Todd Phillips Teases His Joker’s Original and “Totally Insane” Origin Story

Breaking away from the more well-known comic book origin stories and charting a path of its own, filmmaker Todd Phillips's upcoming Joker movie is bound to leave fans talking -- about whether it was a good idea to abandon the comics, about where this origin stands in the long historical tradition of giving Joker a new origin every so often, and so on. Phillips knows this, and he seems content with it. That reality, he said, gave him the freedom to go completely "out there" and make a movie that nobody else but he and his co-writer Scott Silver could have come up with.

That story, as it turns out, is the lamentable case of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), whose descent into darkness is the centerpiece of Joker. Handling Fleck's role, which will presumably shift from a sympathetic figure in the beginning of the film into the monster The Joker is known to be by the end, is going to be an interesting needle to thread.

"There’s a lot of freedom because Joker as a character in the comic books never really had an origin story, that was kind of the fun of him," Phillips said. "He says in one of the comic books he prefers to think of his past as multiple choice, so we thought it was really liberating because there really were no rules, and no boundaries for it. So Scott Silver and I -- Scott Silver who I wrote it with -- we just kind of pushed each other every day to come up with something totally insane."

Some of the film's influences seem pretty obvious, particularly films like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, both of which starred Joker actor Robert DeNiro. Travis Bickle, the character DeNiro played in Taxi Driver, is a character who, ironically, has been compared less often to The Joker in the comics and more often to Rorschach from Watchmen, which will come to HBO next year with a TV series that sees an army of Rorschach-inspired menaces in masks, a la what we see in some of the Joker trailers.

"What was fun about it was we were able to kind of pick and choose certain elements from the past comic books, and use kind of what we wanted here, and maybe we’ll use a little bit of that," Phillips later added. "So there’s a little bit I guess of The Killing Joke with a failed stand-up comedian. But another big influence of this movie, and the thing that inspired the original creators of the Joker, was the silent film The Man Who Laughs, which is really where this started."

The Man Who Laughs, originally released in 1928, was a silent romantic drama based on the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo and adapted to film by German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni. The film is an adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel of the same name. The movie's most enduring legacy is the off-putting, permanent grin worn by Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine, which was an obvious and acknowledged source of inspiration for the creation of The Joker.

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Joker is hitting theaters on October 4th. Other upcoming DC films include Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) on February 7, 2020, and Wonder Woman 1984 on June 5, 2020