The history of Hollywood comic-book musicals is not a long and garlanded one. Comic books that have become stage musicals, well yes – there are quite a few of those. Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, Little Orphan Annie, Josie and the Pussycats – all were inspired by, or were synonymous with, the printed page before making it to the big screen. Alison Bechdel, she of the Bechdel test, saw her introspective and gruelling graphic memoir Fun Home transformed into a Tony award-winning Broadway musical in 2015.
But actual superhero musicals? There’s the ill-fated, rightly obscure 1983 Australian comedy The Return of Captain Invincible, starring Alan Arkin and (remarkably) Christopher Lee, but it is certainly not a populous pantheon. So it is something of a surprise to learn that the Hollywood trades are repeatedly describing the forthcoming sequel to the Oscar-winning Joker as a musical.
Reports suggest that Brendan Gleeson, famously an accomplished fiddle and mandolin player, is joining the cast of Joker: Folie à Deux, which is due out in 2024. We previously learned that Lady Gaga will star as the Joker-verse iteration of Harley Quinn – perhaps Margot Robbie struggles to hold a note? – a revelation that caused most commentators to ponder whether there must surely be some mistake. Why would Todd Phillips go out on such a limb, with the creative world his oyster following Joker’s unexpected success?
And yet in many ways, delivering the sequel in a heavily stylised genre makes a certain sort of sense. To students of the grubby but starry-eyed 1970s and 80s cinema of Martin Scorsese, Joker manifested as a gorgeous and unexpectedly spiky paean to the era of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, a period when the inner turmoil of desperate men competed with the crash, bang, wallop of blockbuster cinema.
If Joaquin Phoenix is really being lured back to star once again as Arthur Fleck, for a reported $20m no less, he’s going to want to know that Phillips has designs on taking this one even further into the realms of nutty 80s fever dream. What better framing for Joker part II than to imagine Fleck meeting Quinn for the first time in Arkham Asylum (just as in the comics) while flocks of wide-eyed inmates provide an unhinged chorus? This could be Batman meets The Singing Detective, a florid and far-out opportunity for the sequel to prove that the previous episode was mere fiddlesticks in comparison to its illustrious successor.
Of course, what fans really want is for Phoenix’s Fleck to somehow end up battling Robert Pattinson’s Batman in a future episode, since these are pretty much the only two DC big screen characters that aren’t either universally hated or greeted with a chorus of “meh” whenever they turn up. That will probably never happen, but let us not forget that Matt Reeves’ singular, darkly nonchalant The Batman would never have been the same movie had the film-maker not decided to half-inch Nirvana’s Something in the Way as the basis of pretty much its entire score. There is precedent here for the studio to find success through tuneful gothic melancholia.
Perhaps then, Phillips is playing the long game, waiting for Joker and Batman to settle into the same key and tempo sometime towards the end of the decade, after hero and villain have found themselves tumbling ever more ardently into mutual harmony through intervening, ever-encroaching episodes. It is an unlikely prospect – and yet five minutes ago, nobody would have put money either on Gaga and Phoenix serenading each other like madcap songbirds caught behind Arkham’s grimy prison bars. The DC superhero universe may be confusing and tonally mercurial, but in Phillips’ and Reeves’ hands there is an arthouse nuttiness to it that is at least unexpected, adventurous and rousing.