The 20 Biggest Ways Joker Breaks the Superhero Mold
Having broken multiple box office records by taking almost a quarter of a billion dollars in its opening weekend alone, Todd Phillips’ DC supervillain origin story Joker is already on track to becoming one of the biggest films of the year.
But that’s not all. Having prompted the kind of heated, divisive cultural conversation that the likes of A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs did almost 50 years ago, Joker is also set to be one of the most controversial films of 2019, and unlike any superhero film that preceded it.
With the debate around the film likely to keep raging for a while, here are the 20 biggest ways that Joker pushes the boundaries of the superhero genre.
20. The film makes an incel-like killer its lead character
In Joker, an angry loner who lives with his mother and has unrequited feelings for a female neighbour one day snaps at the world that he feels has disregarded him for so long.
Pushed to breaking point by an economically and socially divided system, the man begins executing his perceived enemies in part in an attempt to be noticed.
If this scenario sounds awfully familiar, it’s because Arthur Fleck – the Joker’s real name in this take on his story – is seemingly inspired by a number of so-called ‘incel’ shooters that have carried out similar atrocities in the US of late.
Whether the film’s depiction of such a person is sympathetic is up to individual interpretation, though critics have taken issue with the very fact the film attempts to explain and arguably justify his violent outbursts.
Meanwhile, many of those who fall on the anti- side of this particular Joker argument have called the film irresponsible for even making such a figure its lead character in the first place.
When Arthur Fleck is carried from the crashed cop car at the end of the film, there is an almost Christ-like worship of his violent against the establishment – something that, to some, is seen as a celebration rather than condemnation of Joker’s actions.
19. The Aurora connection
On July 20, 2012, a young man shot up a theatre full of cinema-goers who were in Aurora, Colorado for a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. The man killed 12 and injured 70 more.
Though the report was later debunked, at the time of the shooting, it was reported that the shooter, who had dyed his hair bright orange before the event, referred to himself as ‘The Joker’.
Seven years later, passions over the Aurora incident haven’t subsided, as the furore surrounding Joker’s release in the town shows.
Due to the connection between the Aurora incident and a Joker origins story in which Batman’s foe is depicted as an incel-like killer, the same Aurora theatre has refused to screen Joker for fear of copycat incidents.
It’s not just the town of Aurora – many Joker critics have questioned whether such a film, which could be seen to glamorise such behaviour, should have been made so soon after the shooting took place.
18. The US military even warned its own troops about potential shooting incidents
Aurora theatre owners aren’t the only ones to fear copycat crimes as a result of Joker.
Prior to the release of the film, the US military issued a warning to its own troops to keep on alert should they go to the cinema to catch the film.
As Joker made its way to theatres, a US military memo circulated warning troops to “fight with whatever you can” in case any of them were to find themselves in a screening when an attack breaks out.
Apparently, the military had seen a “credible” report of “disturbing and very specific chatter” on the dark web regarding the planning of a shooting at an unknown movie theatre during a showing of Joker.
According to the report, incel extremists like the source of the threat “idolise the Joker character” – and so the military made the decision to warn its cinema-going workforce to remain “prepared and diligent”.
17. Joker director Todd Phillips lashes out at ‘woke culture’
Joker director Todd Phillips, formerly known as a comedy director with the likes of Road Trip and the Hangover films, isn’t a fan of where our society is heading.
Speaking to Vanity Fair before the release of Joker, an intensely serious and brooding type of comic book movie, Phillips said he had left the world of comedy behind because “woke culture” had made it difficult to make funny movies anymore.
“It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter,” said Phillips. “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.”
Phillips goes on to claim the reason he pitched Joker to Warner Bros was that the film – while not at all a comedy – is still ‘irreverent’, skewering media culture and modern ideas of masculinity.
Unsurprisingly, his comments prompted an instant backlash from a range of critics – including members of the Joker cast – decrying Phillips’ decision to blame other people for taking offence with his films.
16. Joker actor Marc Maron calls Todd Phillips out
A lot of people took issue with Phillips’ Arthur Fleck-esque view of the world in the Vanity Fair interview. Even Marc Maron, who plays TV producer Gene Ufland in the film, thinks Phillips should pipe down.
Following Phillips’ comments, Maron released his own statement: “Really, the only thing that’s off the table, culturally, at this juncture – and not even entirely – is shamelessly punching down for the sheer joy of hurting people…
“Bottom line is no one is saying you can’t say things or do things. It’s just that it’s going to be received a certain way by certain people and you’re gonna have to shoulder that.”
Maron, who hosts the ‘WTF with Marc Maron’ podcast, notes that valuing humour on its power to make people feel “excluded,” by making jokes at the expense of the less well-off, is the wrong outlook.
