Joaquin Phoenix's failed comedian Arthur Fleck, who becomes the clown-faced counterculture icon of early 1980s Gotham City in Joker, is an unreliable narrator and might not be the real Joker, according to director Todd Phillips. Like the DC Comics supervillain whose origin story is unfurled in Joker — told through the warped lens of mental institution patient Arthur, who is prone to engage in fantasies involving neighbor Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz) and late night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) — there's ambiguity left in this Joker's beginnings: as his comic book counterpart says in The Killing Joke, the makeup-wearing madman prefers his past to be multiple choice.
"There's many ways to look at the movie. He might not be Joker," Phillips says in Joker: Vision & Fury, a 22-minute behind-the-scenes featurette included on the home release special features. "This is just a version of a Joker origin. It's just the version this guy is telling in this room at a mental institution. I don't know that he's the most reliable narrator in the world, you know what I'm saying?"
In reality, Phoenix's Joker is an amalgamation of multiple figures. As Phoenix tells it, "You take Todd, and Scott [Silver, co-writer], and pieces of me, and Katherine Hepburn, and Frank-N-Furter, and you put it all together, and that's our Joker. And I don't think that any of us really knew that was going to be the ingredients for it, but that's just what happened."
While audiences are left to wonder how much of the origin in Joker is fact versus fiction, it's a story only Phillips could tell. "Todd has a very unique way of looking at things," Phoenix says. "And nobody could have made this movie but Todd."
Adds producer Bradley Cooper, Joker is a "wonderful exploration" of the comic book bad guy. "To take, probably, the most famous two-dimensional villain who we've watched just wreak havoc in so many forms — whether it's the comic book, a television series, or various films — to say, 'Okay, what happens if we humanize this person? And let's see what could be the possible causes.'"
Joker emerged out of Phillips' pitch for a Warner Bros.-based label, proposed as DC Black, that would recruit filmmakers to helm their own down-and-dirty character studies centered around DC Comics' library of villains.
"I just love bad guys," the director says. "It's fun to say, 'Why is he like that? What made him like that?' And that's ultimately the goal of the movie. It's not this gigantic statement on the world today, and there is stuff thematically in there, but really, it's 'What makes somebody that way?' And the Joker, I just liked his sense of mayhem and chaos."
Joker is available to own on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray January 7. Follow the author @CameronBonomolo on Twitter.