitive graphic novel, The Killing Joke, goes, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it be multiple choice!” That exclamation by the Joker serves as the foundation for Phillips’ entire approach to Joker.
In Joker we are presented with an anti-hero that is delusional—he sees and hears things that are not real. Arthur Fleck imagines an entire relationship with Sophie and a successful standup set, just to name a couple of instances. The character spends the entire film insecure, confused and desperate to mend the pieces of his fractured mind. As he attempts to do this, so does the audience. It is only when Arthur embraces the Joker persona that he becomes confident in his narrative. This is a trick: Arthur’s confidence seduces the audience—we end up being wrong.
The ending of Joker shows Arthur laughing in Arkham at a joke “you wouldn’t get.” Theories have suggested that the origin story we witness was the Joker’s fantasy, one that sees him as a sympathetic figure and victim of his “illegitimate father,” Thomas Wayne (Batman by association). Regardless, the viewer is left wondering if everything they just saw was the delusion/fantasy of a mentally disturbed man.
Arthur Fleck’s insanity serves as the ink with which Phillips writes his story. Joker is less about presenting the audience with an origin story for their favorite criminal mastermind and more about presenting them with options. This is admittedly infuriating. We live in a world without answers and we want movies -especially comic book movies- to have some. But that’s not the Joker. Alan Moore’s Joker prophesizes the multiple-choice past that Phillips and Phoenix deliver. This is the main reason Joker is and was conceived as the standalone film its studio needed.
Warner Bros. and DC have become very comfortable with the idea of standalone films. Their DCEU films received a lackluster critical reception, forcing them to shift their focus to contained stories such as Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam!. Those films have been successful critically and commercially. This was in large part due to their lack of concern for the DCEU and a focus on the vision of the directors: Patty Jenkins, James Wan, and David Sandberg. Phillips upped the ante on this when he delivered Joker. Joker’s success has given Phillips a prolific amount of leverage with the studio and it is now reported that he is moving forward with the origin story of another DC character (Lex Luthor?) and “Joker 2.”
It hasn’t been announced whether or not Joaquin Phoenix will even reprise his role in Joker 2. There are reportedly options in place for a Phoenix return but Phillips and the studio have declined to comment on the matter any further. A continuation of Arthur Fleck’s story would be difficult. It would diminish a lot of the original film’s ambiguity. It seems unlikely that Phillips would tarnish Joker in this way. Instead, a more plausible sequel would be one that adapts the essence of Alan Moore’s Joker, or better yet, Heath Ledger’s from The Dark Knight.
In The Dark Knight, Ledger’s Joker makes a habit of telling other characters “how I got these scars.” Every time he tells that origin story it is a different one. At first, we hear him lamenting the abuse he suffered at the hands of his drunken father, and then the insecurities of his mutilated wife. On the surface, those stories appear unrelated; however, they share themes of abuse, betrayal, and loneliness. In this way, The Dark Knight’s Joker shares the origin story of Arthur Fleck as a commonality of chaos and uncertainty provoked by societal isolation. If Ledger’s Joker is a metaphor, his “scars story” is Joker and the resulting chaos could be Joker 2.
The sequel’s chaos could manifest itself in a spin-off. Many fans have also theorized that Arthur Fleck is not the Joker, he’s merely the man who inspired him. Arthur isn’t exactly the clown prince of crime when it comes to planning. Most of what Arthur gets away with is thanks to luck. Phillips could make Arthur and his “kill the rich” rebellion propaganda for an entire Joker movement, inspiring multiple incarnations of the character. The man who kills Thomas and Martha Wayne at the end of Joker could be a Joker (similar to Tim Burton’s Batman) and so could any of the other clowns who hoist Arthur up like Jesus. The Warner Bros. animation, Batman Beyond, did this with the Jokers, copycats of the Mark Hamill-voiced OG.
Phillips’ Joker sequel shouldn’t be a carbon copy or direct continuation of Joker. The original movie succeeded because it gave us what the character needed: a multiple-choice narrative with relevant themes. That being said, it would make sense if Phillips continued his reign as an “agent of chaos” and gave us the unexpected—a Joker sequel that has no explicit ties to its predecessor.
A spiritual successor could see Phoenix reprise his role as the titular character but not as Arthur Fleck. A decision like this would be consistent with Phillip’s creative agenda, which is to tell cohesive and independent stories. If they decide to continue Arthur’s story or tie it into the DCEU, it will betray the Joker’s conception. That may be something we want but not necessarily something we need.