These comments haven’t come out of the blue, with Maron having previously spoken to NME about how men in particular continue to struggle with so-called ‘woke’ culture and “taking responsibility for… what women go through in the world.”
15. Convicted paedophile Gary Glitter stands to make money from use of one of his songs in the film
Towards the end of Joker, Arthur – now in full costume as the Clown Prince of Crime – dances down a row of steps to the sound of a tune that isn’t heard so much anymore: Gary Glitter’s Rock & Roll Part 2, known best as The “Hey!” Song.
In the US, the song is most familiar to sports fans who once upon a time used to regularly hear the song as an accompaniment to football and basketball games. In the UK, however, the song has a more toxic reputation, as one of the songs of convicted paedophile Gary Glitter.
Beginning in 1999, Glitter has spent time in and out of prison for multiple child sex offences, and is currently serving a 16-year sentence in Wandsworth prison. He stands to make thousands of pounds from the use of his 1972 song in Joker.
The song in fact comes in two parts, with the first featuring a spoken word reflection on the rock and roll genre, and the second being the energetic instrumental featured in the film. Interestingly, it was the first part that was the most successful in France.
Despite Glitter’s convictions, the demise of the song in US sports was hardly cut and dry. For a time, the NFL allowed a cover version to be played, and some teams abandoned the song not because of Glitter – supposedly – but because the song had inspired a negative atmosphere, with fans chanting “Hey! You suck!” at the opposition.
14. The depiction of mental illness
Not everyone has been happy with the way Joker depicts mental illness. While some have responded favourably to a comic book movie taking mental health so seriously, others have their reservations.
According to James Moore at the Independent, Joker “makes a mockery of mental illness”, while Insider‘s Callie Ahlgrim argues Joker “makes an explicit connection between mental illness and violence”, a connection she called “dangerous”.
While mental health awareness on the rise, those with long-term conditions are still affected by discrimination both socially and in the workplace.
For example, banks have discriminated against people seeking loans because of preconceived notions that mental illness makes someone ‘unstable’ and therefore untrustworthy.
As a result, it’s not hard to see that a film connecting mental illness and mass violence doesn’t quite advance conversations about mental health in the right direction. Some, however, have described the film as painting a “raw and necessary view and mental illness,” with Fleck’s ostracisation from society being viewed as a realistic experience for many of those who suffer.
13. Joaquin Phoenix’s antagonistic press tour
Apparently still a little bit in character, Joaquin Phoenix has handled the press tour for Joker with the same mischievousness and deliberate antagonism towards the media Arthur Fleck displays in the film.
Asked about the controversy surrounding the film, Phoenix walked out of one interview, while he became so uncomfortable as an interviewee in conversation with Jimmy Fallon that Phoenix swapped chairs with Fallon so he could interview the host instead.
In another televised interview, this time with Jimmy Kimmel, Phoenix turned frosty on his host when he was shown a behind-the-scenes clip from Joker purportedly showing the actor berating the film’s cinematographer Lawrence Sher. The clip later turned out to be fake – Phoenix was just playing a prank on Kimmel.
The clip later turned out to be fake – Phoenix was just playing a prank on Kimmel. Phoenix has a history of toying with media appearances, particularly for one of his previous projects – the Casey Affleck-directed mockumentary spoof I’m Still Here (2010).
In the film, Phoenix claims he is retiring from acting and beginning a hip hop career. Phoenix stayed in character for many TV appearances at the time, making the film a convincing and elaborate ruse.
12. Joaquin called his unhealthy weight loss “empowering”
So far, Phoenix’s press tour has gone about as well as his earlier, journo-baiting fake out. One comment of Phoenix’s has caused more outrage than any other, however.
To play Arthur Fleck, Phoenix lost 52 pounds prior to production on Joker. In an interview with Indiewire, Phoenix called the weight loss “empowering… because you’re able to control yourself in that way.”
Naturally, this provoked an immediate social media backlash, from people calling Phoenix’s comment ‘irresponsible’ and ‘dangerous’ for potentially trivialising eating disorders.
Like many actors, such as fellow Batman universe alum Christian Bale, Phoenix has altered his weight before, most notably for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012).
Albeit with the help of a nutrionist, Phoenix has been described as having “obsessively eyed the scale” for his film roles and enjoying the hyperawareness of your body that severe weight loss – according to Phoenix – creates.
11. The film’s initial critical acclaim was followed by an intense critical backlash
When Joker opened the Venice Film Festival in August, the response from critics – give or take a few naysayers – was highly positive. The film was so well-received, in fact, it even took home the Golden Lion, the prestigious festival’s highest honour.
Cut to the film’s wide release in early October, and Joker was garnering a much more sobering response. The critical backlash to the film was so vicious in some corners of the press it almost seemed designed to make up for the rapturous response back in August, balancing out the formerly high score.
