ekm’s BAT-MANUAL: CHAPTER 13 – JOKER (2019)
It’s not hard to understand why The Joker stands tall as a Pop Culture icon. With his chalk-white face, green hair, and blood-red shriek of madness, he perverts a classic image designed to amuse children – i.e., the funny, bumbling, and altogether harmless clown – transforming it into an antagonistic representation of corrupted innocence. If Good Guys like policemen can kill the people they’re supposed to protect, Daddy can touch his daughter in inappropriate ways, and Trump can be President, then where else are we if not staring into a distorted Funhouse mirror? And look: standing there, just over our shoulder and waving his gloved hand back at us, is that grinning, cackling madman. Nothing “safe” ever is.
Batman and The Joker have always been reflections of one another: the former is a symbol of Order, while the latter an embodiment of Chaos, and yet both share an element of unresolved personal trauma that drives each along their respective paths. Batman wants to make sense of a world that makes no sense at all, and the only way to do that is to make it make sense. The Joker simply finds the whole thing hilarious. Terrible things happen to good people, and we’re all victims of random chance no matter how hard we might attempt to shield ourselves from danger. That’s the joke that Batman doesn’t get: the harder you try to rationalize the irrational, the more irrational you in turn become.
He’s a character screaming for cinematic representation, like some garish and terrifying Technicolor nightmare awaiting physical life. It shouldn’t be any surprise that that’s where he started in the first place. The Joker was actually onscreen before he hit the page, with Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson drawing inspiration from THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, in which Conrad Veidt’s disfigured Gwynplaine is The Joker in all but name. Veidt remains, to date, the most horrifying clown you could ever imagine standing on your front lawn at midnight. Why later BATMAN films have never tapped into THE MAN WHO LAUGHS for inspiration as Kane and his largely-unacknowledged colleagues did, is a baffling, missed opportunity waiting to happen.*
His first on-page appearance was Batman #1in 1940; of the four stories presented therein, The Joker was featured in two. Kane and his collaborators recognized the value in the character almost immediately – and I say almost, because he was originally depicted as dying at the end of the final segment. A hastily re-drawn panel corrected this glaring mistake. Henceforth a curious element of the supernatural was attached to The Joker: his early defeats involved apparent death – falling from a cliff, for example – and yet no body would ever be found. But he’d always come back again. And again. And again.
Who was he? What was his “real” name? The Joker arrived fully-formed: there was no origin story, no explanation for his unsettling appearance. He was less apt to smile in those first appearances, and when he did, it was a cruel and vicious leer reserved for special occasions. Whether because comics were still a new storytelling medium, or DC/National didn’t think kids were particularly interested in the motivations for plot-driving villains, The Joker remained a mysterious character who would only become more mysterious with the passage of time. Later writers would attempt to provide backstory, most notably in Detective Comics #168, in which it was revealed that The Joker was originally a criminal known as the Red Hood, who dived into a vat of chemicals to escape a heist foiled by the sudden appearance of Batman. While it was revealed that the toxic waste had bleached the unnamed thief’s skin and dyed his hair green, his legal name and address were withheld, thus maintaining the tantalizing riddle of who he’d originally been before becoming a full-time clown.
By the time that BATMAN ’66 came along, The Joker of the comics had become a prancing, harmless prankster, and yet Caesar Romero cut an imposing figure nonetheless, painted-over mustache and all. Romero remains, to date, the only actor to actually play the character as he has appeared on-page, and removed from the campy confines of the world he inhabits, would prove absolutely terrifying in real life. There’s a strong argument to be made that his is the purest distillation of the character, as the actors who followed would attempt to put their own distinctive stamp on a nebulous entity who remains as clearly defined as he is ambiguous.**
Enter Jack Nicholson. By the time that Tim Burton’s BATMAN hit theaters in 1989, Alan Moore had solidified the Red Hood backstory as both definitive and questionable within the pages of The Killing Joke; the villain’s tragic life as a failed stand-up comedian-turned-patsy was presented alternately as indisputable fact, or as potentially one of a series of delusions. The basic premise was recontextualized by screenwriter Sam Hamm, and the unidentified Clown Prince to-be was christened Jack Napier, a senior member of Gotham’s criminal web. Nicholson didn’t stray particularly far from his usual performance model,*** and as written, Napier is already a vain asshole before his acid bath. The resulting insanity merely turns a Bad Guy into an Even Worse Bad Guy. This Joker doesn’t venture far outside of Jack Torrance native Overlook, and the strange addition of libido to a previously asexual creature stems from a need to give Kim Basinger something to do. It’s impossible to deny Jack’s uncanny resemblance to Marshall Roger’s Joker of “Laughing Fish” infamy, and this aggressively cruel spin was considered definitive until THE DARK KNIGHT.
