On April 3, the teaser trailer for the upcoming Joker origin story was revealed. Though many DC Comics fans will decry the fact that Hollywood has decided to create a Joker origin story, those who are interested in the film for the pure cinematic marvel of it were more than elated with the revelation. This, of course, has less to do with canon than it does the casting of one of history’s most infamous villains.
The legacy of the Joker is a dark one. Indeed, anyone who’s chosen to take on the role of a mentally unstable psychopathic murderer will always have to make a difficult choice. Play the role at the surface, digging only as deep as it takes to portray the mannerisms and facial expressions, the vocal inflections. Or, on the other hand, dive deep inside the role and figure out the why and how of where those mannerisms, facial ticks and inflections after came from. For a villain that has a checkered and highly ambiguous history, the actors who’ve done it best have managed to actually provide themselves with a history for the character.
Thus we come to the actual rub of the situation. When one even mentions the mercurial role of Joker, it’s hard to do so without one image in mind: Heath Ledger. So iconic was his turn as the baddie, so utterly mesmerizing, the Academy had to acknowledge the actor, albeit posthumously, when no comic book film had ever been recognized before. It wasn’t just that he acted well, which goes without saying. The sheer dedication to it showed in more than just the words and delivery. It was the way he carried himself in the skin of the maniac. The way he was able to humanize a fictional boogeyman. That word “humanize” for many means he added sentimentality to the character. People often forget there’s another side to humanity, something truly the stuff of man: anger, hate, a need for destruction, an inexplicable impulse to, in the prophetic words of Michael Caine‘s Alfred, “watch the world burn.” In a word: evil. That, too, is human, and Ledger embodied this frightening side of the human experience in such a way that it left eternal effects on his psyche. Journal entries, his inability to sleep much, it all had a hand in what was a life snatched away far too soon.
The original icon of the comic book villain would openly recount the psychosis the role induced. Jack Nicholson went so far as to warn Ledger to stay away from the role. Told him that it would change his life, but the rewards were far diminished by the endless psychological nightmare he would be plunged into during and maybe years after filming.
As a result many have come to believe the role, indeed the character himself is cursed. Fast forward a decade after the beautiful horrible tragedy of Ledger’s unforgettable interpretation. Now tradition has been passed on to Joaquin Phoenix. This is another actor whose dedication to every single role dictates that he put every ounce of himself into it. We’ve seen signs of his dedication in past films and have seen its effects. From his portrayal of a troubled war veteran in “The Master,” to his semi-autobiographical faux-documentary “I’m Still Here,” the man manages to remove “Joaquin” from the scenario and breathe inside the flesh of other people.
The fear, of course, is that not only will he delve too far into the pool of the Joker’s mythos, he might not ever actually resurface. Despite what purists will think about the actual theorized backstory of such an icon of comic history, not a soul will deny Phoenix his greatness at his craft. From the couple minutes of the trailer, every soul was entranced with the searing emotional stripping of one man’s humanity, the metamorphosis of his spirit from blind, severely fragmented optimism to cold, unbending wrath. Every viewer is compelled to want to see how Phoenix will bring this to life. And in the same breath scared to death that we’ll lose another brilliant thespian to the hell in the soul of, let’s not forget, a fictional comic book character.
“Joker” is going to be an emotional journey and psychological test of fortitude the likes of which we haven’t seen since Ledger painted on the mask. The question is will Phoenix be able to pour himself out of the Joker’s flesh and come back to himself? Let’s hope for the best, because on October 4, we’ll all be witness to another man living in the darkness, then attempting to survive when forced back into the light.