Tonight, when 60 Minutes airs its Anderson Cooper interview with mercurial actor Joaquin Phoenix, it will cap a seriously strong seven-day run for Todd Phillips’s Joker. It began last Sunday night, when Phoenix picked up the Golden Globe for best actor in a drama for his darkly hypnotic performance in the Warner Bros film, while Joker composer Hildur Guðnadóttir took home a Globe of her own for best original score.
Over the next three days, Joker built more trophy momentum by adding 11 BAFTA nominations (the most for any film in this year’s field); a PGA nomination (as one of the 10 films vying for the Darryl F. Zanuck Award); and a WGA nomination for the remarkable script written by Phillips & Scott Silver.
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The controversial movie’s resonance isn’t limited to the Hollywood awards circuit, either. Joker was released 101 days ago amid anxieties about its malevolent imagery. But that only added to the edgy aura of a film that promised to reframe the origin story of the Joker, the most iconic super-villain in comic book history, and a screen character who already rivaled Hannibal Lecter, Michael Myers, and Norman Bates among Hollywood’s most celebrated homicidal maniacs. The result: Joker now stands as the first billion-dollar R-rated movie in box-office history.
Joker also continued to burrow into the zeitgeist in fascinating ways . This past week, for instance, Burger King premiered a new commercial spoofing the film’s signature scene at the Bronx Stairs. The quirky ad offers free Whoppers to New Yorkers for putting up with all the tourists now flocking to the landmark to reenact Phoenix’s precarious, stair-stepping jig from the movie.
Phoenix himself started this weekend with the sound of handcuffs (the 45-year-old native was arrested Friday in Washington, D.C. during a climate change political protest) and finishes it amid grim news dispatches from his native Puerto Rico. The news shifts back to Joker come Monday morning, however, with nominations arriving for the 91st Academy Awards.
Beyond the film’s Oscar destiny on Feb. 9, the big question surrounding Joker is the viability of a sequel. One of Phoenix’s early impetuses to make Joker was his desire to investigate the possibilities of a graphic novel character without signing up for multi-film franchise duty. The project’s one-and-done mindset was creatively liberating for all involved. But, no surprise, that mindset has been reevaluated amid the movie’s historic success.
One week ago, at the Globes, Phoenix took a wrong turn backstage and ended up in the press interview room. The topic quickly turned to the status of a Joker sequel, a subject that’s been persistent since the movie’s triumphant September premiere at the Venice Film Festival. The question: Does Phoenix think the ongoing speculation regarding a follow-up film in any way undermines the existing film’s artistic achievement? The actor bristled. “What do you mean? Why? I dont think I’ve ever done too many predictable things.”
Phoenix has appeared in three dozen feature films since his child actor days in the 1980s, but not a single one of those projects is a sequel or prequel. The maverick-minded performer sounds open to the prospect of Joker 2, but less comfortable with anyone questioning his motivations in the process.
“So, if that came up, it’s not because Todd [Phillips, the director] or I are following some rule book. It’s because we feel inspired again to explore the character more thoroughly. That’d be the only reason for me to do it.
Fair enough. But the executives over at Warner Bros can think of about a billion other reasons for Phillips and Phoenix to revisit the mad world of Joker.
The film ranks third among the all-time highest-grossing DC Comics adaptations. Joker’s $1.06 billion worldwide trails only James Wan’s Aquaman ($1.44 billion) and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises ($1.08 billion), and those were both massive PG-13 spectacles with production budgets of $160 million and $250 million, respectively. The stripped-down Joker, meanwhile, was made for a lean $55 million, and delivered a lot of box-office bang for the buck.
Will a sequel happen? Probably. When Deadline’s Anthony D’Allesandro put the question to Phillips at The Contenders New York event, the filmmaker sounded like someone waiting to be persuaded. “Joaquin and I haven’t really decided on it,” Phillips said. “We’re open. I mean, I’d love to work with him on anything, quite frankly. So who knows?”
Phoenix may yet add an Academy Award to the growing list of Joker’s accolades. But the billion-dollar hit already qualifies as a triumph of reinvention for Phillips. The Brooklyn native spent the previous decade-and-a-half establishing himself as a Hollywood king of comedy (delivering hits like The Hangover trilogy, Old School, Road Trip, and Due Date) before making a serious detour into Taxi Driver territory with Joker and its unhinged portrait of Arthur Fleck, aka the Joker.
Over the holidays, I talked to Phillips about the Joker screenplay for an article about its framing of mental health issues, and he mused about the wild ride since Joker won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
“You never really know how it’s going to end up,” Phillips said of Joker, which he produced with Bradley Cooper and Emma Tillinger Koskoff. “The one thing we would say to each other when we were making decisions while writing it — and it was the thing that Joaquin and I would also say to each other when we faced problems on the set or questions [from] the crew — was: ‘When in doubt, let’s just be bold.’ And that really seemed to serve this movie well.”
The let-it-fly attitude toward Joker was possible because the project was unfettered by any pre-existing mythology. There was zero pressure to conform to any of the character’s recognizable traits or traditions.
“The one thing I will say about Warners is that once they agreed to the concept of the film, they really let us do what we wanted. It wasn’t like, ‘Well, you can’t do that,” or “Make sure you put this part of the lore in.” They really let us have at it. That makes it really so much fun. The possibilities are endless. You can really do anything.”
That’s an instructive point for anyone who wonders why the impassioned Martin Scorsese singled out Marvel Studios for public criticism, as opposed to, say, condemning the entire superhero genre. It’s not the capes and masks that offend Scorsese’s sensibilities. It’s the Marvel method of interconnecting all of its movies in service of one open-ended saga.
The benefit of that approach can be described as the “forever sequel” effect (fans embrace new franchises because their heroes and stories are already familiar), and it helps explain Marvel’s perfect streak of 23 consecutive No. 1 openings. The downside, in Scorsese’s view, is the institutional elimination of “anything goes” auteur filmmaking.
“What’s not there is revelation, mystery, or genuine emotional danger,” Scorsese wrote in the New York Times about Marvel’s method. “Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.”
Phillips had no interest in joining the debate about Scorsese vs Marvel. “It never ceases to amaze me the things that people get outraged over,” he said with a resigned chuckle. “You have to be really careful, which is why I sound like I’m choosing my words carefully.”
Philips, fortunately, was in more of a risk-taking mode when he brought Joker to life on the page, then on the set, and finally on the screen..
“Whether people liked Joker or didn’t like Joker, I think they appreciated its boldness,” Phillips said. “I think a lot of the movies people are talking about, whether it’s Jojo Rabbit or Uncut Gems, they feel like bold swings. And Parasite, that movie is amazing, and The Farewell was, I thought, really bold. That’s the way to cut through the noise, and people are ready for it. Audiences are more hip to it, sometimes more than the studios give them credit for, too, and that’s what I think I learned from this experience.”
The trickiest part of a sequel would be reconnecting with the anything-goes spirit of the first film and finding a story that could match the first edition’s transformative power. There’s also the matter of competing Gotham city visions, such as next month’s Birds of Prey (centered on Margot Robbie’s dangerous-but-daft Harley Quinn) and next year’s The Batman (which introduces Robert Pattinson as the Caped Crusader).
Phillips said the absence of any previous backstory was both “the most daunting thing about doing the Joker story and also the most exciting thing about doing the Joker story.” No matter what happens with the possible sequel, revisiting the story of Joker guarantees that Phillips can’t say the same about thing the next one.
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