For many, Heath Ledger’s take has become the bar by which future Jokers will be judged; how much of this is due to the performance, or the actor’s untimely demise, is uncertain. What can’t be argued is that Ledger isn’t drawing upon any previous Joker, be it on the page or from film and television. The Killing Joke was allegedly a source from which to draw, but the cackling madman immortalized by Moore and artist Brian Bolland within those pages has been replaced by a being that can barely be described as human. He’s alien in every sense of the word, suffering from undefined mental illness, depression, and possibly autism. Rather than cackling through pages of vibrant, maniacal dialogue, Ledger speaks as if every word is a tremendous effort, and shows only one moment of genuine emotion – his steadfast, quiet rejection of his own insanity. I’m not crazy. I’m not. It’s a powerful and troubling insight when we see him shaken by the realization of who and what he is, and the light of humanity peeking through otherwise alien darkness.
No actor could hope to follow such an iconic performance; how could they, when iconic performance is used to death in description of it? Jared Leto nonetheless tried. Rather than pulling from the over-the-top goofiness of Romero, the viciousness of Nicholson, or the unsettling sickness-in-human-shape that was Ledger’s swan song, Leto goes Glam. The decision to fuse Bowie with Juggalo is an interesting concept of which Frank Miller would likely approve, particularly when topped off with a bizarre vocal pattern that’s as much Jimmy Stewart as Ledger was Tom Waits. The production team fails him (to say nothing of the screenplay); Leto’s Joker is overdesigned, with excessive tattoo art, and a mouth filled with silver teeth. The actor’s off-screen antics were the resulting media focus (e.g., sending dead animals and used condoms to his costars), but we’re left with the nagging question of what a worthier film series with Leto in the same role might have yielded.
That brings us to JOKER, the Todd Phillips mashup of Superheroes and Scorsese. Much has been made of director Todd Phillips creating a self-conscious evocation of TEXI DRIVER and THE KING OF COMEDY; the comparisons are apt, though I’d throw CRUISING on the pile for equal consideration. Eschewing stylized reality for a late-70s/early-80s aesthetic that extends to period-specific Warner Brothers logos, and video that’s been processed to resemble grungy film stock, JOKER is a more genuinely “reality-based” approach than Nolan’s similarly committed efforts. It’s a unique, Elseworlds take on characters and settings typically presented more in keeping with standard genre conventions. It’s the first and only time a Batman wearing actual spandex feels like a compelling idea ripe for exploration.
All the same: do we need a Joker origin story, and more importantly, do we even want one…?
Phillips delivers just that, whether we asked for it or not. It’s a bold decision to make a Batman Movie without Batman, and even bolder to avoid the action set pieces we would expect to appear by way of corporate mandate. In that latter regard, especially, JOKER truly does evoke the character-driven, outsider-oriented films of the 1970s, where violence is a recurring motif, but overblown choreography is not. This is private violence of the most personal sort: child abuse, self-harm, and slow but destructive collapse are depicted as equally brutal as The Joker’s Third Act expressions of rage.
The entire film hangs on Joaquin Phoenix and his hideously near-emaciated frame. The actor seems an unconventional choice until you realize he’s the only choice. His face is skeletal to the point of resembling barely the smallest ounce of flesh, stretched to the breaking point; burning eyes peer out of deep sockets, and teeth grow long behind thin lips. He prances rather than walks, oblivious to his place in the world, or whether or not he, as the newly-identified Arthur Fleck, truly inhabits it.**** Phoenix is the first Joker to lean into a manic laugh since Hamill, and it’s particularly unsettling given its explanation as the result of neurological abnormality – he even carries a laminated card to explain this syndrome to strangers, as well the fact that his near-shriek is by no means an accurate representation of his present emotional state.
