The first trailer for director Todd Phillips' Joker already paints a more nuanced, emotionally complex film than any of the others on Warner Bros.' DC slate. It's shaping up as a mature dive into the frail psyche of the human mind, far removed from traditional superheroes and supervillains. But apart from the tone, the footage signals that the studio has indeed discovered a way to solve the problems that plagued early installments of the so-called DC Extended Universe (DCEU).
Not many fans likely predicted a Joker solo film would be offered as a solution to the DC movie conundrum, especially an origin story. Yet here we are, likely for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the DC film slate isn't prioritizing a shared universe anymore, instead focusing on character-driven stories, whether they're set within the continuity Zack Snyder laid down or not. When the DCEU movies stand on their own, they hit the mark, as seen with Wonder Woman, Aquaman and now, Shazam!, but when the studio tries to force the pieces together, as with Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad and of course, Justice League, it doesn't resonate.
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That is why it made perfect sense to move away from this formula; i.e., trying to copy the Marvel Cinematic Universe's formula, but in reverse. Joker is the best example of moving away from this mentality, and instead opting to stick to what makes the character tick. And so far, Joaquin Phoenix looks dead-set on using anarchy in a personal mission: Revenge on society.
In so doing, Phillips basically provides a course correction for the grill-wearing, tattoo-sporting Joker that Jared Leto gave us, and punctuates how much DC is now intent on substance over style and getting to the core essence of its characters. This is something Snyder lacked for many fans, evidenced by a more aggressive Superman and a Batman who was willing to kill, which ultimately alienated a portion of the audience.
The DCEU has since slowly shifted away by registering character-first stories connected to the warmth of Wonder Woman, the humanity of Aquaman, the innocence of Shazam and now, the despair of Phoenix's Arthur Fleck. This streamlined approach was first touted by former Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara, who admitted they made a mistake starting with ensemble films first and walking before they could crawl. In fact, from the successful movies we've seen, the best formula seems to be no formula.
Marvel Studios started building from the ground up and established uniformity, with all films looking and feeling relatively the same. Sure, the action, drama and comedy fluctuates from movie to movie, but each thread is part of one massive tapestry. DC didn't have this foundation, so the best bet is to build new houses on new acreage. This is what allows the likes of Phillips to take a dark, comedic approach to the Joker, and not give us a "Hot Topic gangster," as some fans have called the character in David Ayer's Suicide Squad. It also creates room for Matt Reeves to tell true detective stories and criminal procedurals with the Batman, not constrained by a bigger universe.
This filmmaker-first, unconfined approach allows the DCEU to truly differentiate itself as well, with movies unbound and uninfluenced by one other. So far, the tones and even the visual aesthetic of all the DCEU's winners stand out from each other -- Wonder Woman as a period piece, Aquaman as a CGI aquatic blast, and Shazam! as a mystical run through Philly. Such a strategy enables properties to be their own thing, which is what Margot Robbie's team also wants to do with the Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). In other words, it's about these properties being themselves, independent and free. This is what Joker is clearly doing, with Phillips unraveling his mind, and bathing him in misery, murder and chaos on his own for 90 minutes; something unimaginable in a typical Batman flick.
It's worth nothing that Joker was rumored to be part of a separate film line, similar to the recent Black Label comics at DC, which would breathe life into mature and R-rated projects. That hasn't happened yet, but this film clearly is meant to start an Elseworlds movement. It's sort of like the Christopher Nolan method, but one where DC can take liberty and tell stories with other versions of the character, simply for the sake of good storytelling.
Without limits and rules, Warner Bros. can use the Joker formula and even bring the likes of Superman: Red Son or unconventional one-shots to life, as opposed to property meant to be part of some big "event." But most of all, what Joker's projected fanfare will highlight that the right thing to do was bring it all back to basics, where character comes first, then story and spectacle. Once the studio nails this, everything will fall into place, as we're seeing so far from the glimpses we've had into the descent of poor old Arthur Fleck.
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Marc Maron, Josh Pais, and Shea Whigham. The film arrives in theaters Oct. 4.