Many Batman fans argue the Joker shouldn’t have an origin story. To them, the lingering mystery behind this villain’s past and motivations is more compelling than any reveal ever could be. But like it or not, the Clown Prince of Crime is getting a brand new origin story this October thanks to DC’s Joker movie from director Todd Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix.
The first trailer for Joker gives us a better idea of both the tone of the film and the take that Phillips and Phoenix are applying to the character. And if there’s one takeaway from this early footage, it’s that this version of Joker is a whole lot like Batman.
Historically, Joker has never had one consistent origin story. Sometimes he’s portrayed as a struggling comedian and family man who loses everything. Other times he’s revealed to be a deadly gangster whose true bloodlust is unleashed when he becomes the Joker. The one constant in these origin stories is that there’s usually a single catalyst that transforms an ordinary man into Gotham City’s worst nightmare. A man falls into that pot of acid, and a monster comes out the other side.
This new movie seems to be veering in a very different direction, however. There’s no indication that Joker will follow the traditional origin story. There’s no Red Hood disguise. No chemical vat. Even the fact that Bruce Wayne is still a young boy in this DC Universe and not an adult crime-fighter is a pretty significant change.
Judging from this trailer, it appears Phillips is essentially making the Joker equivalent of Batman: Year One. That seminal origin story explored what happened when Bruce Wayne returned to Gotham after years of wandering the globe and training himself to become the ultimate crimefighter. But rather than return to his city as a fully formed superhero, Bruce still had a few hurdles to overcome. He didn’t know how to channel his skills into something meaningful. He hadn’t yet arrived at the notion of dressing like a bat and striking fear into the hearts of criminals. And even after donning the Batman costume, Bruce still has a lot to learn.
That appears to be the same struggle Arthur Fleck is undergoing in this movie. He too seems to be a man convinced that a grand destiny lies before him but with no way of realizing his ambitions. The trailer paints the portrait of a lonely man raised to believe it’s his destiny to make the world laugh, yet who finds nothing but rejection and contempt wherever he turns. There’s a dark side that’s been festering for years, just as Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma eventually births the Batman. But just as Bruce required years of training and soul-searching before becoming Batman, Arthur has a long journey before his vision of the Joker truly takes shape.
The trailer alone is enough to showcase the nuance Phoenix is bringing to the role. As Arthur Fleck, Phoenix is withdrawn and isolated, clearly a man trying to make his way through the world while making as few ripples as possible. In clown form, Phoenix is more liberated and confident. We can see in this footage how Arthur continues to refine his Joker costume and how he grows steadily more dangerous and unhinged as his creation begins to consume him. This Joker isn’t the inhuman force of nature he eventually becomes. Instead, he’s more a creepy loner workshopping his performance art.
In that way, Batman and Joker are becoming more alike than ever. Batman wasn’t born overnight. He was an idea that began with the deaths of the Waynes and took time and training to become reality. That’s the same for the Joker in this origin movie. Only through trial and error and practice can Arthur Fleck perfect his ultimate creation. Like Bruce Wayne becoming Batman, Arthur Fleck invents a mask and then wears it until the day comes when it’s no longer possible to separate the man from the mask. Look at this line in the trailer: “What kind of coward would do something that cold-blooded than someone who hides behind a mask?” Are they talking about Batman… or Joker?
In another classic graphic novel, Batman: The Killing Joke, Joker insists that it only takes “one bad day” to drive an ordinary person to madness and create a new Joker. But in the Joker movie, it turns out that’s not the case at all.