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Why the new Joker movie will blow you away in 2019

The world will soon have a new Clown Prince of Crime when Joker debuts. This time, he's a comedian played by Joaquin Phoenix, and he's ready to turn Gotham City's frown upside down no matter what it takes. A gritty, enigmatic trailer dropped on April 3, and between now and the film's October release date, imaginations are set to run wild. What's with the shot of him walking down Arkham Asylum's antiseptic hallways clutching a bouquet? What role will the still-intact Wayne family play in this twisted saga? What does a story about Gotham City without Batman even look like? 

Only one thing is certain: this isn't going to be any old superhero film. Joker has ideas and ambitions that are totally new and untested, and we're willing to bet they'll impress. Here are all the reasons to get hyped about this brand new take on the Dark Knight's greatest nemesis, guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

It's not adapting a comic

Superhero movies are, of course, adaptations of superhero comics. By and large, this tends to be a one-to-one correlation. Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes its story from Marvel's Winter Soldier storyline, as penned by Ed Brubaker. Same goes for Civil War, Infinity War, and The Dark Knight Rises. Even when the inspirations are more oblique or more drastically changed, they can often be connected with a little research. Nolan's Batman might not be a complete adaptation of The Long Halloween or Batman: Year One, but he has mentioned both as explicit influences on his portrayal. The well-read observer can often, as a result, guess at what a superhero movie might contain before it premieres. No DC fan was surprised when Batman's spine was snapped — they'd already seen it happen in the Knightfall arc.

But what we know of Joker so far defies this. Arthur Fleck (purportedly the name of this Joker) does not align with any origin of the Joker ever published. What bits and pieces we've seen from promotional material resists attempts to connect the movie to any one story. It seems to be, by and large, entirely original in a way vanishingly few superhero movies have been. 

Who is Arthur Fleck? What's up with his creepy laugh? Why is he taking care of his mom? We don't know — and that's astonishing.

It's not about Batman

This is not a Batman movie. He's not in the title, he's not in the synopsis, he's not on set. Sure, Bruce Wayne has been cast, but he's a child with no idea that he won't have parents in a handful of years. He's not the focus, the protagonist, or even, seemingly, a major player. This is a story about the Joker and the world that made him.

That's interesting enough on its own — the Joker has been proven to be a character who can carry a story more than once, across a variety of mediums. But just as the greatest Batman stories are often about the evil he faces down (The Killing Joke being, arguably, the most famous example), so too might this story be about the good the Joker stands in contrast to as much as it is about evil. We've seen plenty of stories about how Batman mirrors his enemies, but very few about his enemies mirroring him, reflecting all that makes him the dark protector of a twisted city. This film isn't just capable of being a great Joker story, but also, in portraying the world that made him, a great Gotham story as well. That's a perspective we rarely get, even in the comics.

Joaquin Phoenix is a world-class performer

Legendary actors aren't new to superhero movies. Heck, even the Joker himself has seen some world-class performers — Jack Nicholson, anyone? But more often than not, caped adventures are what springboard an actor to greater heights. Chris Evans was Captain America before he directed movies in his own right. Mary Jane Watson helped Kirsten Dunst become the kind of actress cast by Lars von Trier and Sofia Coppola. Wolverine made Hugh Jackman into the creative force given the room and funding to make dream projects like The Greatest Showman. Capes and cowls are what you start with, not what you aim for as an actor with big aspirations.

So it's not every day that an actor like Joaquin Phoenix steps up to play a denizen of Gotham City. Phoenix has won Grammy awards, been nominated thrice for Oscars, and garnered acclaim across genre and medium. From The Master to his soundtrack work for Walk the Line, he is a celebrated artist with vision, passion, and drive — and at 44, he brings a unique level of experience to a genre crowded with twenty-somethings. Phoenix isn't just a star we can count on to bring talent to the role — we can count on him to surprise us with his interpretive choices.

It doesn't have to tie into the DCEU

To say that DC's cinematic universe has encountered some rough patches would be an understatement. Flagship films like Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad spur debate more often than praise. "Sad Ben Affleck" is still in rotation as a meme. It's not all bad — Shazam! is currently riding high in theaters — but it does complicate things.

Normally, this wouldn't be good news for a DC movie like Joker. But an unintended benefit of the DC films' difficult journey is a willingness to let movies try new things. And so it goes for Joker, which is being explicitly promoted as an independent creation inspired by the DC Universe's mythology without having to obey it entirely. This means Joker will be able to take creative risks and make decisions without having to make sure it all fits in with the Justice League timeline or doesn't mess up any foundations currently being laid for future movies. It can take what it wants from the lineage of the character and leave it at that. DC's Elseworlds imprint was a similarly-minded venture that led to some of the best superhero comics ever published. Now we get to see what that looks like on the silver screen.

Director Todd Phillips knows comedy

Director Todd Phillips is good at his job. He's the guy behind the Hangover trilogy, first and foremost, but he's also worked on many films before and since, from Borat to War Dogs. Notable is his experience in comedy. If you see enough movies, Todd Phillips has already made you laugh time and time again. It is, one could say, his specialty.