Due to the initial hype, the film was even described in The Guardian as “the most disappointing film of the year,” riddled with “weirdly grownup self-importance” for a film that is effectively a flashy rebrand of the superhero genre, the most commercial (and commercially successful) archetype of film in 2019.
The review does have praise for the production and cinematography of the film, but is nonetheless an example of how bitter awards buzz can turn out to be.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the critical consensus currently sits at 68%, with an audience score of 89%. Of course, with the film already receiving Oscar hype, the likes of which normally leads to an intense PR campaign, the critics’ view of Joker is far from set in stone.
10. The film depicts Pseudobulbar affect
Joker has drawn a mix of praise and incredulity for claiming Fleck’s mania is linked to a neurological condition known as Pseudobulbar affect.
Pejoratively known as ’emotional incontinence’, the film shows Fleck laughing at inappropriate times, weeping, and otherwise moving swiftly and bizarrely through various emotional states.
Interestingly, Pseudobulbar affect does not necessarily imply the kind of unstable outbursts linked to what is known as ‘labile mood’, aggressive episodes of emotion that are disconnected from reality. Instead, those experiencing Pseudobulbar affect have a lowered threshold for emotive responses: it takes less to make them laugh or cry.
It almost goes without saying that the condition is quite niche, and Joker is the first prominent film to feature the condition.
Pseudobulbar affect does have a storied history, however, with Charles Darwin having noted as early as 1872 that the weeping of the mentally ill is connected less to a lack of willpower than to an actual neurological condition.
9. Martin Scorsese quietly left the film
Martin Scorsese is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of all time, but his comments about the superhero genre have riled fans.
The director has described Marvel films as “not cinema,” and doubled down by claiming that theatres are no longer a place for serious cinema, having instead become “amusement parks.”
So it’s surprising to find Scorsese credited as a producer for Joker. It might be a film from the DC universe, rather than the behemoth of the MCU, and might not feature as many explosions and jetpacks, but Joker is unquestionably a film that capitalises on the superhero genre.
In fact, Scorsese had originally considered directing the film, which have led many to decry Scorsese’s hypocrisy.
In reality, Scorsese quietly left the project early in production, handing over most responsibilities to his partner Emma Tillinger Koskoff. Given that most of the crew for Scorsese’s new film – The Irishman – were poached for Joker, the connection between the two films is probably still a little too close for Scorsese to be comfortable with.
8. Joker might have changed mid-budget films for the worse
It’s a little mind-boggling for anyone outside Hollywood, but $55 million isn’t actually a whole lot of money in tinseltown. Especially compared to other superhero films – normally overflowing with CGI and intense chase sequences – Joker was a film done on the cheap.
For example, Aquaman (2018) had a budget of $160 million, almost three times as much as Todd Phillips’ dark character study.
Beyond simply crunching the numbers, however, Joker is far more important in terms of how it will affect the film landscape around it.
From Heath Ledger‘s posthumous Oscar to the inclusion of Black Panther (2018) in the Best Picture category, the superhero genre has been growing more prestigious with each year that goes by.
Some critics have argued that Joker’s success is another example of superhero films taking over the mainstream, and could signal a shift in cinema that forces more mid-budget films to have a comic book connection. Films from smaller studios are already struggling, and the inability to compete with superheroes might be the end of smaller productions as we know them.
7. Jared Leto’s story has changed casting
The Joker is an iconic Batman villain, and has in turned inspired some iconic performances. From Cesar Romero to Heath Ledger (and Mark Hamill in the animated series), it’s hard to pick a favourite. Least favourite, however?
While his take on the role has its admirers, Leto’s performance as the Clown Prince of Crime is generally disliked, though it’s a little hard to isolate it from the surrounding film: Suicide Squad (2016).
Leto himself, keen to defend his Oscar-winning reputation, criticised Warners Bros for cutting much of his screen time despite the Joker having been featured prominently in the film’s promotional campaign.
As a result of the backlash, the studio went down a very different path for their standalone Joker project.
Leto was reportedly hugely unhappy with his own standalone film being cut from DC’s slate of new films, and felt “alienated” when the Joaquin Phoenix casting was announced. It now looks less and less likely that Leto will feature in the role again.
6. The film’s costume designer ignored the comics
There are few villains, even in the comic book world, who are as famously and snappily dressed as the Joker. Typically shown in a purple suit and green shirt, the Joker has certainly evolved over the course of his live action appearances.
While Cesar Romero stayed fairly true to the Joker’s original design, Jack Nicholson’s costume was inspired by pop art, and Heath Ledger’s by punk rock. Both drew heavily on the Joker’s initial aesthetic.
So when it came time for costume designer Mark Bridges to dress Joaquin Phoenix, you might be forgiven for expecting a more typical look, especially for the clown’s first solo outing.
