‘Joker’ Trailer Breakdown: Finding Comedy in Tragedy

No one was screaming for a Joker origin movie. When news first dropped, the idea sounded desperate and a little cheap. Then came the announcement of Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. Huh. That’s intriguing. Then director Todd Phillips invoked the names of Martin Scorsese and The King of Comedy alongside Alan Moore and The Killing Joke. Hmmmm. Interesting. Weird, but interesting. Kinda makes sense.

I was not entirely sold on the concept, but I would withhold judgment until I at least saw a trailer. Well, wait no further. The Joker film is a reality and it’s hitting cinemas this year. We’ve already experienced the character as filtered through Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger, and Jared Leto. Each previous actor was fascinating and unique in their own way. We definitely stan Phoenix here at FSR and the madness he portrayed in You Were Never Really Here was one of the most emotionally gripping entertainments of last year. Put that psychology inside Joker, and you’ve certainly got something watchable.

Let’s press play on the new trailer and meet back after the jump.

Oh, ok. That’s not fun. That’s dark and mean and ugly. I feel sad. I feel real, damn sad. Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix are not interested in Batman canon or spandex heroics. They’re digging into the real-world horrors that would shape a man into a monstrous being like The Joker. I’m not sure I’m ready for such an upsetting cinematic encounter, but I will be there opening day. Time to dig into the hell that is Arthur Fleck’s life.

The trailer opens on a recognizable skyline. That is not Tim Burton’s Gotham City; instead, here are just a bunch of buildings containing a bunch of different sadsacks trying to make it through the day. There are eight million stories in the naked city; what we’re about to witness is only one of them.

A social worker (Sharon Washington) asks a man named Arthur, “Does it help to have someone to talk to?” If you zoom in on her I.D. badge, you will see that she works for the Department of Health and that her name is Debra Kane. In the spin-off Batman novel The Ultimate Evil, written by Andrew Vachss, Debra Kane is a social worker who helps Bruce Wayne take down a criminal organization of child pornographers. She becomes one of his many informants helping fight the good fight beyond the cape and cowl business. This is a deep-cut character that might just prove to be a coincidence than any actual source material reference.

We meet Arthur Fleck staring off into the middle distance, a frown firmly planted on his mug. While The Joker has never been referred to as “Arthur” in the comics, he has had a few notable names. His most popular moniker being “Jack Napier” as heard in the ’89 Batman as well as the animated series and the recent DC Comics mini-series Batman: White Knight. Todd Phillips stated that this film would be heavily inspired by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke. That Joker is never named but suffers one emotional catastrophe after the other that propels him towards a life of chaotic crime. That storyline stipulates that we’re all just one bad day away from being either The Joker or Batman.

When Arthur catches Debra’s question, his defensive response is to meet her with a smile. Don’t worry about me, I’m happy. All is good in the world. This contradictory smile makes several appearances throughout the trailer.

Arthur drags himself through the city. Check those mountains of garbage, breathe in the steam wafting from below the streets, hide your eyes from the neon signs. This Gotham has more in common with Mean Streets than DC Comics. Arthur pulls himself up a nearly infinite staircase, and the careless city behind him is forever caught in purposeful ignorance.

We hear Arthur contemplate parental wisdom, “My mother always tells me to smile and put on a happy face.” We see Arthur’s most genuine expression of joy as he’s bathing mom (Frances Conroy). He knew happiness once, but such delight was never destined to last.

“She told me I had a purpose,” he continues, and we see a series of jokes scribbled in a notebook. “The worst part of having a mental illness, people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” Oof. That’s a real laugh riot. The birth of the Joker is rooted in genuine tragedy, and anyone expecting a simple good time at the movies with this film will be traumatized. Right out of the gate, Phillips is letting us know that he’s not making a sunny comic book movie. He’s going the Alan Moore route, revealing our heroes and rogues to be deeply troubled and broken individuals, and taking pleasure in their misery.

“To bring laughter and joy to the world.” Unfortunately, this world wants nothing to do with either. Arthur’s day job is a sign twirling clown, acting the fool, and alerting the good Gotham citizens of another local business closing down. A group of punk kids knock the sign from his hands and run off down an alleyway.

As Bruce Wayne will also learn, nothing pleasant ever happens in Gotham City alleyways. The kids beat the hell outta Arthur. He takes a moment to appreciate his station in life.

“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there.” Arthur at his work locker, retouching his costume. The skinny stick of a human is covered in bruises, cuts, and scabs. This joker has spent a lifetime collecting punishments, each one building to a breaking point.

Back to Arthur’s happy place, Arthur giving his mom a twirl in front of the television. Jimmy Durante’s “Smile” kicks onto the soundtrack. The melody of the tune was written by Charlie Chaplin for Modern Times but didn’t receive lyrics until John Turner and Geoffery Parsons concocted them in 1954. The song has been covered by everybody from Nat “King” Cole to Eric Clapton to Michael Bolton. Durante’s take adds some New York crooner soul to the plight of Arthur Fleck, “Smile though your heart is aching/Smile even though it’s breaking.”

