The Joker is Having a Moment

This morning, while all of you were trying (and mostly failing) to buy Avengers: Endgame tickets, Warner Bros. quietly dropped the first official poster for this fall’s Joker — with the first trailer set to drop any minute now. (UPDATED April 3, 2019 — trailer is below!) How’s that for the Day After April Fool’s?

Starring Academy Award-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role and directed by Todd Phillips, Joker has quickly become my most anticipated DC Film since Wonder Woman. The official poster further highlights how much the movie owes to Martin Scorsese’s seminal King of Comedy — hell, Phillips even cast De Niro in an unknown role.

This reveal comes on the heels of leaked set photos from Cathy Yan’s upcoming Birds of Prey movie that hinted at a potential Joker cameo. In what looks like one of the opening scenes, the Joker has thrown out Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, which undoubtedly leads to whatever adventures Harley and the Birds will eventually get to for the rest of the movie. Its doubtful Jared Leto will reprise the role (thank god) since he’s currently filming a Morbius spin-off movie for Sony.

With any luck, this might be the last we ever see of Leto’s version of the Joker. According to reports, Birds of Prey will have very little to do with the character aside from this cameo/easter egg. Joker also doesn’t seem to be in the cards for James Gunn’s Suicide Squad reboot/sequel either.

Not to be outdone, Fox’s Gotham — which is nearing its series finale in which The Dark Knight will finally… er… rise — has also revealed the final form of Cameron Monaghan’s terrifying take on the Clown Prince of Crime, first in a teaser for the penultimate episode of the series and then in an official promotional shot that looks like a mashup of Jack Nicholson and Donald Trump without the spray tan and combover.

Ever since his debut in 1940 from the minds of Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson, the Joker has become, without question, one of the most indelible fictional characters ever created.

Every generation seemingly gets its own version too: Cesar Romero in the ’60s; Jack Nicholson in the ’80s; Mark Hamill throughout the ’90s, and Heath Ledger a decade ago. Each actor has left his mark on the character, and we’re fortunate to see different artists interpret him in their own special ways.

In fact, that I’m even anticipating this Joker movie is a 180-degree turn for me. When it was first announced, I — along with a lot of folks, to be fair — thought it was a bad idea. An origin story? For the Joker? Did we really want to know how he got those scars? Not to mention the fact that Warner Bros. was in the midst of figuring out their shared universe. How would Phoenix and Jared Leto co-exist? Well, it turns out, they don’t have to.

With DC’s attempt at creating a shared cinematic universe giving way to a return to Warner’s director-focused philosophy of superhero-filmmaking — think the singular and distinct visions of Donner, Burton, Nolan vs. trying to have different visions clashing against someone else’s predetermined tone — the potential of DC Films feels exciting again. This change in direction has already created dividends for the studio. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman and James Wan’s Aquaman were both critically acclaimed crowdpleasers that each wildly diverged from the vibe set in the trilogy of Snyder films from which they emerged. Now, on the eve of David F. Samberg’s lighthearted Shazam! and the girl gang vibe of Yan’s aforementioned Birds of Prey, DC is once again demonstrating that their superhero films don’t have to feel or look the same.

This is ultimately a good thing.

For years, DC has been chasing Marvel in both box office and cultural zeitgeist terms. If the MCU was going to be light and fun, then the DCEU had to be dark and gritty. I’ve always thought that was the wrong way to go about it. Where DC is distinct from Marvel is in its approach. The MCU is a highly bingeable streaming series where Kevin Feige is showrunner. Directors and writers for each “episode” come and go, but ultimately it’s Feige’s vision. (Check out Patrick Willems’ three-part series of video essays for more on the limitations of this approach).

Meanwhile, DC has always been better at letting directors with bold visions play with their toys. Let filmmakers tell the stories they want to tell. This genre is big enough for all kinds of stories and visions. Instead of a cinematic universe, build a cinematic multiverse. If this is really DC’s approach going forward, then I can make my peace even with Zack Snyder’s take on these characters — even if I vehemently disagree at a fundamental level with that take. He had his turn, just like Nolan. And Burton. And Schumacher. And now it’s time somebody else had a turn.

And I, for one, can’t wait to see what they do with it.