On the heels of Suicide Squad and Venom comes Todd Phillips' Joker, the latest in Hollywood's love affair with solo comic book villain movies and the second to feature Batman's arch nemesis in three years. With names like Martin Scorcese and Robert De Niro attached -- and Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role -- expectations are high for Joker to be a comic book movie of substance. The film's recently released first trailer, brimming with grins and grit, certainly enforces this assumption.
While reception has been mainly positive, one particular reservation remains, one that has been there since the film was first announced. As fans familiar with Batman lore will tell you, giving the Joker a fixed origin story goes against what’s come to be considered a fundamental conceit of the character -- in that he has none. A big part of the Joker's appeal is that, as an agent of chaos, he’s defined by indefinability, which is made possible by open-ended comic book storytelling, even possibly by television, but not by singular films. In a genre that prizes origin stories as key building blocks in its storytelling, the Joker's refusal to be pinned down to any one starting point is unique.
When it comes to the tricky subject of cinematic adaptations, Christopher Nolan got around this issue by having Heath Ledger's Joker recite multiple "d’ya wanna know I got these scars?" horror stories to captive audiences during The Dark Knight, while never confirming which -- if any -- were true.
The first trailer for Phoenix's take on the character seems to take the singular approach that naysayers feared it would, and as Tim Burton’s first Batman movie did with the character. Similarly to Burton, the first Joker trailer reveals that Phillips' version riffs heavily on The Killing Joke's "one bad day" premise that becomes the villain's mantra. We see Phoenix's Arthur Fleck, a misunderstand weirdo, pushed to the very edge of sanity until, with a smile and some face paint, he finally steps over it. Simple and definitive.
However, there is some evidence to suggest things might not be as fixed as they seem. The movie’s '80s setting -- another nod to The Killing Joke, perhaps -- puts it firmly in prequel territory, corroborated by Arthur's interaction with a young boy in a gated estate credited as "Young Bruce Wayne."
One thing that might have escaped most viewers' notice is the strangely big age gap between Arthur and Bruce. If that boy really is destined for the cowl, he’d be chasing around a pretty doddery Clown Prince of Crime in the future rather than the spry, energetic psychopath we're used to seeing. It also posits a world where Joker exists long before Batman, which is certainly possible (there’s an entire TV series based around this premise) but not the norm. Joker's rise traditionally succeeds the Dark Knight's as a reaction to Bruce's rigid sense of order.
It's all a little... off. Fitting for a character who we know always lies, and if this crucial trait is adhered to in the film, that makes Arthur an unreliable narrator. The movie might even be trying to tell us that in its choice to deviate from the commonly accepted Jack Napier identity that Burton's film popularized, as well as dropping the "The" in its title.
It could well be that we’re not necessarily watching the Joker, but a Joker. If that clown-faced mob we see in the trailer is anything to go by, he’s already inspiring copycats. Why bother manufacturing all that expensive Joker venom when you can infect people for free with an ideology? Again, it's the "one bad day" rationale: Anyone can become the Joker -- a Joker -- if they're given enough of a push.
It’s easy to assume that Joker takes place in an Elseworlds universe outside of the DCEU to explain away any inconsistencies. Chiefly, the existence of two Jokers: Joaquin Pheonix's Travis Bickle jester and Jared Leto's Hot Topic model. A more harebrained explanation, however, is that Joker does take place in the DCEU. Who's to say a Joker prototype couldn’t have freaked out Bruce Wayne as a child, only to reappear again with a different face in his Batman years to freak him out all over again?
Rather than continuing to distance its post-Justice League crop of films from its established cinematic universe, the idea of multiple Jokers running riot with no explanation could be the resuscitative injection of weirdness the flagging DCEU needs to get back on track.
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.