Who would have thought that a solo movie focusing on the Joker without a Batman in sight could look so compelling? Yet here we are with the first trailer for Todd Phillips’ Joker, a movie that exists somehere off to the side of the DCEU, and starring Joaquin Phoenix (not Jared Leto) as the Clown Prince of Crime. It’s not a superhero movie, it’s our first genuine supervillain movie, and it’s unlike anything we normally associate with comic book blockbusters.
If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it here…
The Origin of the Joker
Obviously, this movie is an origin story for the Joker. All we know is that it’s about Arthur Fleck “a man utterly disregarded by society” who finally reaches his breaking point. This seems to follow the “one bad day” idea, first put forth in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke (and later played with in an episode of Batman: The Animated Series), that all it takes is “one bad day” for someone to completely lose their way.
In any case, don’t expect Arthur Fleck to fall into a vat of chemicals in this movie. His transformation appears to be primarily a mental one. At least for now. That being said…
There’s something about the water hitting Arthur’s mother’s face and revealing a smile that seems like it foreshadows the Joker’s fate of taking a chemical bath that then reveals a permanent smile.
There are other hints of the Joker’s more traditional origin, such as this shot of him playing with a more “permanent” and deformed smile, or the brief glimpse of green hair dye dripping from his scalp, which, like the makeup running here, seems to tease the chemical permanence of his other origin stories.
Phoenix has nailed the Joker’s rail-thin frame, and throughout the trailer contorts his body into some disturbingly unnatural poses. Travis Bickle did pushups every day but it looks like it’s going to take all the king’s men to put it back together again for Joker.
The trailer plays with Arthur’s “clown evolution” throughout, and even though this still isn’t the most traditional Joker facepaint look, everything about Phoenix’s body language here, and in the dancing on the stairs, is a convincing embodiment of the character.
The Batman Connections
Even though this is a Joker movie, it’s steering clear of too many overt nods to Batman lore. Nevertheless, there are some big ones…
While pretty much every other page and screen version of Arkham Asylum has been gothic and ornate, a relic of horrific late 19th century approaches to mental health, this version appears even more frightening for its simple, foreboding functionality.
Like most things in this trailer, it’s the simplicity that makes it so effective. This isn’t a future Batman villain, it’s just an unfortunate soul likely about to spend an extended period of time in Arkham, forgotten by society and tortured by his own mind.
Travis Bickle knocked over his TV set in a scene from Taxi Driver. It was a minor accident, but a particularly crushing and yet defining moment. Life without television can do that to a person, whether they’re like other people or not.
The guy on the TV, however, appears to be Thomas Wayne, father of Bruce Wayne. Given how the previous two shots in the trailer show Arthur brandishing (and dancing with) a revolver, don’t be the least bit surprised if whatever grudge he has against authority manifests as a desire to assassinate Thomas Wayne (and his wife). If that’s the case, this is a nod to Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie, which was the first iteration of the Batman legend to make the Joker (known as Jack Napier there) the Wayne family’s killer, and the source of all of Batman’s frustration.
Throughout the trailer, there are signs of a class struggle and anti-capitalist sentiment boiling over in Gotham, so it’s easy to see why the Wayne family could become a target of frustration for the masses and perhaps a point of fixation for the future Joker.
Is it possible that, while stalking Thomas Wayne, Arthur also comes into contact with Bruce? At 1:47, we see the clown reaching out to a boy through the gates of what we have to assume is Wayne Manor. If so, it seems like the Joker has been trying to put a smile on Batman’s face for much longer than we thought…
Wayne Hall showing Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is significant, as it was a critique of the living conditions during the Great Depression. The roughly 1980s look of this movie could correspond to the recession that gripped the United States in the early ’80s.
Live action Batman adaptations of the last 30 years have taken one of two approaches, the gothic, overwrought, urban hellscape of Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynne Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns (the Burton/Schumacher era, Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the Gotham TV series), or the more realistic, often claustrophobic street level Gotham City of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One (a notable inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy Gotham City look). Joker is aggressively the latter, and this above shot, as well as the “Times Square” scenes, seem to pull quite a bit of inspiration from the grit and grime of Mazzucchelli’s art.
See what we mean? And then there are those Times Square vibes, which makes us think of…
Everything about this screams both that panel from Batman: Year One and, more aggressively, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Virtually everything in this photo is a relic, from the idea of Times Square as a seedy, run-down area, from the porno theater to the “typewriter repair shop.” It’s like an ode to failure, something that poor Arthur Fleck appears to be quite familiar with.
