“My mother always tells me to smile and put on a happy face,” declares Joaquin Phoenix in the moody first trailer for Joker, the upcoming DC origin story directed by Todd Phillips. The movie will deliver plenty of smiles—not all of them particularly cheerful—in what looks to be a pretty devastating backstory for the esteemed Batman villain once embodied by Heath Ledger in an Oscar-winning performance. (We’ve already let Jared Leto’s less successful take on the clown fade from our memory.)
But Phoenix—an actor who excels at juggling the tragic and the comic—is already more promising in the freakish role of Arthur Fleck, a clownish comedian struggling in his career. Set in 1981, Joker will show how Fleck’s disillusionment drives his turn to the Gotham City’s wicked underworld. The film is already being compared to brooding Robert De Niro classics like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, so it’s fitting that the film will also feature De Niro, who shows up briefly in the trailer as a talk-show host. There’s also another smiling, possibly legitimately happy face, that of Zazie Beetz, who will play a love interest.
Joker will hit theaters October 4.