Thursday, April 04, 2019

"Joker": teaser trailer

I've been hearing the rumblings for the better part of a year, and now here we are: "Joker," an independent DC Comics story about the Batman's greatest nemesis, is a reality. The movie stars the super-talented Joaquin Phoenix, and it's made no secret of the fact that it's yet another origin story.

Having watched the teaser, I have mixed feelings about the movie's premise, which is to flesh out the Joker's background. I recall that Christopher Nolan, who directed what are arguably the three best movies of the pre-DCEU* era, said that his approach to the Joker in "The Dark Knight" was to make the villain an "absolute" character, which is to say, a character who is simply there, like a force of nature, with no back story to humanize him. And indeed, Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger's Joker was scary for precisely that reason: the character had a multiple-choice past (a nod to the influence of Alan Moore's classic short graphic novel The Killing Joke, in which the Joker claims he prefers his past to be multiple choice) coupled with inscrutable motives. Only Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred seemed to come close to an analysis of what made the Joker tick: "Some men just want to watch the world burn."

If you've seen the teaser embedded above, you may be in the grip of the same conundrum I'm in: Joaquin Phoenix is an undeniably talented actor, and this is an iconic role... but will this film go the route of humanizing the Joker? Making him understandable? Possibly even sympathetic? The Joker is part trickster, but he's also supernaturally** evil and murderous. Will a movie that tries to humanize him be like a movie that tries to humanize a mass murderer from the real world like Hitler or Stalin or Mao?

However, if we bounce this movie off The Killing Joke, we have to admit that Moore's graphic novel also makes the Joker at least a wee bit sympathetic. Remember the joke that the Joker tells the Batman at the end? Even more, Moore's story actually fleshes out who the Joker was before he became the Joker. So I have to ask myself: if I liked The Killing Joke—and I did—why wouldn't I like Phoenix's "Joker"? It could be that, somewhere along the way, I became a Nolan partisan, at least with regard to his first two Batman movies.

I'll try to keep an open mind about "Joker." I recall not being very impressed with Heath Ledger when the teasers for "The Dark Knight" first started appearing, but when I finally saw the movie in 2008, I was totally sold on Ledger's performance and on the story being told. Lightning could strike twice, I suppose; I could end up enamored of Phoenix's Joker and the story he's wrapped up in. I've been wrong, many times before, in my first impressions.

(One thing that does worry me is the teaser's focus on the Joker's mom. Phoenix recently did a film called "You Were Never Really Here," in which he played a character whose mother's murder significantly shifts the tenor of the plot. I'd hate to see a repeat of that storyline—with the same actor, but in a different film. That would be awkward.)

*DCEU = Detective Comics Expanded Universe, DC's answer to the MCU, i.e., the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is a tapestry of twenty-two films and counting.

**Even though Christopher Nolan was at pains not to go the gonzo route in portraying the Batman's world, the only way to explain the Joker's preternatural ability to set up Rube Goldberg traps for his victims is to bring in the supernatural, an aspect of the Joker that I think is strongly implied in Nolan's film.

1 comment:

Charles said...

And here I thought DCEU stood for "Dat Collapsing European Union."

In all seriousness, though, I'm not sure how I feel about this, either. The Joker is one of the most interesting manifestations of the trickster--or at least the chaotic, destructive, violent side of him--in pop culture; I think it would be doing him a disservice to attempt to explain his origins--that is, to put him in a neat box and say, "Here, this is exactly how someone becomes the Joker. We understand him now." The trailer does not give me any faith that this is not the case.