The Comic Horror Behind the 'Joker' Trailer

The Joaquin Phoenix film is a result of our collective fascination with villains and how they came to be.

Time to put on a happy face. Following Tuesday's CinemaCon panel, Warner Bros. has released the first teaser for Todd Phillips’ Joker online. Continuing the streak of Oscar-caliber actors taking on the iconic role of the Clown Prince of Crime, Joaquin Phoenix dons the grease paint and green hair. Joker is yet another departure for Warner Bros.' DC films, taking an “Elseworlds” out-of-continuity approach that separates Phillips’ film from the rest of the cinematic universe. This separation also adds an element of freedom for Phillips, Phoenix and co., in that they don’t have to worry about franchise expectations and fitting their aesthetic for Gotham into what’s already been established. In other words, Joker’s wild.

The Martin Scorsese influence in the teaser is unmistakable. Scorsese, who was once set to executive produce the film, is as equally an important reference point for Joker as the comics themselves. Blending elements of Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982), Joker follows Arthur Fleck’s steady descent into madness as he evolves into one of our most iconic villains. Phoenix, with his crooked posture, jagged features and discontentment with the state of his life, cuts a startling portrait of a man at the end of his rope. A tragic figure caught in a storm of psychosis. It’s a familiar New York story, but this is Gotham City, and as much as Scorsese’s New York appears to be in this film’s bones, the world of comics is clearly bleeding into Joker.

While the film is sure to be given the label of grounded realism, at least from this first teaser, Phillips looks to be employing the kind of fascinating logic that can only truly exist in a comic book world. Ultimately, what we’re looking at isn’t a man who simply snaps, in all the ways we’ve seen men snap in this world, but a man who snaps and decides the best way forward is to become a clown. This gesture has as much symbolic purpose as Bruce Wayne’s equally mad and implausible decision to become the Batman. While this isn’t a Batman film, Phillips is using a cinematic language similar to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and twists it. This cinematic language isn’t just in terms of the filmmakers’ affinity for crime directors, Nolan with Michael Mann’s influence and Phillips with Scorsese’s, but also in terms of how these filmmakers are utilizing comic book mythos and dragging them a bit closer to our reality.

We frequently discuss Batman and the Joker being mirror images of one another, and this discussion usually occurs when the two are pitted against each other in the same story. But Joker stripped of Batman still manages to be a reflection that we can see clearly, simply because of how familiar audiences are with the characters. The clown and the bat are both symbols that inspire within these comic influenced worlds. Just as Batman saw copycats and those who would dress up in similar costumes and deal their own form of vigilante justice in The Dark Knight (2008), Joker showcases the antithesis of that with Gotham’s citizens dressing up as clowns and wreaking havoc. Even in the absence of Batman, Joker remains in conversation with the character, and there’s no frame in the teaser that highlights this more than the chilling moment when Joker forces a young Bruce Wayne to smile.

There’s level of serious silliness in Phoenix’s portrayal, and the majestic squalor of Gotham that makes Joker seem distinct from other comic book movies, musical even in its theatrical sense of reality that undoubtedly stems from the perspective of its central character. But there’s a fear, not entirely unwarranted, that such a centralized perspective and unbroken look inside of the mind of one of comic’s most enigmatic villains will break the character. The idea of making the Joker the protagonist of his own film is perhaps just as odd a decision as giving the Joker an origin story, yet there’s a precedent for both in the comics.

While the idea that the Joker doesn’t have a true origin story is a fascinating character trait that’s been developed over the years, inspiring and inspired by Joker’s line in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” In film, Nolan’s The Dark Knight utilized this idea best with Heath Ledger’s Joker telling multiple stories behind his scars. But in both comics and film, Joker has had numerous origin stories: a failed stand-up comedian pushed into crime (and a vat of acid) after trying provide for his family, a bank robber, a criminal mastermind named The Red Hood, an abused child, the culprit behind the Waynes’ deaths and even an ancient immortal being. While many of these origin stories have been folded into the idea of multiple-choice backstories, almost as many were at one time or another offered up to readers as a definitive backstory. Phillips’ film doesn’t break the idea behind the mystery of the Joker’s origin, rather it simply adds another tale to our collection of choices if we recognize that film and comics aren’t entirely separate mediums in terms of their influence, but storytelling vehicles that often brush against each other.

As for making the Joker a protagonist, a character with whom audiences empathize and possibly side with, well this isn’t any different from the way we’ve always treated cinematic and comic book villains. From Dracula, Darth Vader, Scarface and Hannibal Lecter, audiences have always had an interest in following the bad guys, and even rooting for them despite the fact that it goes against our moral fiber. The argument could even be made that Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) was far more interested in Jack Nicholson’s Joker as a protagonist than Michael Keaton’s Batman. And in the comic books, the reception is often the same whenever the Joker shows up. He tends to dominate attention. We want to see what he does next, and witness exploits no matter how heinous. Comic readers have long made villains into protagonists, take Joker’s one-time sidekick Harley Quinn as a modern example. We can even go back to 1975 and look at the Joker’s short-lived solo series as an example of how often we let villains take the lead in our stories. The Joker becoming the protagonist of a movie didn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, it’s been a long time coming and whether we knew it or not, it’s what we’ve been asking for.

Yes, Joker looks dark, sad and perhaps even a little disturbing. It appears to be a different type of comic book film than what we’ve seen before, but it’s not unprecedented. Joker is a result of our fascination with villains and how they came to be, and our familiarity with the Batman mythos. It’s a film that, if it works, will work because it’s part of a conversation we’ve been having for a long time. This is the punchline.