SPOILERS FOR JOKER AHEAD
What are people most afraid of? Spiders? Heights? Death? Darkness? The list goes on and on, but in some shape or form every fear boils down to a fear of the unknown. Who isn’t scared of something that they can’t explain? The funny thing is, the fear of the unknown has always scared people just as much as it has interested them. Within that statement lies the key to what makes The Joker the greatest villain of all time. Over the past few years, comicbook movies have become widely popular, showcasing a number of imaginative characters. But not one of them has charmed society with unpredictability and mysteriousness like the clown prince of crime himself. Which is why when Warner Brothers and DC Comics announced a movie exploring The Joker’s backstory, I was nothing but confused. Fast forward to its theatrical release and what we received was a beautifully woven art-piece on the idea behind Batman’s most famous foe; but therein lies one problem.
In a time where mental-illness, political unrest and terrorism are all too-real of topics, it’s no wonder the Joker movie has been turning heads left and right to become a pop-culture phenomenon. Followers of comicbook movie news and rumors will remember that fans have been clamoring for Joaquin Phoenix to take on the iconic role for some time now. And if any actor could step up to the plate and line drive the role out of the park, it’s him. But this movie couldn’t rely on typical tropes of blockbuster movies. Virtually what JOKER ends up doing so well is overcoming arguably the hardest challenge it faced.
There’s a wide appeal for shining the spotlight on villains to see their perspective. But often, we leave their side of the story feeling bad for the character; and before you know it, the villain isn’t exactly a villain anymore. Fortunately, JOKER found a way to avoid this when telling the story of Arthur Fleck. As the film progresses, the line between awkward behavior and gruesome violence are blurred to the point where his personality becomes frightening. His condition of compulsory, sadistic laughter becomes equally more unnerving as it does painful for him and the audience. The result is a truly twisted, spine chilling story of a mad man.
Granted, it’s hard not to feel a little bad for Arthur. Not only has he suffered from childhood abuse, but is also continually corrupted by those around him who are too afraid to realize that he needs help. Nonetheless, the sheer disturbing nature of Arthur and his actions vastly outweighs any feeling of sympathy that might arise. The entire narrative builds upon this fear of the unknown and preys on our feelings of the mentally deranged, so much so that when you leave the theater it follows you like a shadow. An effective protrayol to say the least. So what’s the problem then?
Director Todd Philips and Joaquin Phoenix may have found a way to avoid the trap of making a villain into a hero. But no matter which way you look at it, the film reveals what’s behind the curtain of the magic show. Philips has stated that this is in no way the definitive, end-all-be-all take on the villain. Regardless, we have to ask, does this movie contradict what made the Joker such a fantastic character in the first place?
The Joker is a different kind of villain than the rest. Not knowing his identity much less the logic behind his actions is what makes him all the more fascinating. Once you attach a name or an origin you lose the sense of wonder; the fearful perplexity that makes something as simple as a clown feel as complex as Oscar-worthy portrayal. What really makes this flaw evident is how everybody in Gotham City knows that Arthur is the Joker. They know he was an aspiring comedian, the Waynes know that he’s the son of Penny Fleck, and the world knows why he became a villain.
Let’s go back to 2008’s The Dark Knight and remember how Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger amazingly depicted the character. Not once do we hear his real name or know where he came from. In fact, one of the best aspects of Ledger’s version was that in any chance he received, Joker would tell a completely different story behind the scars that created his famous smile. This atmosphere of darkness mixed with mystery is the embodiment of Joker’s appeal.
Now I’m not trying to say that every portrayal needs to be exactly the same in this respect. In fact, Jack Nicholson’s famous turn as the Joker meets Ledger and Phoenix in the middle. In Tim Burton’s Batman, Joker’s identity is known to a select few. Even Batman knows his identity of Jack Napier, wanted gangster-turned-mad-man. The real point I’m trying to make goes beyond the mystery of Joker’s identity.
The main thing wrong with JOKER isn’t that they reveal his identity and backstory. Rather, the film further removes mystery by revealing his villainous motivations, which turn out to be a huge mis-characterization. Throughout Arthur’s journey he continues to conflict with people who are either his superiors or members of Gotham City’s upper class. One way or another, they all contribute to his downward spiral to his multiple homicides, his complete mental breakdown, and his final transformation/reveal of his Joker identity. All of these actions spark a movement within Gotham City for the lower class to rise up against corrupt superiors. This also fuels Arthur’s transformation and pride in his despicable choices.
During the climax he declares on national television that he is not political. Yet, it’s ultimately clear that he is determined to burn those above him who have wronged him, outcasted him, and turned a blind eye to his existence. This is the moment where I realized what was bugging me. Joker is not a character who has any attachment to politics, class, or self-pity. He has no care whatsoever for rich vs. poor, and he is not vengeful. “I’m like a dog chasing cars, I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it” (Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight). No, the thing that makes Joker the greatest villain of all time is that he just wants to watch the world burn, and nobody can figure out why.
Again, no single version of a villain as open ended as The Joker is definitive. Not all should be the same. It’s precisely the different strides that Joaquin Phoenix and Todd Philips took to make this movie relevant and haunting that make it so great. However, the movie is purely a character study. Moreso is the film about the implications of Joker and his environment than it is about a comicbook origin. It’s important to remember that. The movie did a fantastic job of telling a fresh story. On the other hand, take what has prevailed through Caesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger and even Jared Leto: the fear of the unknown. Perhaps such a deep character study made it difficult to avoid this hiccup. Joaquin Phoenix certainly earns his spot amongst the other Jokers, but he is definitely a very different Joker than the one we’ve loved all these years.
Written by Jake Zall
Edited by Nick Mandala