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Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker Will Make You Forget About Batman

The first trailer for 'Joker' shows the actor at the top of his game.

Modern Hollywood loves nothing more than a low-risk opportunity to squeeze more money out of a proven concept. That’s why we’ve had so many different Batman movies and so many different Jokers. You’d be forgiven for thinking yet another would be superfluous, but the first trailer for Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix dropped on Wednesday, and it’s a surprisingly compelling case for the film’s basic existence.

“My mother always tells me to smile and put on a happy face,” pre-Joker Arthur Fleck says. We see him bathing her, an image that hits you over the head with its Freudian implications.

Fleck is a mentally ill aspiring comedian, and a brief glimpse at his notepad reveals that he’s pretty bad at writing jokes, with scribbles ranging from the corny (Why are poor people so confused? Because they have no cents) to deranged but still not funny (the worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you D☺NT).

Lack of stand-up success aside, there seem to be two events that push Fleck to his fate. While performing as a sign-spinning clown, a gang of youths swipes his sign and, as he pursues them, whacks him in the head, destroying it. And while cackling to himself on a late night, graffiti-covered subway ride, a group of rich dudes in suits decides to beat the crap out of him. Origin story established.

Much of the trailer is Jimmy Durante crooning “Smile” over a montage of scenes from the movie. There’s what looks like a date at a donut shop, a visit to Arkham State Hospital, and Fleck racing through the streets of Gotham. Other highlights include Robert De Niro as a TV host clad in an extremely well-fitting three-piece suit and a gang of Joker imitators — ruffians in clown masks — clashing with police.

By the end of the trailer, Fleck’s transformation is complete. He has confidence now, flashing a creepy grin, clad in a neat red suit, mustard vest, and teal shirt.

The supporting cast — De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Brian Tyree Henry, Marc Maron — is great, but in the end, the movie sinks or swims with Phoenix.

He’s an intense actor unafraid of ambitious roles, from Johnny Cash in Walk the Line to Jesus Christ in the upcoming Mary Magalene to a fictionalized version of himself in I’m Still Here. He’d be entertaining playing the Joker as a fully formed villain, but Phoenix playing Fleck as he becomes the Joker is way more interesting. It’s a role that demands nuance in capturing how the character changes from a meek mama’s boy to a criminal mastermind and the ability to realistically emote the extremes of depression and mania.

“I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a comedy,” we hear him say near the end of the trailer. If the film delivers on its promise, it will be because Phoenix can believably play the character both ways.

Joker hits theatres on October 4.