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Joaquin Phoenix Was Almost Cast As The Red Skull - Exclusive

With the release of this fall's Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix, we'll see the debut of the latest theatrical take on one of the most iconic comic book supervillains ever created. But — believe it or not — it turns out that Phoenix could've been cast in the role of a completely different legendary bad guy for Marvel, not DC.

That's the word according to Charlie Wen, former head of visual development for Marvel Studios, and the guy who led the team in charge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's whole design. It wasn't too long ago that Wen filled us in on how Aquaman star Jason Momoa almost joined the MCU as Drax the Destroyer. Meanwhile, it's no secret that Phoenix famously turned down the role of Doctor Strange back in 2014 — a part that eventually went to Benedict Cumberbatch. But before that, apparently Joaquin Phoenix was also one of the Hollywood A-listers to audition for the role of the Red Skull in 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger.

According to Wen, who tells us that he "created a couple versions of Phoenix in the role," the actor "definitely could have added a quirky/creepy feel to Red Skull."

If you're wondering about just what Phoenix as the Red Skull would've looked like — at least while the comic book villain still wore his human skin — look no further than the exclusive concept art Wen provided to Looper.

One thing that stands out in this concept image immediately is Phoenix's youth — about 14 years younger than Hugo Weaving, Phoenix as the Red Skull would've been much closer in age to Chris Evans' Captain America. Would a closer age gap have made a difference in how it felt to watch Captain America beat up the Red Skull? Does the Red Skull need to be older and have a claim on more wisdom and experience than Cap to be more convincingly threatening? Maybe! Then again... maybe not!

But more important than all that, it's not hard to see that Wen captured Phoenix's quiet intensity pretty easily in his mock-up. The look in his eyes clearly communicates the kind of authoritarian lunacy that can only radiate off of the leader of HYDRA. It's really fun to imagine how Phoenix's hyper-focused take on the Red Skull might've affected the overall film. However, Wen points out that such an intense villain might not have actually served the film very well as a whole.

"I think he would probably have stood out more than was called for in that role," said Wen. "Hugo [Weaving], on the other hand, brought out a Red Skull that was pretty much just right for the story at the time — and for where Marvel was in that point in the MCU, one that isn't making too large of a statement for the role."

That makes sense, when you think about it. Captain America: The First Avenger is a period piece, an origin story, a family-friendly war movie, an adventure film, and a set-up for one of the biggest crossover films — the Avengers — ever made up to that point. Weaving's turn as a coolly evil supervillain slots in perfectly, providing just enough bad guy charm to keep things moving along, and never distracting too much from the movie's various missions. Meanwhile, Joaquin Phoenix could've very well stolen the show. That'd be great for Phoenix, but maybe not so awesome for The Avengers, which needed to have audiences already rooting for Captain America by the time he first shows up on screen in the modern age.

So while we could mourn the Red Skull we never got, we might be better off getting excited for the Joker we will have by the end of the year. With just a few photos and one trailer, Joaquin Phoenix's Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, has gotten tons of fans buzzing. Poke around on the internet for just a few minutes, and you'll see no shortage of hot takes saying that Phoenix's Joker has the potential to outshine even Heath Ledger's legendary turn as the villain.

Wen, for his part, agrees.

"The world of the Dark Knight has been established as a much darker take on comic book storytelling — and again, one that is perfect for both Batman and the Joker. Phoenix is one of the few A-list actors that I can see possibly living up to the iconic Joker that Heath Ledger gave us."

Overall, Wen thinks the world is much better off with Phoenix putting his stamp on the Joker, explaining, "I think he's perfect for the current Joker film that he's in. He's such a fantastic character actor."

You can follow Charlie Wen on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.