This is a strong track record for anyone, but consider the implications on a film like Joker. Phillips will be a comedian portraying a comedian, a man who understands why we laugh and how to make it happen. A director well-versed in the kind of gritty thriller Joker aims to be would be one thing, but what cinematic alchemy might happen when a guy who understands what it's like to be inside Arthur Fleck's head is behind the camera? The best Joker stories horrify you while still managing to maintain a certain comic logic — even making you outright laugh as you recoil in horror. The Joker is, at his best, scary and funny. And who better to make that terrifying contrast a reality than a jokester himself?

Its biggest influence is Scorsese

Some of the most innovative films of all time got that way by taking influence from unexpected places. Mad Max: Fury Road will likely go down as one of the greatest action films of all time — and one of the only to hire Eve Ensler of The Vagina Monologues as a consultant. Guardians of the Galaxy brought new zest to Marvel by plumbing the depths of 1970s music. La La Land hauled the Hollywood musical out of the hole it had fallen into.

And now we have Joker, which Todd Phillips says will call Martin Scorsese its number one influence, particularly Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and Taxi Driver. Scorsese was actually set to co-produce the film until he dropped out in 2018, but his primacy as a figure in the production of the film does not seem to have changed. A superhero film in the style of Scorsese — what will that even look like? One's imagination runs wild at the thought. In a film already chock-full of noteworthy departures from the superhero formula, this is one of the most exciting.

It's going to be a psychological character study

Superhero movies can generally be described as action movies. Comedic action movies, as in the case of Thor: Ragnarok, or dramatic action movies like the Captain America series, but action movies nonetheless. Few break from this structure and its expected beats, from the origin to the climactic fight that pits our hero against the bad guy. There's nothing wrong with a formula like that, especially when it keeps working. But you head into the newest Marvel flick basically knowing what you'll get in terms of set-up, execution, and ending.

Not so with Joker. Many are describing it principally as a "psychological thriller" and "character study" — not descriptors normally found in the copy of movies taking place in Gotham City. One can argue, certainly, that there are elements of this in, say, the Nolan trilogy, but even they are action movies first and foremost. This is an intriguing departure on its own, but more exciting still is the fact that the most iconic Joker stories can be described similarly. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth is, for example, a deep dive into the Clown Prince of Crime's dizzying psyche, as is The Killing Joke and certain storylines from Tom King and Mikel Janin's celebrated current run on Batman. The Joker thrives in the spotlight when confident creators decide to put him there, and it's seeming like this movie will be no exception.

Mark Hamill is excited

There are nearly as many takes on the Joker as there are on Batman. There's Cesar Romero's naughty clown, Jared Leto's smirking gangster, and of course, Heath Ledger's grizzled agent of chaos. But to many, Batman: The Animated Series, the strikingly stylish 1990s cartoon, is the ultimate in Gotham City-set stories — and Mark Hamill's cackling interpretation of the Joker is the best around

With nothing but his voice, Hamill evokes madness, glee, and even something broken and worthy of sympathy beneath that. His Joker is an unstoppable force of nature, a grinning criminal, and a sublime psychopath all in one. And, it turns out, he's excited for Phoenix's take. "A diabolically delicious character + a superb actor + a brilliant writer/director = YES PLEASE!!!," he tweeted after the trailer dropped on April 4th. If it's gotten Mark Hamill excited, you know it has to be good.

It's going to be a standalone story

We've established that this is going to be a boundary-breaking movie. It's taking influences from unique places. It's describing itself in terms largely foreign to the superhero genre. It's a DC movie that isn't firmly rooted in the DCEU's continuity. But in addition to all of this is another startling aspect of this already trailblazing film: it will be a complete, standalone story.

This means a few different things. For one, it means that storytelling decisions can have a permanence and gravity superhero stories go largely without. Deaths will stick, as will marriages, illnesses, disappearances, and other such plot linchpins. In addition, this adds an interesting sort of pressure to the creators' decisions, as they have this one chance to tell this one story. Though cape-and-cowl fans might see this as a drawback — we are, after all, used to always getting more of our favorite characters on the page and screen alike — it is also tremendously freeing. Phillips can direct a movie unto itself, without having to lay groundwork for the future or fit it into the foundation of a cinematic universe. It can do, in short, exactly what it wants.

It's taking inspiration from the 1970s

Gotham City has been subject to countless interpretations over the years. There's Tim Burton's ultra-stylized neo-Gothic fantasia, where secretaries have neon signs in their bedrooms and modern department stores still advertise with 1950s-style signage. There's Nolan's mega-city, all sterile glass and concrete, a modern canyon where big business builds temples to itself. But by and large, these haven't been interpretations rooted in any one specific era. Nolan's movies might seem like period pieces in the future, but not yet, and Burton's Gotham is a creature entirely of his own mind. Gotham has a personality in both, but it's still working off contemporary norms.

Joker seems to be taking a different tack entirely. The trailer implies, between its leisure-cut suits, vintage cars, and dated technology, that it's taking place in a Gotham based on 1970s New York City. The period details are apparent, even in the trailer. We see seedy peep shows clearly riffing on '70s Times Square, an Arkham that Nurse Ratched might have prowled, and comedy clubs full of that '70s mustard-gold-and-brown palette. This is exciting from a design point of view, and introduces an entirely new element to the superhero movie genre. What happens when we bring our very real past to bear on this very fictional story? We're going to find out when Joker premieres.