In all of his years of acting, stretching back to when he was 8 years old, Joaquin Phoenix has never done a sequel. And heading into “Joker,” he didn’t expect that to change.
A grim, gritty take on the origin of arguably the comic-book world’s most iconic villain, director Todd Phillips’ film was designed as a standalone story that would exist — in every conceivable way — outside of the DC cinematic universe. That was a major part of the appeal to Phoenix, who had turned down earlier offers to star in comic-book movies out of a concern that he’d find himself sucked into the maw of a commercial machine.
“I guess the fear was that you’d get locked into doing something repeatedly that you don’t really care about, that doesn’t motivate you or excite you,” Phoenix said during an interview for an upcoming cover story in The Envelope. “Part of the whole attraction to me [of ‘Joker’] was there was no expectation. I didn’t sign a deal to do [more movies]. It was a one-off.”
Now that the pre-release controversy has abated and the film has become a box office smash — earning some $850 million worldwide to date and setting a record for the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time — those gears of commerce are surely turning in the minds of Warner Bros. executives. Still, Phoenix — whose turn as troubled would-be comedian turned murderous supervillain Arthur Fleck has landed him at the heart of this year’s best actor Oscar race — insists he and Phillips would never do a follow-up simply because Hollywood logic demands it.
“I wouldn’t just do a sequel just because the first movie is successful,” he said. “That’s ridiculous.”
That’s not to say Phoenix is completely opposed to a sequel, though. While they were making “Joker,” Phoenix says he and Phillips, previously best known for directing hit comedies like the “Hangover” trilogy, were mulling over the idea of further plumbing Fleck’s complex psyche.
“Long before the release or before we had any idea if it would be successful, we talked about sequels,” Phoenix said. “In the second or third week of shooting, I was like, ‘Todd, can you start working on a sequel? There’s way too much to explore.’ It was kind of in jest — but not really.”
In fact, at one point during filming Phoenix had posters mocked up with the Joker inserted into various old movies as a tongue-in-cheek way of showing Phillips what might be possible.
“I basically said, ‘You could take this character and put him in any movie,’ ” Phoenix said. “So I did a photo shoot with the on-set photographer and we made posters where I Photoshopped Joker into 10 classic movies: ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ ‘Raging Bull,’ ‘Yentl ...’ ” He laughs. “If you see it, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I’d watch that movie.’ ‘Yentl’ with Joker? That would be … amazing!”
“I definitely remember the ‘Yentl’ one,” said Phillips, who co-wrote “Joker” with Scott Silver, laughing. “Another one was ‘Forrest Gump.’ ‘The Hangover’ was even one of them.”
As for the potential of a true sequel, Phillips agrees that he and Phoenix would only do one if there was a compelling creative reason.
“We haven’t talked about it a ton,” the director said. “We’ve only talked about the fact that if we ever did one — and I’m not saying we are because right now we’re not — it couldn’t just be this wild and crazy movie about the ‘Clown Prince of Crime.’ That just doesn’t interest us. It would have to have some thematic resonance in a similar way that this does.
“Because I think that’s ultimately why the movie connected, outside of all the noise and mishegoss of the last month and a half. I think the reason why it’s resonating is what’s going on underneath the movie. So many movies are about the spark, and this movie is about the powder. If you could capture that again in a real way, that would be interesting.”
Judging by the sheer volume of impassioned theorizing that “Joker” has spawned online, it’s safe to say that fans feel there’s still more territory left for Phillips and Phoenix to explore.
In “Joker,” the lines between reality and fantasy, sanity and madness, are deliberately blurry. Many viewers have ventured into those gray areas, debating exactly which events in the story really happened and which were delusions sprung from Fleck’s disturbed mind.
Some have argued that Fleck was actually in Arkham Asylum the entire time and merely imagined the whole narrative as a twisted form of wish fulfillment. Others believe that Fleck isn’t the actual Joker — a character who has never had a single definitive origin story — but instead served as the inspiration for the Joker as we’ve come to know him, a theory to which Phillips himself has given some credence.
Phoenix says that, at least as he sees it, Fleck is indeed the Joker: “I mean, to me, yes, he is.” But he welcomes alternative takes. To him, it’s those ambiguities that make the film worthwhile.
"There was something that was great about the mystery of it,” Phoenix says. “Todd and I talked a lot about how this is one of the few opportunities that you have where people don’t expect to know the definitive truth of the character — and not only that, they probably don’t want it. Usually the demands of the movie are the opposite. I said, ‘We have to take advantage of that. Why would we not?’ ”