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Snap Judgments: Breaking Down the First Trailer for ‘Joker’

Todd Phillips has snapped, the ‘Atlanta’ cast is present, and Joaquin Phoenix looks tremendous—and hauntingly thin—as the iconic villain

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

As Warner Bros. continues to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks, one thing is certain: The powers that be have a lot of faith in the Joker. The tattoo ink was barely dry on Jared Leto’s wannabe mafia cosplay from Suicide Squad when it was announced that the studio was planning a stand-alone Joker movie directed by Todd Phillips, the man behind The Hangover franchise, and starring Joaquin Phoenix. Simply titled Joker, the news around the movie often felt like a bit, including—and this is true—Alec Baldwin being cast as Bruce Wayne’s dad and then subsequently quitting just two days later.

But now that we’ve got our first Joker footage, it actually looks promising? Maybe it wasn’t a bit, after all. After poring over the two and a half minutes of this trailer enough times that I, too, am now parading around my living room in my underwear, here are five snap judgments about Joker before it hits theaters in October.

I Will Cry About the Joker

While the details of the Joker plot are still pretty vague—and not really outlined in this teaser—it appears the film is borrowing a bit from the character’s backstory in Alan Moore’s one-shot graphic novel, The Killing Joke. In The Killing Joke, the pre-Joker Joker is a failed stand-up comedian who gets roped in with the mob, eventually culminating in tragedy and the creation of the Joker persona. (The Joker logline also describes the character as a “failed stand-up comedian.”)

The film also has been labeled as an “exploration of a man disregarded by society,” and while I’m sure this will be treated with some nuance, it’s bluntly laid out in the trailer when some jerks steal a store sign from Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck and then whack him in the face with it once he chases after them. It’s actually very sad?

Screenshots via Warner Bros.

The sight of Phoenix whimpering on the ground honestly resonated with me—I’m not saying I approve of his ultimate choice to put on clown makeup and commit crimes, but this makes a pretty convincing case for why the character has so much pent-up rage.

The trailer also details how Arthur’s taking care of his mother, played by Frances Conroy, and you sure as hell know that’s not going to end well for him. She looks like she has debilitating health issues, and some tragic event there seems like it’ll be the thing that pushes Arthur over the edge. The Joker has been a lot of things, both good (Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson) and bad (Leto), but I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted to give the Joker a hug—come October, that might change.

Joaquin Is Anti-Swole

While Arthur’s behavior in the Joker trailer, as well as the film’s grim aesthetic, feels like a prequel to Phoenix’s own You Were Never Really Here, there’s an important distinction to make. In Lynne Ramsay’s film, Phoenix plays a fairly swole—one might even say thick—hitman with the unfettered, scraggly beard of an old-timey prospector. But in Joker, Phoenix is uncomfortably scrawny and clean-shaven. Observe:

The character’s slender frame works to accentuate the creepy feeling of this version of the Joker. The transformation here isn’t Christian Bale–levels of ridiculous, but it is an impressive and undeniably unsettling look for one of Hollywood’s premiere weirdo actors.

Todd Phillips Has Snapped

I don’t think Todd Phillips is a bad director—you just don’t associate the guy behind The Hangover franchise, Road Trip, War Dogs, and Old School with a gritty character drama. And while two and a half minutes is not enough to make a declarative statement on his filmmaking chops for Joker (these are snap judgments, after all), it sure looks like Phillips knows what he’s doing.

The overzealous first reactions when the trailer screened at CinemaCon on Tuesday favorably compared Joker to Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, and Requiem for a Dream—which is, honestly, a bit much. But the Taxi Driver and King of Comedy parallels at least circle back to Joker’s brain trust: Martin Scorsese is an executive producer on the film. If the M.O. for Phillips was to do his best Scorsese impression and look toward some of the director’s best work for Joker inspiration, well, that’s not such a bad idea. But more importantly, this trailer suggests that he may have pulled it off.

The Cast of Atlanta Should Be in Everything

It’s clear the folks in charge of casting Joker are big fans of FX’s surreal dramedy. Zazie Beetz is playing Arthur’s love interest in the film, Sophie Dumond, while Brian Tyree Henry has been cast as [squints] a nurse. Given Henry’s pedigree—he had an elite year on screen in 2018—I’m sure there’s more to that role than meets the eye.

But Beetz and Henry’s involvement, even in secondary roles, is a net positive for Joker. Simply, these are great actors. Between the two of them and Lakeith Stanfield, it feels like the principal cast of Donald Glover’s series has been popping up in just about everything. (It is imperative that Beetz gets her own Domino spinoff movie after her scene-stealing work in Deadpool 2.) Casting directors of the world, take note: If the stars of Atlanta are available—and given how long Atlanta takes between filming seasons, they often seem to be—book them.

More Superhero Content Like This, Please

Superhero movies are more superfluous than ever before, and if we’re going to have multiple spandex-clad cinematic universes—and even within a few years, multiple goddamn Jokers!—we might as well embrace different kinds of aesthetics and tones. Not all superhero flicks need to be lighthearted, CGI punching fests or grim tales of biblical heroes who both have a mom named Martha. If there’s a big takeaway from this Joker trailer, it’s that the film looks like the project most removed from typical superhero conventions since Logan, which tried very hard to be a Western centered on a huge mutant with metal claws in his hands.

Calling Joker indie-like is perhaps a stretch, but it stands to reason that this film won’t culminate with a bunch of CGI fighting or a giant sky beam. Bruce Wayne isn’t even a principal character in this movie; only his father is. If we’re going to have superhero flicks flooding theaters in perpetuity, we need more looks like Joker to act as a refreshing change of pace.