It seemed like such a joke at first. In the summer of 2017, word broke that Warner Bros. Pictures was developing a standalone Joker origin movie with director Todd Phillips while still planning a continuing story with Jared Leto as the Joker from Suicide Squad. And then Joaquin Phoenix emerged as the lead, photos emerged of the production being shot, and fans started getting excited. Joker is coming out in October and the teaser released by the studio on Wednesday proved something key: this approach could work. But we also gleaned a few other things from the trailer and its very different take on the Clown Prince of Crime.
From the first second, the teaser shows that Joker will look different. The glossier color grading of films like Aquaman and the animated quality of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice have been replaced with an older aesthetic derived from the stripped-down crime dramas the studio produced in the 1970s. While still cleaner than Taxi Driver or Serpico, it is clear Phillips wants to invoke the rundown feel of New York captured in those films for his vision of Gotham City.
Of course, those WB-produced films achieved that look by simply going on location and shooting a city in decline, so Joker’s rundown Gotham will look a little artificial. Nonetheless, it still has a sense of place with real exteriors and a mundane-looking Arkham Asylum. While the Dark Knight trilogy tried the stripped-down approach, it never aimed for the 1970s level of grit seen Joker‘s subways and alleys. It definitely sets the film apart from Joker’s other cinematic appearances.
Reportedly, Phoenix lost 50 lbs. for the role. And as seen in certain shots of his back, the transformation is startling. A wiry Joker is not a new idea. That rendition of the character is all over the Batman: Arkham video game series and is a constant design choice in the comics with artists like Jim Aparo and Brian Bolland giving him impossible proportions. But in getting into this “fighting weight,” Phoenix’s whole face takes on the angular visage that artists in comics, animation, and games have been giving the character for decades.
It is probably why he so instantly looked the part in those early costume tests the studio released.
Of course, lanky proportions are not required when bringing the character to the screen as Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Heath Ledger proved. And once you add the suit into the mix, the actor’s dedication to a skinny body gets lost under layers of clothing. Nonetheless, Phoenix’s commitment to changing himself into that classic Joker body is commendable. At the same time, we hope he’s enjoyed a good meal or two since production wrapped.
As the landmark graphic novel The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Bolland established, the Joker is unknowable — even to himself. Part of what makes him Batman’s nemesis is the lack of a simple motivation or even a genuine history. In the 1989 Batman, the character receives an origin as a Gotham City mob enforcer who only turns to theatrics when his boss betrays him and Batman lets him fall into a vat of chemicals. In The Dark Knight, he arrives in town fully formed, but we learn almost nothing about him. This approach was lauded because it skews so close to the comics: the Joker is a force of nature.
But now we have Arthur Fleck.
In one of the most critical departures from the established comic book canon, Joker sets out to give him a relatable and concrete history. He’s a failed comedian, down on his luck and, as the shot of his notebook reveals, suffering from some sort of mental illness.
We also see him being good to his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), and having a genuine moment with Zazie Beetz’s Sophie. Also, we witness him getting kicked to the curb a lot by Gotham scum of both the blue- and white-collar varieties. The end result is a Joker who is knowable and, ultimately, relatable. He has to be if he is the protagonist of the story. But in doing so, the movie opens up the possibility of the character being viewed as a hero, a thematic choice it must apply carefully and consciously position for its tragic consequences.
At one point, rumors surfaced indicating that Alec Baldwin would play a version of Thomas Wayne more akin to a certain publicity-hungry 1980s land developer than the caring patron of the city we usually see. Considering Baldwin is known for playing a parody of that land developer, the casting suggested the film might have a broader tone than the one we are seeing in the teaser.
And to that end, the preview offers a glimpse of Thomas Wayne. Played by The Dark Knight Rises veteran Brett Cullen, we see Bruce’s father is more than happy to appear on TV and decry the latest string of Gotham City calamities. Of course, his key statement — “What kind of coward would do so something that cold-blooded? Someone who hides behind a mask.” — is an obvious joke about the Batman, but the overall context of his morning talk show appearance is clear.
But it is also clear Wayne will be a little more nuanced than the broad caricature some may have expected during Baldwin’s very brief association with the project. In fact, the tone of the film as presented in the teaser is a far cry from anything one might have expected from The Hangover director Phillips. The apparent seriousness on display, ironically, makes it all the more compelling.
At the same time, Phillips is not forgetting his comedy roots. In fact, the film seems to derive a lot of its soul from Martin Scorsese’s 1982 film, The King of Comedy. In it, Robert De Niro plays a sad-sack, failed comedian whose obsession with a Johnny Carson-esque late-night talk show host (Jerry Lewis) leads to kidnapping and, surprisingly, the character’s best chance at stardom.
De Niro’s one appearance in the teaser in front of a multi-colored curtain — a la Carson’s monologue backdrop in the 1970s and early 1980s — invokes the look and tone of King of Comedy. The parallel is pointed and no doubt one of the film’s early selling points. Getting De Niro to essentially play the Lewis role gives the film a very different association from its comic-book trappings.
Also consider the banner for Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times seen in the trailer. That film is a comedy classic with a number of pointed comments about the workaday world crushing the little guy. Sure, Joker is still a comic book movie, but it is pulling ideas and influences from a wide array of sources.
The fact most of these sources are ultimately owned by WarnerMedia may even be a joke in itself.
Joker is in theaters October 4, 2019