Warner Bros recently unveiled the first trailer of Todd Phillips’ upcoming comic-book film Joker. Starring Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role, Joker is said to be a one-shot film, disconnected from other DC films.
In fact, it is a far cry from most modern comic-book films in that it is, first and foremost, a character study. So, no CGI heavy climax here. No spandex clad people saving the world from outer space monsters. Joker traces the descent of a man into madness, due to circumstances (we do not know the real reason, though we do see him getting bullied).
Apart from Taxi Driver (Robert De Niro also stars in the Joker and Scorsese has executive producer credit), Joker clearly draws inspiration from Alan Moore’s remarkable and controversial graphic novel called The Killing Joker, which is often said to be the definitive tale of Joker’s origin in DC Comics.
But for the most part, Joker has not had any origin. That is part of the character’s allure. Take for example Heath Ledger’s Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Nolan deliberately made him recount wildly different stories of how he got those scars to different people to hammer home the point that he was just an agent of chaos.
Explaining his backstory and things like how his face was disfigured and how he went mad, and so on, would have been counter-productive. The Joker was an unstoppable force (as he says at one point), and not simply a man. Can something as primal as a force have an origin?
He did evil things because it was fun for him. Nobody had wronged him. Nobody had bullied him. Yes, he spoke extensively about how corrupt the ‘society’ and ‘system’ are but he did not become a monster because of that. He thought he was above everything. Sure, we can guess that something must have happened to Joker that transformed him into a nihilistic criminal mastermind from an average Joe, but that is precisely the point. The enigma associated with Joker was one of the things that made him such a frightening villain.
Phillips’ Joker, however, is doing exactly the opposite. It is basically refuting Ledger’s version. The raison d’être of Joker in most stories – Batman, does not exist in the film (though there is reportedly a young Bruce Wayne).
Arthur Fleck (which is what Joker’s true identity is in the film) starts out as a stand-up comedian before going insane (De Niro’s talk show host is said to be instrumental in that) and turning to crime. We do not know what exactly is the reason he embraces insanity. We do have clues — the bullying, for example — but they are likely just the stepping stones into his gradual descent into the cave of lunacy. Did he have that one bad day?
While it is Joaquin Phoenix we are talking about and the trailer looks slick, dark and promises a deep examination of what goes inside the mind of Joker (a person who is thoroughly insane and at the same time devilishly smart), I am still sceptical as to whether it will end up rationalising the actions of a psychotic killer. Not everybody who lives a lousy life begins to terrorise and kill people, after all.
Also, the synopsis of the film, weirdly, calls this film a “cautionary tale.”
Joker releases on October 4.