There are some things that you just don’t joke about. And as it turns out, this is one of them.
It should come as no surprise to anybody paying even a passing amount attention to Warner Bros’ floundering DCEU that the superhero mega-franchise is in trouble. Only a few months out from release and the company’s long-lauded answer to The Avengers – DC’s Justice League – is still being reshot by its second director. Seemingly slighted at every turn, Ben Affleck is reportedly bowing out of his role as Batman before he so much as meets his contractual obligations to the film studio. Evidently neither content with nor capable of righting their misdirecting franchises, Warner Bros appears to be on the verge of rebooting the whole thing with their forthcoming Flashpoint adaptation.
The new that broke today, however, is the most troubling sign of Warner Bros’ faithlessness in their own product. In addition to the mainline DCEU movies that they’ve already announced, they are starting work on an as-of-yet unnamed side-series of non-canon movies. These will feature different actors in the title roles, characters that don’t fit in with the current franchise and storylines that don’t adhere to the shared universe’s established chain of events.
The first of these movies will be an origin story for the Joker: Batman’s infamous archenemy. Todd Phillips – who directed Road Trip, Old School and The Hangover movies – is set to both write and direct the film. Martin Scorsese, of all people, is lined up to produce it.
This plan to emphasize non-canon spinoffs is the clearest indication yet of just how little idea Warner Bros has concerning their DC holdings. Unable to hold together a crumbling shared universe or find versions of these characters that people actually like, they’re content to just throw any idea they have at the wall to see what sticks. They’ll try out as many Batmen, Jokers and Supermen that they have to before settling on something people actually like: never mind actually sorting out those kind of base-level details before you start your billion-dollar franchise.
The thing about cinematic shared universes is that they create something greater than the franchises leading into it. The idea isn’t just that Batman’s popular, Superman’s iconic and Wonder Woman was great. It’s the idea that badboy Batman can play off of Superman’s boyscout image, that Superman can call Batman out on his brutal treatment of criminals and Wonder Woman can show them both up in the end.
It’s that you can recreate those iconic Green Lantern / Green Arrow teamups from the 1970’s. It’s that you can pit Terra against the other Teen Titans in the Judas Contract. It’s that you can have Flash and Batman join forces to investigate the mysterious appearance of the Comedian’s smiley-face button.
It’s not enough that these stories simply make their way to the big screen. The point is that these are the same characters growing, bonding and struggling through the whole litany of films: that we learn about and grow with these same characters from year to year. It’s their context amidst a larger universe that gives their adventures even greater significance.
And that’s just the problems with this decision on a conceptual level. In terms of the specific film they plan to pursue, the situation is far worse.
Never mind the rocky premise of the film in question – a Joker origin story set in 1980’s Gotham – it’s the man they chose to head the project that’s so disconcerting. Despite what he may superficially appear to be on the outside, the Joker is not a comedy icon. He is a dark deconstruction of the inescapable madness of being: of the twisted contradictions that defines modern man.
The fact that they chose a comedy director to headline the project – and in particular one as bombastically outlandish as Todd Phillips – shows just how little the film studio understands the character. Everything about the man’s filmography suggests that this will be an R-rated farce: played for laughs rather than screams, and that simply isn’t what this character is about.