“I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize it is a comedy.”
It’s a fine line between creating a sympathetic villain and justifying the behavior of a serial killer or mass murderer and the first teaser trailer for Todd Phillips’ Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix ever so treacherously walks the line.
No doubt the Joker is one of media’s most lauded villains; a brightly colored, maniacal foil to Batman’s brooding darkness and misery. They’re the opposite sides of the same coin; Batman internalizes his trauma and fights crime, the Joker externalizes his and commits it. Both provide extremely fictional outlets for toxic masculinity at its worst but do they also provide inroads that celebrate it?
The approach with the R-rated Joker, highlighted here more than I’ve ever seen before, is the emphasis on extreme mental illness after being constantly ridiculed and bullied. That, and living with and taking care of his mother, bathing her, being told to ‘smile’ (ironically something women are constantly being told by men – the trailer is set to Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” who is also a feature in the film). The teaser makes allusions to Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and indeed, Robert De Niro, who starred as Rupert Pupkin in that tragio-comedy, appears briefly here (as late night talk show host) but it’s hard not to make more contemporary allusions to the increased domestic terrorism of white male mass murderers in the US. Where will Phillips and co-screenwriter Scott Silver (8 Mile, The Fighter) land in this examination? In this brief two and a half minutes it would seem that they want to at least try and address it directly instead of burying trauma.
“The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t”
The DC universe in film has largely been dictated by films drenched in Zack Snyder’s macho darkness, desperate to be taken super seriously and devoid of nuance. Recent efforts though, from Wonder Woman to Aquaman to the upcoming Shazam, it seems like they’re taking a cue from the successful Marvel series of superheros and villians by injecting a bit of light and healthier dose of levity. It’s hard to know where Phillips, known for the blockbuster Hangover comedies, is going to go with Joker. As I said above, it seems to be walking a very fine line between both worlds; a proper metaphor for a character suffering from a psychotic break that tears him into two distinct people.
As the Joker, Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix, garishly thin in true Christian Bale style, is an eerily perfect choice. It might feel a bit redundant after having just starred in the masterful You Were Never Really Here, with his Taxi Driver-esque hammer-wielding avenger from Lynne Ramsay last year. He seems to be channeling a handful of influences that have loftier goals than what we’ve seen from DC comics films before.
Joker is directed by Todd Phillips and also stars Brian Tyree Henry and Zazie Beetz. Warner Bros. will release the film on October 4th.