Todd Philips Thinks It’s Joker’s Themes, Not the Character, That Made It a Hit

By Charles Pulliam-Moore on at

One of the most mindbogglingly strange things about Todd Phillips’ Joker is how unfunny the movie’s titular clown criminal is, something that’s in rather stark contrast with the character’s depiction in other media. The Joker’s a deranged mass murderer, yes, but he’s always been able to crack a legitimate joke here and there. Phillips’ Joker? Not so much, because he’s grounded.

Phillips’ decision to lead with a Joker in the midst of a mental collapse rather than one who could successfully deliver deadly one-liners while throwing exploding pies was his to make, much in the same way that it was the directors’ call to make Bruce Wayne such an unnecessarily large element of Joker’s story. During a recent interview at an event hosted by Deadline, Phillips was asked whether he thought Joker’s box office success had anything to do with the DC character being Batman’s most iconic foe.

Rather than embracing that very obvious reality, the director instead took a chance to wax philosophic about his belief that what audiences were actually responding to was Joker’s commentary on American society. Even if Phillips supposedly didn’t believe that an R-rated comic book movie could gross over $1 billion, he believed the movie had something to say that would resonate with the people.

“I mean, I think there are themes in the movie that really resonated with people. None of us thought an R-rated movie could do over $1 billion across the world. The thing Scott Silver and I set out to do when we wrote the movie together was to make something meaningful in that comic book space, but also something really that addressed what was going on in 2016, when we started writing,” he insisted. “It’s pretty obvious what was happening in our country in 2017 while we were writing it, and really wanted to use Joker to make a movie about the loss of compassion and the lack of decorum in the world.”

Though the first Deadpool movie (which hit cinemas in 2016) didn’t crack $1 billion, its $782 million gross was nothing to sneeze at. The idea that an R-rated movie about the Joker – literally one of the popular comic book characters of all time – might not have been able to easily breeze past that figure is just silly. Phillips has spoken in the past about how, in his mind, by simply calling the project “Joker” and slapping some makeup on Joaquin Phoenix, he convinced Warner Bros. to give him $55 million to make a film about a man who felt crushed by the weight of the world.

Perhaps Phillips genuinely didn’t think the movie was going to make that much money, but if he also really believed that Joker’s muddled messages about mental illness and wealth inequality were going to be enough to lure masses of fans into cinemas, then the Wayne family probably shouldn’t have factored into so much of the plot.

To be fair, Joker never shows you a grown man dressed in a bat suit chasing a clown down the street but the movie does feature a plot in which the Joker is led to believe that he’s Bruce Wayne’s long-lost illegitimate brother. The Joker even accosts Thomas Wayne and demands to be recognised as his son. You’d think that at this point during the writing process, someone might have looked up and said: “Hey, you know there’s an awful lot of Batman in this movie that’s really not supposed to be about Batman.” But Joker keeps beating that Batman-shaped joke into the ground by going out of its way to remind us all exactly how Bruce Wayne’s parents were gunned down in front of him, only this time, it’s in the midst of a pro-Joker riot in downtown Gotham. Layers, right?

But even the most forgiving of readings illustrates just how obtuse Phillips is being because even if none of the Waynes ever showed up in the film, Batman would still be a part of it because Batman’s a fundamental part of Gotham City. Simply by being set in Gotham, Joker exists within a larger narrative context that viewers know Batman is apart of. Even if the movie was an Elseworlds story about what would happen if Batman never came to be, Batman’s absence is a core part of the story’s conceit.

In Joker’s case, though, Batman’s very much in the mix, and for Phillips to insist that it’s not a big reason as to why people went to go see it is hands down the funniest thing about the movie.