In the the latest take on the legend of Batman’s nemesis The Joker, actor Joaquin Phoenix reveals a disturbing shift from traumatized schlub to deranged sadist in the first unsettling trailer for Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. According to a report from Vox, the new film aims to take on the origin story of one of the favorite characters from DC, telling the story of how the woebegone Arthur Fleck came to be transformed into the unhinged and maniacal lord of chaos and laughter.
We start with a montage of Fleck ensconced in a dingy apartment with his elderly mother, bathing her, and then dancing with her in a moment that is somehow both endearing and disturbing. Adding to the sense of foreboding is that they are dancing in this grim, tiny apartment to the tune of “Smile,” the Charlie Chaplin song that was made famous by Nat King Cole in 1956.
Then Phoenix’s Fleck makes a go of making people smile in various jobs as a clown, but it doesn’t seem to go well for him, to say the least. Fleck then endures a series of beatings and humiliations as the cracks in his psyche appear to grow wider and more pronounced.
“My mother always tells me to smile and put on a happy face. Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”
In one particularly eerie moment, we see Phoenix stick his fingers in the corners of his mouth to stretch his face into the iconic Joker smile – then he later does the same move on a small boy through a wrought-iron gate.
Set in Gotham in the 1980s, the film is hoping to add some depth to the lunacy and sadistic nature of The Joker in the wake of his last big-screen appearance as portrayed by Jared Leto in 2016’s Suicide Squad. That performance was widely panned, and reportedly even the Warner Bros. Studio was less than pleased with Leto’s take on the villain.
Of course, following in the footsteps of superstar actors like Jack Nicholson in 1989’s Batman and Heath Ledger’s utter and ultimately tragic transformation into the role in 2008’s The Dark Knight couldn’t have been an easy task for Leto to take on, especially in a heavily criticized vehicle like Suicide Squad.
However, if the first trailer for Joker is an indication, Joaquin Phoenix and director Todd Phillips are likely to add depth and resonance to the character while still remaining true to it.
“I used to think my life was a tragedy,” says Fleck in a voiceover towards the end of the clip, as he fully takes on the form of the Joker.
“Now I realize it’s a comedy,” he adds.