'Joker' Trailer Ignores 'The Killing Joke' for a Fresh Origin Story

Joaquin Phoenix may pull off the impossible with his origin story of the Joker. The new trailer for the non-canonical DC supervillain movie, Joker, is a crime drama period piece from director Todd Phillips (The Hangover movies), that shows the origins of Batman’s greatest nemesis. And best of all: It doesn’t needlessly reference The Killing Joke or anything else sacred in the Batman universe.

On Wednesday, following its screening at CinemaCon in Las Vegas, Warner Bros. released the trailer for Joker. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix (Her) as Arthur Fleck, a failing comedian in 1980s Gotham City who is pushed to the edge and becomes the criminal mastermind known as the Joker.

The film is set outside the mainstream “DC Extended Universe,” meaning it’s not canon to movies like Batman v Superman, Aquaman, or even Suicide Squad where Jared Leto played the Joker. Conceived as its own project, the film is said to be the first in a spin-off “label” of films that allow filmmakers free reign to make whatever movie they want of DC characters without regard to a shared universe. A similar label currently exists at DC Comics, dubbed “Black Label.”

Personally, I am of the camp that telling any kind of origin for the Joker is a mistake. Because even though great comics like The Killing Joke exists, the Joker’s allure is far greater when you have no idea who he is or where he came from. You only know that he’s human (barely) and that whatever it is that turned him into the Joker could be otherworldly. That’s what made Heath Ledger’s joker in The Dark Knight so great.

Joaquin Phoenix stars in 'Joker,' directed by Todd Phillips.

Warner Bros. Pictures

But Phillips and Phoenix have something special here. True to their ambitions, Joker looks more like Taxi Driver than any DC movie.

And best of all, it looks nothing like The Killing Joke, a good comic we don’t need to reference for eternity. There’s hardly even any Batman references, aside from some voice-over dialogue about hiding behind a mask and Joker playing with a young boy who could probably, maybe be Bruce Wayne.

Is that you, Bruce Wayne?

Warner Bros. Pictures

Written by Alan Moore (Watchmen), illustrated by Brian Bolland, and published in 1988, The Killing Joke is considered one of the best Batman stories of all time. The comic not only tells the Joker’s origins as a failed comedian duped into becoming a fall guy, but defines the Joker and his relationship with Batman forever.

It’s a great comic, even though the sexual assault of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl by the Joker, offensive even in 1988, makes it hard to enjoy in 2019. So, it’s a very, very good thing that Phillips and Phoenix appear to be ignoring The Killing Joke almost outright. The only resemblance to the comic is the film’s bearing the premise of, “Who is the Joker?”

From 'Batman: The Killing Joke,' by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. The comic is considered among one of the greatest Batman comics of all time, even though its co-creator has disowned the work.

DC Comics

For what it’s worth, despite the acclaim for The Killing Joke, Moore himself disowned his work, blaming himself for leaving superhero comics in a state of stunted maturity.

“It was meant to be something that would liberate comics,” Moore said in an old interview. “Instead, it became this massive stumbling block that comics can’t even really seem to get around to this day. They’ve lost a lot of their original innocence, and they can’t get that back. And, they’re stuck, it seems, in this kind of depressive ghetto of grimness and psychosis. I’m not too proud of being the author of that regrettable trend.”

Superhero movies are currently in a rare state of wielding both mainstream appeal and artistic freedom. It’s a time when Avengers: Endgame and FX’s Legion can exist in the same economy. Joker will likely fall into the burgeoning canon of artistic “superhero” movies, but it might also do what Moore believes he failed to do: Grow the genre into something more.

Joker will be released in theaters on October 4.

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