Arthur finds himself in that diner next to that giant mountain of garbage. Inside he shares a smile with a single mother, Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz). Clearly, she seems to enjoy his company.

He returns her wide, laughing grin with a more muted smile. I wonder how much time Joker covers? Based on what we see here vs. what we see later on in the trailer, this relationship goes seriously south. Arthur will want to hang on to this moment, but it is fleeting.

True darkness enters the story at the Arkham State Hospital. Note, it does not read Arkham Asylum. Bat-escalation has not hit Gotham just yet, so at this point, they can afford to treat others beyond the criminally insane.

Arthur rides an elevator to his appointment. Everyone pretends there is not a screaming madman trapped in the same metal box. Their willful ignorance was born from decades of life experienced inside Gotham City. Everyone is miserable, deal with your own pain, ignore others.

Hey, look! It’s Brian Tyree Henry! I didn’t know he was in this thing too. He appears to be an attendant working at the Arkham State Hospital. Based on his expression, he doesn’t have good news for poor Arthur.

Arthur recognizes the pain of Henry’s expression, “What?” There is trepidation in his voice, but again, he’s masking fear with a defensive smile. Could Arthur’s mom have just perished? That’s another possible pain to drive him to his more vicious persona.

Cut to a dank, dark comedy club in which some comedian schlub is bombing on stage. Arthur screeches a forced laugh, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t get chills hearing that Joker guffaw. Maybe the closest cinematic representation of Mark Hamill’s laugh from the Batman animated series, and still 100% Phoenix.

Arthur’s bad Arkham news brings a tear to his eye, but he still has to hit the streets to earn a living. He remembers his mother’s mission. Make ’em laugh, no matter what. He forces on his happy face. Fake it till you make it.

Having had his ass handed to him by a bunch of alleyway punks, Arthur hits the Gotham subway. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, so laugh dammit, laugh.

Such obnoxious behavior catches the attention of some Wall Street bros. They try to get a rise out of Arthur, but when he doesn’t deliver what they desire, they also beat the hell out of him. Emotionally devastated, physically devastated, Arthur’s new mission is formulating in his mind.

Off the subway, his makeup running down his face, and maybe even mixed with some blood, Arthur runs hellbent for leather. Where’s he going? Back home to massage a brilliant idea, a brilliant fabrication.

Before we get there though, we see a little more set-dressing for the Joker’s mental implosion. Outside of a Charlie Chaplin retrospective, we see crowds of angry protesters. They’re carrying anti-capitalist signs, condemning the greed of those in political power.

On the television, Arthur watches Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) lament the crumbling state of morality in America, “Gotham has lost its way. What kind of coward would do something that cold-blooded? Someone who hides behind a mask?” Lol. Jokes on him, I guess.

Shea Whigham appears to be chasing the Joker through a subway car full of clown-masked protesters. We still don’t exactly know who he’s playing, but I’m still holding out that he’s a young Jim Gordon.

We jump back in time to Arthur giving his stand-up routine a stab during an open mic night. Spoilers, he sucks. If a dead mom and routine beatings weren’t enough, creative failure would drive anyone to a life of demonic revenge.

We hear the beginning of Arthur’s final voiceover, “I used to think that my life was a tragedy…” The guy can’t stand the sight of himself in the mirror. He smashes his head into the glass, shattering his old self-image.

Arthur, now in full Joker-mode, has wormed his way onto a Tonight Show-like program hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). He’s got a really big show for his audience.

The Joker probably gets a lot of airplay when he first comes upon the scene, but I’m guessing this television appearance will end in plenty of bloodshed and act as the big coming out party for the maniac. They producers are going to regret that live-studio audience.

Another shot of the greed-hating clown protesters itching to break into the Charlie Chaplin retrospective. Arthur continues his thought from before, “But now I realize…”

He flees from the news delivered by Brian Tyree Henry. He blitzes pass the billing department, looking back in terror, but running towards his destiny.

“…it’s a comedy.” Arthur Fleck becomes The Joker with a liberal use of green dye. His mom was right, he was placed on this planet to make us laugh, and he’ll achieve that goal whether we want him to or not.

Arthur dragged his feet through the world. The Joker carries himself upright and struts with a confident walk. The Modern Times anthem erupts as we meet the Clown Prince of Crime.

Earlier, we saw Arthur drudgingly climb these steps from the reverse angle. Now, The Joker hops to the happy tune inside his head, finding joy in the puddles a la Gene Kelly in Singin’ In The Rain.

The Joker steps into an elevator, going up, going down, it doesn’t matter. Wherever he travels, he carries a smile with him. We should all be terrified that he’s found his bliss.

Joker will terrorize audiences on October 4th.

Brad Gullickson: @@MouthDork Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.