Director Todd Phillips' upcoming film, Joker is heating up to be one of this year's best-reviewed as well as one of its most controversial. It also stands out amid the DCEU era as one that is notably lacking much in the way of connection to DC's shared cinematic universe, or to the Batman mythos in general. In fact, Phillips recently stated that the finished product has even less connection to Batman that originally intended.
It's an odd choice given the success of today's connected universe-centered superhero fiction. However, the choice to make Joker incomparable to its source material is not only justifiable, but it could easily be a refreshing change that superhero movies need.
AN ELSEWORLD JOKER
Many superheroes and villains, especially DC and Marvel ones, have different versions of themselves both across various media. In fact, DC Comics has its own imprints dedicated to the idea: the now-defunct Elseworlds, and currently, Black Label, in which characters are intentionally stripped down to their bare essentials or drastically altered and being placed in settings alien to their norms.
Having new versions of these classic characters, versions which may be incongruous to their main universe ones is a concept that comic book fans are used to. Thus, any differences with the film, Joker and more "comic booky" portrayals of the Clown Prince of Crime can simply be seen as two different recipes for the same dish. The fact that the Joker himself in the film seems, in trailers at least, to be his usual humorously homicidal self is accuracy enough to change everything else around him.
This is especially true for older characters like him -- characters that have near-constant exposure in the media, be it through comic books, cartoons, TV shows, video games or movies. For Batman-related characters especially, there's no drought of alternates. Creators have to do something to differentiate their take.
THE VENOM FORMULA FOR SUCCESS
A clear analogy for this debate is 2018's Venom. Due to the (at the time) shared film rights regarding Spider-Man, Venom had to eliminate its protagonist's (or, antagonist's) connection to the villain's nemesis. This was in spite of Spider-Man being an integral part of Venom's traditional, iconic origin and design. Despite the controversial move and potential lack of interest that a Spider-Man-sized hole would create, Venom went on to be a smash hit at the box office.
Joker is actually at an advantage in this regard. Unlike Venom, The Joker is defined by his lack of a concrete origin, meaning that any origin story that a new writer creates for him wouldn't be inappropriate or inaccurate. (It might not be a good one, but that's another topic entirely.)
A lack of a set-in-stone beginning also means that Batman isn't, or has to be, as integral to it as Spider-Man is to Venom's. His most accepted origin, created in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke, shows him as a failed comedian who falls into a vat of acid on a failed heist when he's chased by Batman. While Joker will not feature or connect to the future Batman, it does use the failed comedian set up. Also present are Thomas and a young Bruce Wayne, as well as a version of Arkham Asylum. In other words, it's as connected to the Batman mythos as any prequel should be. Again, this puts the movie in even better adaptation standing than a film which was a surprise box office hit with a highly anticipated sequel coming soon. Joker is also currently tracking to perform even better than Venom at the box office.
WHAT SUPERHERO CINEMA NEEDS
Many comic book movies adapt an existing comic book storyline or at least use them as loose sources. Some wear this in their very names, such as Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. Others simply stitch together elements of various story arcs to create their own unique plot.
Joker seems to be doing an extreme version of the latter, using the barest foundational elements of a character to craft something entirely and brazenly different. While this might seem like a waste of beloved intellectual property, it offers an avenue of creativity that can cast a very well-established character in a new light. It's one thing to build a version of a character than can be used in a shared universe. Creating a standalone, "arthouse" version of that character instead offers an escape from the same cookie-cutter movies that feature riffs on the familiar but few surprises for existing fans.
By all accounts, the film is already coming to be regarded as a great cinematic achievement. It's possible that Joker didn't need to shed most of its overt Batman connections to garner this reception. At the end of the day, that's exactly what Todd Phillips intended to make: not necessarily a "good" adaptation but just a good movie.
With the subgenre so well-established in cinema, most superhero and comic book movies now aspire to just be good superhero or comic book movies, with their attachment to their pulpy sources denoting a similarly lowered cinematic standard in the eyes of some critics. Having a comic book movie that simply wants to be a great movie and is largely uninterested in ticking Easter egg and cross-universe boxes pave the way for more freedom within the genre, especially for more mainstream characters.
The film has piqued and impressed the collective interest of critics and filmgoers who were probably otherwise uninterested in the next Avengers or Spider-Man movie. And while this approach may alienate some DC Comics fans, it is expanding genre's cinematic potential in ways that no other recent film has.