In the modern movie marketplace, comic book adaptations dominate. Heavily. But there has never been a comic book movie like Joker. And there has never been a comic book movie performance like the one Joaquin Phoenix delivers in the lead role.
Joker, which offers up a gritty and grounded origin story for the iconic Batman villain, hasn't even hit theatres yet and it's already one of the most-talked-about movies of the year since its August premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the top prize. Among all the plaudits and talk of potential Oscar glory, some have expressed concerns that Joker might even be ... dangerous.
The praise has been mostly directed at Phoenix, who brings something undeniably new to one of pop culture's most infamous characters.
READ MORE: No clowning: Jokers through the years.
"I felt like it was really important that we just go our own way," Phoenix tells TimeOut during an interview in West Hollywood. "I didn't want to be influenced by the comics or any of the other performances. I really tried to approach this from the inside as a man — exploring that as opposed to this iconic supervillain that we know."
Taking place in a Gotham City inspired by the grimy, combustible New York Martin Scorsese portrayed in Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982), Joker follows a troubled aspiring comedian named Arthur Fleck, who also works as a clown. Suffering from a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably at inopportune times, we witness Fleck head down a dark path that will eventually see him adopt the titular persona.
It's a journey spurred in part by Arthur being denied his various medications due to funding cuts but Phoenix says this isn't about someone losing it after going off their meds.
"I didn't approach it thinking about him as mentally ill. It was really about this trauma that he experiences and a world that doesn't really know how to deal with it, so they just medicate him.
"The only thing that I felt strongly about was that he was a true narcissist. Somebody that has a narrative in their head about who they should be in the world and they'll use any technique necessary to perpetuate that narrative."
Fleck's acts of vigilantism inspire a violent protest movement in Gotham. Alongside the healthcare stuff, it can't help but make the film feel politically loaded.
"What I liked about this movie is it seemed like it would challenge people to think about those issues," says Phoenix." And I think it's going to be different for everybody, they're gonna relate to the character in a different way. It didn't feel like Todd was making one blanket statement."
That would be Joker director/co-writer Todd Phillips, best-known for comedies like The Hangover, who says he sees the film's political content as more "descriptive" than "prescriptive".
"While it takes place in 1980-whatever, it was written in 2016/17, so that stuff just finds its way into your work," Phillips tells TimeOut. "I think it's provocative in that it holds up a mirror to things that are happening now. But I don't know that the movie is inherently political. Or at least we didn't necessarily want to it be."
Phillips says his goal was to sneak a character study into a comic book movie.
"Whether you like the movie or don't like the movie, what I think you can't deny is that it's bold. We wrote a bold script. Joaquin gave a very bold performance and Warner Bros was bold in letting us do it. But that didn't come overnight. There was a lot of convincing and hoops to jump through. Because it's a character they've had for 75 years."
For those 75 years, the character has always captured audiences' imaginations, throughout several iconic portrayals. "I think people are fascinated by the chaos he represents," Phillips says of the Joker's enduring appeal.
When writing the script (with Scott Silver), Phillips says he only ever pictured Phoenix in the role.
"Because he's fearless in his choices - and I don't mean the movie roles he chooses but the choices he makes on camera. You need an actor like that. If you're gonna play Joker, you have to have a fearlessness."
Phoenix lives up to that fearlessness, inhabiting the character to disturbing effect. TimeOut asks Phoenix if it was tough going.
"I had a f***in' ball," says Phoenix with a smile. "I wanna say it was really hard because it makes me sound like I worked on it but I had a f***in' ball. I mean, yeah, dieting sucks, it was difficult and you're doing a lot of work. But it was so inspiring."
The full Joker persona doesn't show up until relatively late in the film and, for that mode, Phoenix, 44, cites a classic performance from Tim Curry — who was considered for Joker in the 1989 Batman film — as an influence: "There's a good amount of Dr Frank-N-Furter in there. I've always loved The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
Joker is in cinemas from October 3.