‘Joker’ Breaks the Superhero Mold

Warner Bros. has a three-step plan for reinventing superhero movies.

1. Cast an exceedingly creepy actor.
2. Hire a director whose only good movies are decade-old comedies.
3. Don’t include any heroes at all.

And based on the trailer, at least, it’s working.

Joker stars a gaunt Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, the man who over the course of the movie becomes the titular Batman supervillain. Joker’s directed by Todd Phillips of Hangover fame, and comes just a short few years after Jared Leto polarized audiences with his interpretation of the clown prince of crime in Suicide Squad.

Joker was announced while Suicide Squad was in production. Questions naturally arose. Would audiences accept a new Joker so soon? Could Old School director Phillips handle a full-on drama, particularly after his lackluster arms dealer bro movie War Dogs?

But after seeing Phoenix stagger through gritty urbane streets and hearing his creepy laugh, we’re hopeful. The new question is whether the actual movie can surpass its trailer.

Phoenix is ideal for Fleck, a social outcast frustrated with society and his increasingly small place in it. His performance, which seems deeply indebted to Alan Moore’s classic Batman story “The Killing Joke,” is haunting, even in a short trailer. And it’s clear what’s different about this Joker: he’s sympathetic. It’s an odd choice for a supervillain, but it’s at least original.

Most superhero movies aren’t realistic. You’re required to suspend a fair amount of disbelief about heroes and villains and whether any of this could actually happen. But the most haunting part of Joker is that it seems all too realistic. Fleck is literally beaten and broken down, both by actual bullies and the pressure of life—working menial jobs, struggling through therapy, failing at stand-up comedy and caring for his ailing mother. Before long it all gets to him, and we get a hint at what his weirdo rage turned inward can produce. “Is it me,” Fleck wonders, “or is it getting crazier out there?” By the end of the trailer, the answer is clear.