Joaquin Phoenix as DC's clown prince of crime, "Joker". Picture: YouTube Screenshot

More than any other superhero movie in recent memory, Todd Phillips' "Joker," starring Joaquin Phoenix as DC's clown prince of crime, has long operated as an opaque beast - a curious and modest Gotham spinoff that teased images and casting announcements, but otherwise was cooked up behind a scrim of mystery.

On Wednesday, the curtain was finally pulled back. The morning after the first full "Joker" trailer stoked interest at CinemaCon 2019, the teaser went public - finally revealing what the feel of this fascinating origin-story film appears to be.

Phillips and Phoenix are delivering a true character study - a stand-alone comic-book movie that looks more like a gritty Martin Scorsese portrait of a cackling outcast as he begins to crack up on the city's mean streets.

This seems to be the stuff of pre-"Casino" Robert De Niro, who fittingly happens to co-star in "Joker."

This is the textured take of a searching loser coming apart on the urban fringes - a wannabe stand-up celebrity who seems to share cinematic DNA with two iconic Scorsese/De Niro creations: Travis Bickle ("Taxi Driver") and Rupert Pupkin ("The King of Comedy").

This has the whiff of Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning turn as the Joker - without this being Batman's franchise.

And this is the type of beguiling trailer that raises the riddle: What if DC Comics made a villainous picture seemingly free of the big-budget sludge of CGI?

In other words: Warner Bros. could have a real oddball winner on its hands.

Phoenix is so gifted at carving out characters who crackle with tics and quirks - offbeat figures who often go about behind a fragile or ill-fitting social mask - and his dive into the Joker, aka Arthur Fleck (a name befitting his civilian insignificance), could well join the Oscar nominee's personal pantheon of bent and demented men.

We hear this Joker's laugh. We see him ground into the concrete like an impotent, feckless fool. And then we glimpse his inner cauldron beginning to boil, en route to the madness of Arkham.

A mother. A therapist. And the strains of Jimmy Durante's "Smile."

All of this gleefully free of the DC Extended Universe.

"I used to think my life was a tragedy - but now I realise it's a comedy," says this transforming clown of chaos.

"There's been a lot of chatter about what this film is and isn't, and most of it hasn't been very accurate," Phillips said Tuesday at CinemaCon, the Las Vegas film-industry trade show. "But I suppose that's to be expected when you set out to make an origin story about a beloved character that basically has no definitive origin."

"Joker," which also stars Zazie Beetz ("Deadpool 2"), Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Marc Maron and Douglas Hodge (with Dante Pereira-Olson billed as young Bruce Wayne), opens Oct. 4.

Washington Post