And that’s because JOKER is a film about mental illness. It’s a film about crippling depression. Delusion. Unresolved child abuse. Parental abandonment. Chemical dependency. It’s a story that’s every bit as “dark” as the DC films that have preceded it, and yet this darkness is disorienting in that it’s earned. Arthur Fleck’s descent into an un-medicated abyss of self-discovery and revelation is troubling in what it says about society’s treatment of emotional or psychological sickness, be it the system that is designed to support those in need, or everyday men and women on the street. Fleck’s withdrawal-induced blurring of fantasy and reality renders Phoenix every bit the unreliable narrator of THE DARK KNIGHT, viewed here through the lens of The Killing Joke. Once we realize that certain elements of the story can’t be trusted, the entire film comes into question. Everyone lies to Arthur, including himself.
The Joker arguably functions best as a mysterious force of nature; that fully-formed character from Batman #1 drew power as much from his inexplicable existence as he did from his appearance. JOKER, the movie, denies us this, and spells out in horrible detail the stages of Arthur’s decline. As a story about a Batman villain, this seems an unfortunate misstep; as a character study, it’s the most compelling DC product since THE DARK KNIGHT. In fact, the only elements that threaten JOKER’s integrity are the ones pertaining to Bruce Wayne, as they feel shoehorned and unnecessary.***** If they achieve any positive end, it’s the reimagining of Thomas Wayne as a Trump-like business tycoon rather than the altruistic doctor from all other versions; whether or not this coarse and vaguely loathsome member of the same Gotham elite that’s caused garbage strikes and urban decay, is based on an honest viewpoint or limited to Fleck’s own perspective, remains unknown.
If there’s a single downside to Phoenix in his fully-realized, final form, it’s how closely he’s modeled on Ledger from a visual perspective. The decision to utilize greasepaint and hair dye over a chemical bath is specific to THE DARK KNIGHT; likewise the sweaty, unwashed appearance draws obvious unwanted parallels. This alone undercuts what Phoenix has accomplished in his performance, which was a daunting task given the considerable shadow of his predecessors. From the perspective of Comic Book fidelity, his may fall alongside Leto and Ledger’s respective interpretations as unique but hardly derived from canon; viewed simply on its own merits, Phoenix may be the strongest version yet, simply by virtue of how compelling it is. We pity Arthur. We want to help Arthur. We want to run screaming from Arthur. Someday, we may grow to hate Arthur. Around and around again.
JOKER is the Joker Movie we didn’t ask for, but got anyway. It’s shockingly good for many reasons, but Phoenix is the centerpiece. He occupies nearly every moment, and a lesser actor would prove the project’s undoing. For a character who considers his past best when rendered “multiple choice,” The Joker draws his power on how clearly defined he is, visually, and yet how empty he remains beneath the surface. Performance possibilities are thus endless, and the parade of possibilities always brings a smile to our faces, whether we want one or not.
*This is the sort of creative decision that hobbles most remakes, reboots, and reinterpretations. While not bad, necessarily, a failure to acknowledge the elements that inspired the specific concept produces a handicap. For further reference, see modern STAR WARS, which retreads the same ground as the previous films because its creative teams aren’t going back to draw ideas from the sources that inspired George Lucas – Kurosawa and FLASH GORDON serials, for example. Instead, they’re using earlier STAR WARS movies to generate ideas for new ones.
**Many fans hold that Mark Hamill’s vocal performance in BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (as well as spin-off movies and video games) is the truest representation of The Joker. I subscribe to this opinion, and can only regret that he never had the opportunity to play the character in a live-action piece. As it stands, his appearance as The Trickster on the short-lived FLASH series from the early 90s is The Joker in everything but name.
***It’s safe to say that Nicholson, along with Kevin Costner and Richard Gere, has made a long career out of playing himself.
****Arthur Fleck = A. Fleck = Affleck. If this is some sort of in-joke, I wouldn’t be surprised; and like one of our title character’s gags, it probably only makes sense to its originator alone.
*****Though Thomas and Martha Wayne are shown dying — again — there seemed a chance that Fleck, now in full-Joker Mode, might be the one to pull the trigger. It seemed equally possible that he might ask a young Bruce whether he’d ever danced with the Devil by the pale moonlight; cooler heads prevailed.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)