Joaquin Phoenix is about to dance his way into cinemas as Batman’s most iconic nemesis, the Joker.
But did you know that Phoenix almost played the Dark Knight himself? Long before a gritty street-level comic-book movie was just a glint in Todd Phillips’ eye, Darren Aronofsky was dreaming about casting the genius character actor as Bruce Wayne.
“I always wanted Joaquin Phoenix for Batman,” Aronofksy revealed.
In fact, the crossover between Aronofsky’s pitched take on the Bat (a very loose adaptation of Batman: Year One) is so similar to Joker, Aronosfky commented on the parallels while it was still in production.
“I hear the way they’re talking about the Joker movie and that’s exactly – that was my pitch.” Aronofsky said. “I was like: We’re going to shoot in East Detroit and East New York. We’re not building Gotham. The Batmobile – I wanted to be a Lincoln Continental with two bus engines in it. It was the duct-tape, MacGyver Batman.”
The project was developed after Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin shot the franchise in a dark alley and stole its pearl necklace – Batman and Robin was a movie so misguided it stopped the series for almost a decade.
That was in 1997, with Aronosky’s film being developed until it was canned in 2002. In 2005, Chris Nolan’s take on Batman: Year One, Batman Begins, was released and its influence is still felt today (especially in Joker, which is shot like Nolan with a headache).
“I think audiences now, they’ve seen enough comic films that they’re game for that,” Aronosky said. “So I think we were a little bit out of time for our idea.”
But what would Phoenix have been doing in Aronofsky’s movie? A lot of weird stuff, as it turns out. And that’s true of basically all of Batman’s most iconic characters.
The film establishes that, following the death of his parents, Bruce Wayne has lost everything, ending up homeless and living in a garage.
Commissioner Gordon would have been introduced with a service revolver in his mouth, so depressed about the state of Gotham he’d rather kill himself than continue.
That’s before his wife falls pregnant and he decides to save the city, directly inspiring Bruce to become a vigilante after seeing Gordon punch a mentally ill man to save a child, on a news report.
Selina Kyle is a friend of Bruce’s, a sex worker who (we’re led to believe) kills a crooked cop when he tries to rape her. Alfred is an African-American man named ‘Little Al’ who works with Bruce in his dad’s (‘Big Al’) garage.
It’s probably unsurprising to find out the script was written by Frank Miller, who wrote the original Year One comic, but was definitely taking a more Sin City approach here.
The script has a similar Taxi Driver tone to Joker, with Joaquin Phoenix’s Bruce writing letters to his dead father (which work like Travis Bickle-style dated diary entries, similar to Rorschach’s diaries in Watchmen) that appear as voice-over to explain Wayne’s motivations and approach to fighting Gotham’s thugs.
His Batman identity is one of the weirdest elements. It comes from a news bulletin (with a newscaster delivering the iconic line “criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot”) about Bruce’s Thomas Wayne branded signet ring, which leaves a mark that looks like a bat: “An obvious reference to the occult.”
The horror reference is appropriate, as the script has a hard horror tone, Bruce is terrifying, as is the world he exists in. His bat suit involves a hockey mask cut in two, with steel dentures painted white and gloves that have razor blades embedded into them.
He injects one criminal with a mixture of what he calls “truth serum” and “the worst acid trip of your life”, which sounds more like something Scarecrow would do. Oh, and he has knuckle-dusters with the Bat logo on them, because branding is important.
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Of course, Batman brands criminals in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, so there’s a chance Aronofsky’s project influenced that one. In Joker, letters to Thomas Wayne play a key plot role.
And it’ll be interesting to see if there’s any resonance in Matt Reeves’ The Batman (which also focuses on a young Bruce, who is referred to as ‘The Bat-Man’ in Miller’s script by other characters, and in the script description itself).
Aronofsky’s Year One would have been a brutal and bonkers film, from a script that still somehow managed to end with all of the brand elements of the character back in place.
It actually would have allowed Warner Brothers to take the franchise in a more traditional direction if they so chose. And it definitely would have erased the memory of Arnie making puns in polar bear slippers.
But, as it turned out, they weren’t ready to take the risk of the rest of the movie to reset the series, handing the property to Christopher Nolan instead. It was, clearly, the right choice, but it’s still fascinating to imagine what kind of cinematic universe would now exist if Aronofsky’s film had been a similar-sized hit.
So, when people complain about how Todd Phillips has made a transgressive movie starring Joaquin Phoenix that feels too dark and weird, just remember that Darren Aronofsky and Frank Miller (almost) got there first, 22 years ago. And we’d probably still be reading think-pieces about it today if it had.
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