“No, we had none of that,” Bridges explains. “I did look online … it all just seemed just a little too contrived…”
Instead, Bridges opted to focus on clothes that coincided with the invisibility of Phoenix’s character, and ones that reflected his marginalised economic status. He was also inspired by the overall griminess and ugliness of the film, deliberately choosing uglier clothes for the lead.
5. Don’t confuse Joker with Insane Clown Posse
We’ve already mentioned that Joker has courted controversy for its depiction of the Clown Prince of Crime as an ‘incel’, and it’s true that several problematic online communities have unironically identified with Phoenix’s twisted Joker.
However, the renewed focus on clown imagery has led to a clash between those in the misogynistic incel movement and fans of ‘horrorcore’ hip hop duo Insane Clown Posse.
While Joker’s serial killer is portrayed as a deadly extremist, Insane Clown Posse (ICP) have in the past advocated for several progressive causes.
For example, ICP have burned a Confederate flag at one of their concerts, released a song about attacking Klansmen, and with their fans competed against a Trump rally to protest being classified as a gang by the FBI.
ICP fans – or ‘Juggalos’ – are unhappy that the character of the Joker has once again dominated clown imagery. Whether or not these clowns can countermand the rise of the incel movement remains to be seen.
4. It was edited liked a documentary
Compared to the formulaic feel of the MCU – and don’t get us wrong: it’s a winning formula – the filming and editing of Joker was almost unfathomably different.
It’s common for films to be shot and cut together out of order, an ongoing process as production continues, with scenes slotting into place only as test screenings are on the horizon. But Joker took the process to an extreme.
According to the film’s principal editor, Jeff Groth, a guiding goal of the film was – “given what Joaquin was doing – was to kind of stay out of the way.”
Groth, who began his career editing documentaries, notes that his experience on non-fiction films was instrumental to crafting a story arc for Joker, choosing from several different takes, some of which were improvised.
Phoenix is apparently a master of continuity, and would not only provide wildly different versions of the same scene, but know exactly the angle at which he was smoking a cigarette even if the previous scene had been shot weeks earlier.
3. The composer was hired for making music out of a nuclear reactor
From John Williams’ timeless Superman theme to the strings and brass of today’s Marvel movies, the soundscape and score of the superhero genre have an instantly recognisable feel.
But rather than stick with a jubilant, orchestral score, the team behind Joker instead needed something to match the dark, horrifying tone of their film. Still, just how dark they went is surprising.
Hildur Guðnadóttir is an Icelandic composer best known for her work on the HBO series Chernobyl, which tells the story of the infamous disaster at a Soviet nuclear plant.
For the score, Guðnadóttir recorded actual foley of the plant at which the drama was filmed – of the machines and reactors. Of the score, “there’s not one instrument … I created [it] out of those sounds.”
With a reputation that preceded her, Todd Phillips sent her a script for Joker and asked her to get to work right away. Phillips then shot parts of the film to music Guðnadóttir had composed, a reversal of how music for films is normally made.
2. Joaquin Phoenix channeled Heath Ledger’s notebook
With The Dark Knight having released little more than a decade ago (2008), Heath Ledger’s award-winning performance as the Clown Prince of Crime is still fresh in the minds of cinemagoers. Comparisons between Ledger and Phoenix were always inevitable.
When taking on such an iconic role, actors often seek to follow those who have come before, or strongly differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack, and Joaquin Phoenix is no exception.
While filming The Dark Knight, Ledger reportedly kept a journal that he filled with dark thoughts, etchings, and news stories. Phoenix and Ledger were good friends in real life, both coming to prominence around the turn of the millennium, and this character-building habit seemed to make an impression.
A similar journal features prominently in Joker (2019), bringing Ledger’s contribution to the character into sharp focus.
The journal provides a remarkable example of how off-screen behaviours and methods can be woven into a film both as a touchstone for character and a subtle tribute to someone no longer with us.
1. The make up is subtly brilliant
Whether dyed in a vat of acid, the product of scarring, or just in-universe make up, the Joker’s look is paramount, and the make up team behind Joker agonised over how to present the character.
To begin with, the team knew they had to do something different. “This story is treated as real life … not in the superhero world,” says make up head Nick Ledermann.
The look is compromised of several subtle, but incredibly important, decision. For example, Phoenix’s hair was dyed a shade darker than normal – but not black, which wouldn’t show up well on film. When the character dyes it green, the shade is a deliberate ‘broccoli’ green.
But most important, of course, is the make up. In contrast to the sheen of Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Fleck’s face is always matte, rather than glossy, to reflect the dark and gritty Gotham he finds himself in.
Additionally, its colour is never purely white, instead bleeding and greasy. It’s a series of imperfections that, brought together, create a near-perfect look.