Comics on Film: What's Going On With Todd Phillips' 'Joker'?

Comics on Film: What's Going On With Todd Phillips' 'Joker'?

Aug 31, 2018

The Dark Knight

We’ve known for a while now that director Todd Phillips (The Hangover) would be shepherding a new film based on DC Comics’ ultimate villain, the Joker. What we now don’t seem to know is what’s really happening with it behind the scenes, since a relatively high-profile piece of casting news seemed to come and go without much ceremony recently.

Beyond that, though, details of that casting news seemed to indicate something of a departure from the source material that defines the characters the film will be based on, and not in a particularly good way, either. While the movie is still a bit fascinating based simply on who is involved and which character it will be portraying, some new questions about the as-yet untitled Joker film are emerging that may warrant further scrutiny.

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the recent news – and first setback – for Warner Bros. Pictures’ quirky DC Comics-based project derived from the Clown Prince of Crime.


Will the Real Thomas Wayne Please Stand Up?

Mission: Impossible - Fallout

As we reported here just a few days ago, actor Alec Baldwin (Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Beetlejuice) had reportedly been cast in the new film as none other than Thomas Wayne, most famous in the comics for being the father of Bruce Wayne and, consequently, one of the architects of his son’s mission to become the Batman in the future. While the comics often depict both Thomas and his wife Martha as virtual patron saints of Gotham City because of their ongoing philanthropic efforts, the film apparently has a … different take on the father of the future Batman.

Perhaps tapping into Baldwin’s Emmy-winning performance as President Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, the film’s version of Thomas Wayne reportedly remakes the character as "a cheesy and tanned businessman who is more in the mold of a 1980s Donald Trump," according to the news-breaking report at THR.

Saturday Night Live

Baldwin himself has since disputed this account of the character, writing on Twitter that he has "NOT been hired to play a role in Todd Phillips’ JOKER as some Donald Trump manque. That is not happening. Not. Happening.”

Perhaps more importantly than that, though, Baldwin has revealed that he won’t actually be doing anything in the movie anymore. In an interview with USA Today, Baldwin said, "I'm no longer doing that movie," and he added, "I'm sure there are 25 guys who can play that part." He also cited "scheduling" as the primary factor that dictated his quick exit from the movie.

Still, because of the rapid pace of the news surrounding this part, it’s hard not to think in suspect terms. It was a bit of a whirlwind, but it’s also a bit disconcerting that the movie may have wanted to contort a foundational Batman character like Thomas Wayne into some cheesy caricature.


The Things That Define a Good Comics Adaptation

The Dark Knight

As most of comic book movie history would indicate, the primary elements that largely define the best adaptations descending from the pages of superhero comics are spirit and tone. Batman & Robin, for instance, is not regarded as a very good adaptation of its source material because of its over-reliance on camp and an outdated perspective for its characters.

The Dark Knight, on the other hand, eschewed the specific visual tenets of some of its characters (like the Joker’s face being painted instead of chemically altered) while staying true to the same kind of emotional dread you get from that character in the comics. It nailed the spirit of the character as he’s largely depicted.

Hopefully, the upcoming Joker film’s adaptive philosophy isn’t embodied by its alleged take on a character like Thomas Wayne. Changing a character so completely to suit the setting of your movie would seem to already start the movie out on the wrong foot in its adaptive philosophy, which – beyond being unnecessary – would demonstrate an aversion to the source that has never served the larger interests of movies based on comics characters.

Judge Dredd

Whether you want to look at 1992’s Batman Returns – far more of a Tim Burton film than it is a Batman film – 1990’s Captain America, 1995’s Judge Dredd, 2004’s Catwoman or 2015’s Fantastic Four, these are movies that have largely fallen into relative obscurity for many reasons, not the least of which being their relative abandonment of the longstanding characterizations and tones of the stories that have come to define their subject characters. It’s far too soon to say whether or not Joker will be abandoning the source material in favor of something different, partially because it does have the makings of greatness, at least on paper.

Whether you want to invoke the fact that Martin Scorsese is involved, the casting of solid actors like Joaquin Phoenix and Marc Maron, the orbit of Robert De Niro, and the simple fact that it’s based on perhaps the greatest trickster character ever, there are certainly all the building blocks there for Joker to be a seminal kind of different, smaller, intimate character study.

Here’s hoping that it delivers on all the promise that it very much has.

Chris Clow is a comics expert/former retailer, and pop culture critic/commentator. He hosts two podcasts: Discovery Debrief: A Star Trek Podcast and Comics on Consoles. Find his column "Comics on Film" weekly at, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.

Categories: Features, Geek
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