This, along with a lot of the tech and the models of cars in the film, seems to date the film roughly in the early to mid-1980s. Don’t give yourself a headache trying to figure out where this all fits into the DCEU timeline. You’re better off not worrying about it, as this probably exists outside of it all. And just in case those Taxi Driver vibes aren’t strong enough for you…
Arthur chasing a bunch of hoods across a busy intersection littered with old style yellow cabs (soon to be a relic themselves in the post-Uber/Lyft era) should drive that point home even further. Arthur gets repeatedly beaten up in the trailer, just like the other kids who picked on Rupert Pupkin at his high school in Clifton. They used to beat him up once a week, usually Tuesday, until the school worked it into the curriculum.
The framing of Phoenix’s Joker is reminiscent of De Niro’s frame in the poster from Taxi Driver, right down to the jacket.
“I believe that someone should become a person like other people.”
Travis Bickle, in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, kept a journal. The film itself was inspired by journal entries. The Joker’s diaries may not be like Bickle’s, but he’s not like other people either.
Warner Bros. keeps pushing this movie as a tragedy and watching Fleck’s tragically unfunny jokes become a scrawled plea for help is certainly tragic enough.
In Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, Paul Hackett gets to know Marcy Franklin over coffee in a diner. He finds out her husband, long gone now, had funny ways of his own. A lifelong fan of The Wizard of Oz, he’d scream “surrender Dorothy” at the point of orgasm during sex. Quite the joker. Paul and Marcy didn’t have to pay for the coffee. Different rules apply after hours.
It also looks like the place where Travis Bickle explained to Cybill Shepherd’s character it was time to “get organized” in Taxi Driver.
This is very reminiscent of Travis Bickle’s apartment (and look) in Taxi Driver. But it also looks like the apartment Jake LaMotta had on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx in Raging Bull.
Like Gotham’s Times Square stand-in, New York City’s subways haven’t looked like this in a long time. The beating Arthur endures at the hands of three finance bros here feels like a reversal of NYC’s infamous “subway vigilante” Bernie Goetz case. In December 1984, Goetz was threatened by three young men panhandling on the subway and, in a Taxi Driver-esque moment, pulled out a gun and shot them.
Arthur, on the other hand, takes his beating, and then apparently takes his frustrations out elsewhere.
But there are plenty of other Scorsese vibes in this trailer…
The King of Comedy
And now from Gotham City, the man we’ve all been waiting for. And waiting for. Would you welcome home please the legendary, inspirational, the one and only original Rupert Pupkin. Robert De Niro steals a gag from Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy. He’s playing a talk show host, much like Jerry Langford, the one played by Jerry Lewis. The “Jerry Langford Show” was based on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and the Joker really shines after hours.
The curtains on “The Jerry Langford Show” were purple, but the comedian’s favorite color was plaid. An entrance is an entrance.
Having Joker appear on a talk show like this is faintly reminiscent of The Dark Knight Returns, where a seemingly reformed Joker appears as a guest on “The David Endocrine Show.” It…doesn’t end well for the host, the guests, or the (formerly) live studio audience.
Perhaps Joker has something similar planned here. Minus the flying doll.
Joker’s blazer looks a lot like the kinds of loud suits Pupkin wore on “The Jerry Langford Show.”
“Buy this man a drink. Piss in it for me.” Rupert Pupkin wasn’t the only standup Scorsese, known for his wise guy movies, put on screen. Towards the end of Raging Bull, after the main rounds of Jake LaMotta’s boxing career went the distance, he took the mic to tell some jokes. LaMotta’s routine routinely turned into in-your-face putdowns because his jokes weren’t all that great. But his punch-lines were killers.
All that aside, the lighting in this seedy nightclub shot is so aggressively Scorsese that we half expected a Rolling Stones needle drop.
That is merely a joker on stage, not the Joker, but you can see the similarities, from the tall, skinny frame, to the louche posture, to the slicked-back hair and fondness for vests.
Here’s poor Rupert…ahem…we mean, Arthur, watching whoever it is up there. Phoenix’s mirthless, Joker laugh is 100% on point.
Whether this is Arthur actually taking the stage at Pogo’s, or a dream sequence remains to be seen.
Jake LaMotta practices his comedy routine in a mirror towards the end of Raging Bull. The scene allows De Niro to perform the “one-way ticket to Palookaville” scene Marlon Brando did in On the Waterfront.
Joker opens on Oct. 4. The full schedule of DC movies can be found here.