A Possible Joker Sequel Needs to Fix the First Film’s Fundamental Flaw

Everything about Joker marks it as a different breed of superhero movie, from the big names attached to it — most notably, Marvel’s number one fanboy, Martin Scorsese — to its deliberate distance from its source material. Perhaps most significant, however, is the film’s standalone nature. No connection to a shared cinematic universe, no post-credits scenes and no planned sequels. A bold choice in the heyday of franchise-building.

Yet, given the film’s incredible box office performance, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before DC and Warner Bros. gives in to the temptation to keep Arthur Fleck’s story going. And, judging by his recent comments to The L.A. Times, Joaquin Phoenix wouldn’t be opposed to reprising his role, either. Though the actor said that not being tied into a multi-picture deal was “part of the whole attraction,” he also revealed that, just two or three weeks into shooting, he’d approached director Todd Phillips about the idea of doing a follow-up. “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.”

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Phoenix was apparently so invested in the idea, he even created some… strange pitch material to help his case.

“I basically said, ‘You could take this character and put him in any movie.’ So I did a photo shoot with the on-set photographer and we made posters where I Photoshopped Joker into ten classic movies: Rosemary’s Baby, Raging Bull, Yentl … If you see it, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I’d watch that movie.’ Yentl with Joker? That would be … amazing!”

Judging by the box office receipts, major awards buzz and continuing discussions about what did or possibly didn’t happen in the film’s story, interest in a Joker sequel would be high — even if did turn out to be Phoenix’s half-jokingly suggested Yentl remake.

Oddly, enough, Phoenix’s observation that “you could take this character and put him in any movie” hits precisely upon the core problem with the first film, one that a sequel could provide the chance to address, rather than double down on.

Fans of Joker like it for its ambiguity, a trait that is also closely associated with the titular comic book character. But this same trait is also viewed by its detractors as its greatest weakness. Stories that deal in grey areas rather than moral absolutes are often fascinating. However, Joker‘s narrative is so grey it’s hard to find a clear, un-muddled takeaway. This is why reactions to the film have been so polarized.

Joker has been interpreted as a damning indictment of the elite and the psychopathic conditions that capitalism demands, which is helped by its period setting: the era of ‘80s excess and Wall Street greed. Under this lens, it kind of works as a (less successful) inversion of American Psycho — to which comparisons have been made — with a protagonist driven to murder by being on the bottom rather than the top of the decade’s increasing wealth gap.

Along those lines, Joker has also been hailed as a cautionary tale about the dangers of austerity, which is clearest when Arthur’s access to medical care is cut off leaving him with absolutely nothing to inhibit his darkest impulses. However, where these two readings fall down is in how strangely unsympathetic Joker is towards the class of people that Fleck becomes a figurehead for.

RELATED: Joker and The Dark Knight Rises Suffer From the Same Thematic Failure

Social activism in the film is boiled down to just an excuse for looting and violence — violence that results in the callous murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Before this, the film twisted Thomas Wayne into a thoroughly unlikable snob. Then, in the moment of his death, it’s unclear whether we’re supposed to feel sorry for him and his orphaned son or not.

One throwaway line also echoes through Phillips’ film: when one of Arthur’s ill-fated clown colleagues compares the rabid protesters to animals, the comparison is immediately juxtaposed with a news report of the growing number of rats amassing around Gotham’s uncollected garbage — another tell-tale sign of austerity taking its toll. The gathering vermin foretell what’s to come — Gotham, like desperate scavengers around trash, will end up eating itself — but it’s an uncomfortable metaphor and just further confuses which side, if any, the film wants us to root for: the self-preserving rich or the destructive, bottom-feeding poor? Is it both? Is it neither?

The film holds a bleak mirror up to society but… that’s all it does. Who’s to blame for Arthur Fleck’s break-down? Everyone. And also no-one. It’s as incoherent as Fleck’s unhinged ramblings to Murray Franklin.

Rather than sharp social commentary, what we’re left with instead is ’80s individualism: Arthur’s own pathological need to be “seen” is the only clear stance the film takes, with both the classes of people he’s assaulted by and disconnected from framed dispassionately around him. Like its central protagonist, Joker ends up believing in “nothing.” Then again, as Phoenix’s recent comments indicate, maybe that’s the whole point: an empty canvas for a colorful character study.

This makes for shaky ground for a possible continuation, however, as, without any solid world-building or clear, thematic direction to go in next, all of the heavy lifting could be on Phoenix’s shoulders (again). Much of what makes his performance absorbing the first time around is its transformative arc, which having reached the hideous butterfly stage of his evolution at the film’s end, would leave him with little else to do but just be the Joker, a character the film that bears his name really had little interest in until its final 15 or so minutes.

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Without any of the recognizable skills that his comic book counterparts possesses — connections to Gotham’s underworld; a keen, strategic mind to challenge Batman with; or, crucially, the ability to make ’em laugh — it’s hard to imagine Fleck as a fully-fledged Clown Prince of Crime.

Fan theories could provide a workaround for this. Some claim that Arthur Fleck isn’t the Joker but merely Joker — one who could inspire the supervillain that Batman will actually end up fighting in the future. Others claim that Fleck’s flights of fancy actually make up the entire story. While both are interesting ideas, they could also be seen to make Joker even more inert — a story that might not have happened about a character who might not actually be in it.

A sequel would undermine the film’s original selling point as a “different” and singular comic book movie, but it would also give Phoenix and Phillips the opportunity to make an actual Joker movie rather than an Arthur Fleck one, as well as, more importantly, a movie that’s actually about something.

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