WARNING: The following contains spoilers for The Twilight Zone, Episode 1: "The Comedian."
When the first trailer for Todd Phillips' Joker dropped, Joaquin Phoenix's intent to deliver an intense character study as Arthur Fleck, the man destined to become the Clown Prince of Crime, became immediately clear. Everything we read about his descent into madness as a failed comedian was perfectly encapsulated by the video, leaving fans eager to see more of how he intends to surpass the likes of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger in the role.
But while Warner Bros. and the DC Extended Universe is counting down the days until the film's October premiere, it turns out CBS has already beaten them to the punch by delivering this story in a more otherworldly manner, courtesy of The Twilight Zone reboot.
As we witness in Phillips' trailer, Arthur is bullied, his career is in the doldrums, the health system and society in general are all treating him like crap. As he struggles with his mom's illness, his world crumbles and flails to the point where he's faking smiles, acting looney on the public transportation system and ending up lost in despair in his therapist's office. Eventually, he breaks and turns into the maniacal, sadistic Joker, embarking on a life of robberies and murder.
Now, The Twilight Zone takes a more subtle, slow burn approach with developing its Joker. Make no mistake, the opening episode, "The Comedian," is eerily familiar to what Phillips envisioned for Phoenix as it wades into Kumail Nanjiani's Samir Wassan, a comedian who's also sucking terribly at his job. Automatically, the way he's treated with scorn, disdain and ridicule evokes not just Phoenix's Arthur, but also the Joker origin from Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's Batman: The Killing Joke.
But rather than retreat into the ways of a criminal, Samir exploits a power he discovers he has on stage -- the people he jokes about literally get erased from reality. They're never born, and so life is altered without them, making Samir not just a rewriter of history, but a god. Rather than do some good, he becomes a villain, not opting for makeup, guns, bombs, crowbars, poison gas, hyenas or crazy sidekicks, but instead choosing punchlines to take people out. And like Arthur, he sees this anarchy as him being an arbiter of social justice, one you can even feel sympathy for depending on your perspective.
His costume change is more dapper, as he's rocking nice suits, fancy hairstyles and swimming in his newfound money and success. But this class and elegance is his mask, as Samir's pent-up rage, as hidden as it is to the audience, goes on to shape his Joker as a petty individual keen on exacting revenge on girls, jocks and teachers from high school.
But make no mistake, as he jokes people out of existence, while the crowd is the one laughing hysterically at his act, Samir is cackling on the inside, basking in the fame, glory and notoriety of what's transpiring. Like the Joker, his ego and narcissism combine to make him a destroyer, lashing out against a world he believes deep down in his heart wronged him.
So while the DC filmverse has months to go until we see Phoenix's Joker putting on that murderous smile, we can get a glimpse into the downward spiral he'll be enduring a bit earlier through the calmer and cooler Joker-esque figure Samir cuts for us here. Admittedly, the life he leads in The Twilight Zone may not be as depressing or chaotic, but just like Mr. Fleck, it's one that toes the line between being a tragedy at times and a downright comedy at others.
Hosted by Jordan Peele, The Twilight Zone premiered April 1 on CBS Access with its first two episodes, "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" and "The Comedian," before settling into its regular Thursday slot on April 11.