Lonely And Unsettlingly Human: Why Todd Phillips' Joker Is The Perfect Villain For Our Times
Before Heath Ledger's Joker stole the show in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, the many iterations of the DC Comics villain often played up to the whacky and vaudeville side of the Clown Prince of Crime.
Supposedly first inspired by the image of a perpetually-grinning clown on a playing card, and Conrad Veidt's character in the 1928 adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel The Man Who Laughs, the villain was created to serve as a remorseless and unhinged challenger to Batman.
Actors who have taken on the role have adjusted his psyche over the years. Caeser Romero's droll prankster was heavy on physical comedy and unleashed a playful laugh to audiences, while Jack Nicholson's continued the campy tradition of the character but made him more chilling and complex. Mark Hamill lent his voice to the most memorable animated version of the Joker, imbuing his laugh with a terrifying glee.
Inspiring a copycat performance from Jared Leto, Heath Ledger's lawless portrayal of the Joker in 2008 earned him a posthumous Academy Award and arguably helped pave the way for the boom in superhero films we are now seeing.
Ledger's unhinged master of chaos encouraged terrorism and mass-violence, showing how the iconic villain has evolved into a sort-of litmus test of the fears of the public. But while Ledger's Joker "just wanted to watch the world burn", Joaquin Phoenix's forthcoming take on the pale-faced villain unmasks his motivations more clearly.
Last night the final trailer for Todd Phillips' Joker was released ahead of its screening at Venice Film Festival on Saturday. A revisionist take on the history of the character, Phillips has admitted the film doesn't use any of the comic books as source material. The film is more concerned with the character's origin story, as Phillips told Empire, "We’re not even doing Joker, but the story of becoming Joker. It’s about this man."
The director told cast member Robert De Niro that he was partially inspired by his film Taxi Driver, the story of a lonely New York taxi driver who descends into insanity and plots murder. He was also influenced by another Martin Scorsese film, The King of Comedy, in which De Niro plays a struggling stand-up.
Joker is a similar psychological study, with the decision to focus on the human side of the villain meaning we see much of Fleck without his trademark white face-paint and painted-on grin.
The script leaked online some time ago, and confirms Warner Brothers' description of the film as “a cautionary tale” and a “gritty character study" about a man who has been “disregarded by society.”
Phoenix's Joker is made a clown by the indignities of modern life, his dark journey to becoming a super-villain a metaphor for how living in a shitty apartment and being ridiculed by the world could cause someone to snap. As the official synopsis reads, "he aspires to be a stand-up comic at night… but finds the joke always seems to be on him".
We hear his maniacal laugh as he walks down a corridor, his face void of emotion. Later he is beaten with the 'EVERYTHING MUST GO' sign which he holds up for work while dressed in a clown costume.
The film has been dramatically termed the most controversial superhero film ever made, and comes after The Hunt, a film which depicts a world where left-wing people hunt down the rich elite, was condemned by Donald Trump and had its release cancelled in the wake of the Dayton and El Paso mass shootings.
There's plenty of relevant social commentary in Joker, which depicts 1981 Gotham and the extreme wealth divide in Ronald Reagan’s America, where rich and poor are pitted against each other and violence is a scourge on the streets.
The trailer shows crowds of protestors fighting on the subway, where many people are pulling down clown masks over their faces. Though The Dark Knight Trilogyalso explored civil unrest and wealth inequality, this feels like a more overt hint that the trajectory of the Joker is something that could lurk within us all.
"For my whole life, I didn't know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice," Phoenix says carefully. It's a chilling line that paints a picture of an invisible loner who craves the infamy that comes from violence. It's one of perhaps many moments which will see the film compared to the spate of gun violence in America, and may earn it praise or criticism depending on whether it's interpreted as condemning or glorifying it.
It looks not only like an Oscar-worthy performance from Phoenix, but a genuinely terrifying and fascinating superhero film. However it is received, Phillips' Joker is deliberately the villain of our times, a lonely figure that gets under the skin of the comic book cartoon and reveals how unsettlingly human he really is.
'Joker' is released October 4
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.