The First 'Joker' Trailer Has Dropped... It's Kinda Dark
The first trailer for the upcoming Joker film has arrived, delivering our first look at a project many had already written off sight unseen.
A standalone Joker film has been in the works since 2017. Announced in the wake of 2016's Suicide Squad, which saw Jared Leto playing a psychopathic gangster take on the iconic villain, the solo project is divorced from the loose continuity that links DC movies from Man of Steel to Shazam!. Instead, it's set in 1981, and appears far more grounded than the shared universe DC films. It also breaks a great taboo surrounding the Joker as a character: it gives him an origin.
The film sees Joaquin Phoenix as the future "Clown Prince of Crime", charting his journey from a struggling comedian and clown to the villain we know as the Joker. While his identity has always been unconfirmed in the original comics, here he is named as Arthur Fleck. Quiet and detached, he seems to have an unusually close relationship with his mother (Frances Conroy) – a rather unsubtle comparison to Norman Bates in the classic horror film Psycho.
Hitchcock allusions aside, the most immediate and striking point we can take from the trailer is that this is very much not a superhero-vs-supervillain movie, but rather the story of one man's descent into madness. Director Todd Phillips, who also co-wrote the script with 8 Mile writer Scott Silver, appears to be channeling the works of Martin Scorsese – no great surprise, given Scorsese was a co-producer on the film early in its development. The Joker trailer is shot as a moody character study, depicting Arthur's life as a pitiable figure, inevitably driven too far and losing himself in the alternate identity provided by his clown persona.
While Joker takes place in Gotham City, it's set years before Batman appears as the Caped Crusader. However, a young Bruce Wayne will play a part in the film (played by Dante Pereira-Olson, who also worked with Phoenix on 2017's You Were Never Really Here), glimpsed in the trailer playing games with Arthur, and his father Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is running for Gotham mayor. The trailer hints at a few other Gotham sights that place the film squarely in some form of the DC universe, such as the Arkham State Hospital – surely the future Arkham Asylum.
The film also appears to draw influence from various past incarnations of the Joker character. The final shots we see of Phoenix in the trailer have him in a suit blending comic book visuals with Jack Nicholson's appearance as the same character in 1989's Batman movie, while the frayed hair and sinister make-up evoke Heath Ledger's version from The Dark Knight. Another scene sees dozens of people dressed in clown masks, apparently in some sort of confrontation with police, perhaps hinting at a gang of henchmen for Joker, similar to what he had in the 1966 Batman TV show.
Possibly more interesting, though, is what the trailer doesn't show, which suggests changes from what little groundwork the comics have made official when it comes to the Joker’s backstory. In 1988's Batman: The Killing Joke, writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland established an origin for the Joker: that of a failed comedian roped into a criminal heist where he is known as the "Red Hood", before a confrontation with Batman sees him dive into a vat of chemicals that bleach his skin chalk-white. This itself was an adaptation of an even earlier story, yet there's no hint of the Red Hood identity or storyline in Phillips' film so far. Instead, we see Arthur deliberately dyeing his hair green, perhaps implying a greater sense of agency in his transformation into the Joker – a “becoming the villain” moment that darkly reflects the point in most superhero movies when the protagonist accepts their destiny.
Whatever else materialises in the final film, Phoenix looks to be delivering a powerful performance. His take on the character is already intensely sinister, including some very disturbing shots of his body contorting. The actor reportedly lost considerable amounts of weight for the role, giving his portrayal an unnatural and elongated presence. Couple that with shots of Phoenix pulling his face into the Joker's familiar and terrifying rictus grin (itself inspired by Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughed) and it's shaping up to be a film worth seeing for his involvement alone.
That said, for hardcore fans of the comics or the character in other media, the trailer doesn't do much to shake the feeling that this is a film that doesn't really need to exist. The great allure of the Joker is his unpredictability, his mercurial nature – and trying to nail down a definitive origin could undermine that appeal.
Yet perhaps the final film will reflect this. Snippets in the trailer that show Arthur in some kind of therapy and approaching the ominous Arkham already cast doubts on his sanity. If Phillips establishes the Joker as an unreliable narrator of his own story, that could result in a far more accurate version of the character than we've seen before.
Viewers will be able to decide for themselves when the full film opens in October 2019.