Joker director Todd Phillips explains why the film is set in the late 1970s or early 1980s. It's no secret Joker draws heavy inspiration from the films of that era. The initial teaser trailer evoked Martin Scorsese classics like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Though some have praised Joker for being a revolutionary game-changer in its genre, it's clearly a film that wears its influences on its sleeve. The casting of Robert De Niro as a late night talk show host is seen as an homage to Jerry Lewis' role in The King of Comedy, with Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck the Rupert Pupkin.
Since Phillips had those kind of movies on his mind, it isn't surprising Joker is a period piece. Even when the film was initially announced in 2017, reports indicated it would be set in the 1980s. For those hoping for a more specific timeframe, Phillips won't reveal an actual year, but he did explain why he decided to go back in time for Joker.
Screen Rant had the opportunity to attend an early Joker screening, which was followed by a Q&A session with Phillips and Phoenix. The director elaborated on why he made the film a period piece:
One reason was to separate it, quite frankly, from the DC Universe when I pitched it to Warner Brothers and handed the script in. To sort of make it clear, “This isn't f***ing with anything you have going on.” This is like a separate universe, so much so, it takes place in the past before everything else.
Another reason is because, tonally, the movie is very much a character study. I'm a little older than you, but the same movies we grew up on and loved. And you go, “God, those movies don't get made as much anymore.” They get made as characters studies, but, you know… Social Network is a great one, There Will Be Blood is probably the best in the last 20 years of character studies. But in the 70s and 80s, they were much more frequent. So, in a weird way, it was also just an homage to that time. We're making a movie that feels like that, so why not set it there.
That combination is what helps set Joker apart from other comic book adaptations. Installments in the MCU and DCEU have taken place in period settings (Captain America: The First Avenger and Wonder Woman), but none of them could be described as a throwback character study in its execution. This approach is most likely what made Joker appeal to Phoenix, who always wanted to do a low-budget comic book film about a villain. One of the reasons why he turned down Doctor Strange in the MCU was because of the multi-picture contract that came with the agreement, so it's easy to see why something like Joker would be interesting for Phoenix. Not only is the story standalone in nature, the execution is much more Taxi Driver than Avengers. A role like Arthur Flek is a part Phoenix was born to play.
Joker is poised to be one of the most divisive films of 2019, if the initial reactions are any indication. Even so, it's safe to say Phillips had the right idea; Joker won the Golden Lion at this year's Venice Film Festival and is projected to break box office records during its opening weekend. With the film now garnering awards attention, everyone from die-hard comic book fans to cinephiles will be curious to see what exactly Phillips cooked up (and if it's really deserving of all the backlash it's received thus far). For a while, DC tried to compete with Marvel by rushing their version of the MCU, but in the last couple of years, they've caught up by going in a different direction. Joker is the kind of film Marvel can't really make, which is part of why Phillips was interested in doing it in the first place.
- Joker (2019) release date: Oct 04, 2019
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- Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) release date: Jun 05, 2020
- The Batman (2021) release date: Jun 25, 2021
- The Suicide Squad (2021) release date: Aug 06, 2021
- DC Super Pets (2022) release date: May 20, 2022
- Aquaman 2 (2022) release date: Dec 16, 2022