Joker (2019) Trailer Reaction: A Welcome Change in a Sea of Comic Book Movies

The new Joker (2019) movie looks darkly beautiful, but that’s not stopping some from criticizing the usual. Let’s look at some of this criticism.

DC is too dark!

There’s a strange assumption that comic book movies should be bright and colorful with quippy heroes who don’t take themselves too seriously. This is Marvel’s approach, especially following the Disney takeover, but it’s not the only formula.* Batman in particular has extensive character development, world building, and a cast that cry out for dark representations on film. And if you don’t think shows like Batman: The Animated Series were considered too dark back in the day, go listen to interviews with Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and Alan Burnett about how they met the legal limit for darkness on television and often had to reign in story choices to meet code.

Will comic book fans see a film made for an older demographic?

This annoys me for a number of reasons. Let’s unpack the question.

1. Who buys comics these days?

Young people read manga or pirate, or they watch movies and television shows. Games like Telltale, Injustice, and the Arkham series got new fans too. Older fans are still buying comics though, despite the failure of the comic book industry to keep pace with the demands film and tv put on them for more character development and storytelling: see the utter lack of Scarecrow stories that matched up with Cillian Murphy’s portrayal in The Dark Knight Trilogy. Thankfully, the game industry has picked up where comics have failed.

2. Who watches mature films?

Mature audiences who enjoy that kind of thing. This is not exclusive to adults: plenty of adults can’t sit through a gritty film just as plenty of young people binge them. Age is not an indicator of film preference when discussing characters like The Joker who, despite being a supporting character in the Batman universe, has enough name recognition and loyal fan base to carry a stand-alone.

3. Comic book fans like comic book movies, and those need to feel like comic books.

This is the Joel Schumacher approach to Batman and, quite frankly, it’s both stereotypical and misleading. The Dark Knight Trilogy, what is now called grim and gritty as though that were a bad thing, resurrected interest in Batman after Joel Shumaker’s disastrous Batman Forever and Batman & Robin killed Batman on the big screen for years.

What is a comic book movie? A movie based on a comic book. It can take any form or tone the director chooses. The Crow and Hellboy are as much comic book movies as Thor: Ragnarock.

Why give Joker a backstory that inevitably humanizes him?

And this is the biggest issue: Batman as a series needs to evolve.

The Joker is portrayed in comics in a way that is not compatible with our modern understanding of mental illness, and claiming he’s somehow faking mental illness doesn’t fix that problem. A crucial part of his character is his madness, and that means a struggle with mental health.

Gotham has a history of terrible mental health treatment.

From Arkham Asylum’s abuse of patients to Batman and the police brutalizing the mentally ill, Gotham is a terrible place with little recourse. This is the root cause of so many of his rogues gallery, and combined with the high poverty and wealth gap, the city is a place desperately in need of mental health and social safety net reforms. This is why the villains resonate so much with so many readers. In a political climate where it seems the world’s gone mad, Batman villains make more sense that heroes. Their apathy reflects the existential dread we face every day.

Most importantly, the characterization of mental illness as the equivalent to a checkbox on a character sheet needs to stop. A person is more than their mental health. This new Joker movie looks like it’ll let Joaquin Phoenix build on what Heath Ledger began by taking a character we (and by extension Gotham City’s residents) see as a monster and giving him a story where he sees himself as the hero.

Everyone has reasons for what they do, and no amount of rationalization (ACE chemicals, one bad day, etc.) fixes the comic book problem of oversimplification of mental illness as an excuse to beat the problem person unconscious.

Batman can’t punch his way out of this situation because beating doesn’t fix the series of events that make a person choose to hurt others. The Joker, like all Batman villains and Batman himself, is a product of his environment.

“You have nothing to threaten me with. Nothing to do with all your strength.”

(Joker, The Dark Knight)

In the end, this looks like Joker (2019) will be a killer film. I wager it’ll do wonders at the box office as Joker fans of all ages pour in to see the man whose struggle to laugh in a dismal world they so identify with.

If you haven’t seen the trailer, go watch it now. I’m curious about what you think.

*I had some criticism of this statement arguing Marvel does have dark moments. While this is certainly true, it’s not the norm, and in fact part of the charm of Marvel movies is recovering from those dark moments. DC movies, though, don’t always have recovery. Batman doesn’t win in The Dark Knight, just as he also manages a fractional recovery in Batman Returns. These are different thematic undercurrents, not criticisms.

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