Everyone has their favorites and personal opinions. But if you ask just about anyone, the common consensus is nearly unanimous: Heath Ledger has given us the greatest performance as the legendary and menacing comic book villain, the Joker, to date.
Since his Oscar-winning portrayal in 2008’s “The Dark Knight," we have seen many incarnations in DC Comics’ animated full-length features. Another Oscar-winner in Jared Leto took a stab at the role on the big screen. We’ve even seen a different sort of origin story told on Fox’s Batman-prequel TV series “Gotham," played by Cameron Monaghan.
But much to the dismay of fans and critics alike, none of these Jokers made nearly as large of an impact on pop culture and society as Ledger’s incarnation did: a self-described “agent of chaos." But now there is a new clown in town … and he’s making things interesting.
On Wednesday morning, April 3, comic book and movie fans were delighted when they woke up to a gift. Hopping online, there was the premiere trailer for “Joker" from director Todd Phillips (“The Hangover” trilogy) and starring Oscar-nominee Joaquin Phoenix as the Clown Prince of Crime.
A departure from the traditional origin story, this character has a known name: Arthur Fleck. Reportedly set in 1981, Fleck appears to be a poor, perhaps mentally unstable and a failed stand-up comedian. Shown being picked on, beaten up or generally forgotten about by society, it’s easy for the viewer to feel an enormous amount of sympathy for someone that appears to inherently be a decent human being.
But soon, enough is enough, inciting Fleck to begin committing violent crimes in Gotham City, presumably taking his place as the fabled Joker and eventually becoming the arch-nemesis of Batman.
Co-starring is the incomparable Robert De Niro, shown in the trailer as a Gotham City talk show host. Veteran actor Brett Cullen has been cast as Thomas Wayne, the father of Bruce Wayne who is of course the alter-ego of Batman.
Both De Niro and Cullen’s characters reportedly will play some role in the fall of Fleck and rise of The Joker, which should make for quite the dramatic turn of events.
Director Todd Phillips and crew have already shown an attention and faithfulness to certain source material, paying homage to different pieces from a variety of storylines created about the Joker by DC over the past century.
Even the name of the institution shown briefly in the trailer called 'Arkham’ should be enough to put a smile on any "Batman" fan’s face. The plot of “Joker” is loosely based on a popular alternate storyline called “The Killing Joke," where the character is depicted coming from similar beginnings that Arthur Fleck appears to come from in the new movie.
However, judging from the trailer, this is clearly something far different than we’ve ever seen before from any filmmaker taking on the enormously difficult endeavor of creating a superhero or comic book motion picture in the modern age.
The challenge is to make a movie that will resonate with a large enough audience to be labeled a success, while also maintaining some sense of artistic liberty and creative license in order to stand apart from anything else like it. Phillips seems to have created a version that will be both unique, yet impactful and memorable. The humanization and sad nature which the troubled Fleck brings to the Joker character is indicative of this.
We feel happy for Arthur that he appears to have a loving relationship with his mother, whom he takes care of. We feel bad for him when he is shown failing or being thrown down. We also might be disturbed by his awkwardness and unusual displays of both laughing and expressing pain.
This drastically darker, brilliantly realistic representation of an unsympathetic society versus a beaten down, troubled man is sure to send the audience into a sort of spiral, where we may agree with Fleck’s actions and turn into The Joker, as insane as the methods he uses are sure to be.
One of the more extreme method actors alive and working today, few are willing to commit to a role quite like Joaquin Phoenix does. He has drastically altered his weight, lost or grown body hair and taken on a wide variety of roles in different genres. The trailer presents a severely slimmed down Phoenix with longer, oily and often poorly-kept hair.
The technique he uses to manipulate his face, body and back, contorting as he sits in his dark, dingy room makes the viewer feel squirm in their seat, if nothing else making the audience feel as uncomfortable as Arthur might feel all the time. His awkward, high-pitched and whimsical laughs are like that of an innocent child yet send shivers down one’s spine.
Phoenix has received favorable reviews in most of the films he has been cast in, as well as garnering Academy Award nominations for his performances in “Gladiator," “Walk the Line” and “The Master." His masterful acting is put on display yet again just in this brief but chilling first trailer.
These one-off stories with no planned sequels or follow-ups will allow filmmakers the freedom to create movies that aren't beholden to the continuity of the larger DC cinematic universe already established with films like “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” or “Wonder Woman." The sub-franchise will have a darker tone, perhaps even stretching the content of their films to earn an R-rating.
“Joker” will be released in theaters on Oct 4. It will mark the third DC Films' movie released within a year of each other, following 2018’s smash hit “Aquaman” and this month’s highly anticipated “Shazam!”
John Everman is an arts editor for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.