'Joker' and the Comic Horror of the New Trailer

The film looks to transform a character audiences have learned to love into one they’ll learn to fear.

We are all clowns. At least that’s what the latest trailer for Warner Bros.' Joker tells us. Directed by Todd Phillips, the film examines the popular DC Comics villain within the constraints of a world without superheroes, an early '80s Gotham City not entirely dissimilar from the New York of the late '70s and '80s presented by Martin Scorsese. For months we’ve heard about the film’s inspiration from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982), and while those allusions are still clear in the latest trailer, Joker also appears to be something more. Within Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, which promises to be a tour de force from the acclaimed actor, there’s an chilling edge, one that the R-rated film will likely cross. Joker appears to be more than a crime thriller in the vein of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. With its promised descent into madness and interest in holding a mirror up to society, Joker appears to be, at its heart, a horror movie.

There’s always been something more frightening about the Joker than other supervillains. Perhaps it’s because the character has his origins in horror, the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs, from which co-creator Bill Finger drew inspiration. The pale skin and the rigor mortis grin all create a portrait of death rather than the vitality commonly associated with red-cheeked clowns. The Joker, along with It's Pennywise, have helped contribute to the idea that clowns are something to fear, though that reservation has likely existed long before that. Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger, and Jared Leto have all brought out various levels of horror to the character. But audiences were always kept at a distance from them, never drawn too close into their sphere of madness. It’s the contract that allowed us to see the Joker as an entertaining supervillain, who would ultimately be defeated. But with Phoenix’s Joker, we’re being brought up close, past the do not cross line and into the cage where no superheroic idealism can save us. That’s the bleak space of horror.

While it’s easy to consider Joker within the context of Scorsese, because we’ve been encouraged to do so by the filmmakers and the casting of Robert De Niro in Rupert Pupkin-type role, it’s also worth noting that the film is coming at a time when the term “social horror” is more popular than ever, and film fans are looking at both past and contemporary horror films to examine how they reflect the cultural fears of the time. While there’s long been an idea that Joker works best because we don’t know his real origin, and because his time in the spotlight is limited, the notion that may not be the case is perhaps a more frightening, and relevant, reality. Joker’s October release date doesn’t just seem to be an awards season strategy, but a confirmation of its bid at nightmare fuel, transforming a character audiences have learned to love into one they’ll learn to fear.

Joker seems interested in looking at the horrors born of men who consider themselves outsiders, social pariahs, and blame the failure of their careers on others. While this aspect of the film will undoubtedly prove controversial given the current climate, it’s also true that there are few things more frightening than that current climate of extremist viewpoints and the desperate need for attention and gratification. In this way Phoenix’s Joker feels more dangerous than the character has ever been, because he’s not a man who fell into a vat of chemicals, caught in a never-ending violent, love affair with a man dressed as a bat. He’s just an ordinary person who can’t escape his own bad thoughts and dark desires, not unlike Norman Bates, Jack Torrance or Annie Wilkes, who create dark fantasies in order to escape the realities of their own failures.

By taking a character like that and positioning them as our lead, are we supposed to sympathize with him? The latest trailer certainly gives us reasons why Arthur Fleck is rejected by his fellow citizens of Gotham, his comedic idol, and even his psychiatrist. Perhaps there is room to sympathize without ignoring the fact that the film may be a cautionary take against letting sympathy become empathy. “We are all clowns” feels far more like a warning than an invitation — a reflection of what happens if America’s worst impulses get the better of us. Although it seems the world is against Fleck, it also wouldn’t be surprising if that friction is only because he has pit himself against the world, like Bates, Torrance, Wilkes and other criminals of fiction and reality who inflict horror because they feel as though they are owed something.

“I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do,” Fleck says. Of all the films Joker seems to have the most in common with, it’s not one of Scorsese’s filmography. It’s Richard Attenborough’s Magic (1978). The film follows Corky (Anthony Hopkins), a failed magician/comedian, who finds success with a foul-mouthed ventriloquist dummy, Fats. As the film goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that Fats isn’t a performance mask, but Corky’s true self, his id he had bottled away. The film’s tragi-comic blend of horror feels equally as much of a precursor to Joker as The King of Comedy does. It appears as though Joker isn’t a guise for Fleck but a realization of who he’s always been. And the scary thing is, he doesn’t seem alone in that. Based on the costume clad and mask wearing denizens of Gotham, it would appear Jokerism is a larger symptom of a city only pretending at polite sanity.

More than imitation of a singular filmmaker, Joker seems to encompass an entire era, one that saw the decline of New Hollywood filmmaking and the seismic rise of the commercial horror film in popular culture. An era we’ve proven nostalgic for and are bound to imitate, even if it’s the worst parts of it. As one of the few, maybe only, comic book films that isn’t being set up to launch a franchise, Joker has the opportunity to take a risk and really look at the end result of what would happen if his kind of horror was not only unleashed, but embraced.