‘Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos.’
Clown Prince Of Crime, Harlequin of Hate, Jack Napier, Arthur Fleck: the Joker takes many forms, but his insatiable, electrifying appetite for anarchy remains steadfast.
Joaquin Phoenix is the latest actor to relish the role on-screen in Todd Phillips’ Joker; the latest in a line of prestige performances, from Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman to Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn in The Dark Knight.
Check out the latest trailer for Joker below:
His literary history in DC Comics is extraordinarily expansive: within lies a treasure trove of readings into the demented character, from mundane to cosmic, from upbeat to grisly.
An attractive trait of the Joker is the vacuum of comprehending him: no backstory solid, no motives crystal. Every iteration, such as Phillips upcoming vision, is simply a version; nothing is concrete.
But if one quote were to capture the character’s sinister allure, particularly amid the constant littany of political misery, it’s from Alan Moore’s masterful graphic novel The Killing Joke.
The quote reads:
All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.
The Joker can be looked at as a trickster: usually a male character, fond of breaking the rules, boasting, laughing in the face of authority and playing tricks on people.
Helena Bassil-Morozow – academic and lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University – is a walking authority on the trickster’s position in cinema.
Bassil-Morozow argues in her 2013 book, The Trickster in Contemporary Film, that a mixture of ‘the grotesque, the tragic, the absurd and the comical reflects the true trickster spirit’ – if one accumulates the Joker’s on-screen appearances, these elements are all present.
On the topic of our love for the character, Bassil-Morozow told UNILAD:
A likable villain is someone people would still like to relate to. The Joker is relatable because what he wants is very human – and he wants to be heard, and to be noticed.
He ends up trashing the city in the process, which is obviously wrong, but he does make us think about our own negative behaviours, our own attention-seeking.
Professor Jeff Zacks’ book, Flicker: Your Brain on Movies, deals with our psychological reaction to films. For example, he looks at why we flinch when someone is punched, why we cry, why what we see behind the screen can feel frighteningly real.
In an interview with UNILAD, Professor Zacks, a cognitive neuroscientist, talked about the conflict a viewer endures when someone we detest – let’s say Game of Thrones‘ Joffrey Baratheon, arguably television’s most hissable monster – sees success, as opposed to the Joker.
Professor Zacks told UNILAD:
If a character with whom we identify experiences something in line with their goals, we feel positive emotion; if their goals are frustrated we feel negative emotion… good things for good people make us feel good; bad things for good people make us feel bad.
Now, suppose you’re interacting with a smiling face, but it’s the smile of someone you detest who just learned good news about their goals, which oppose yours.
In this situation, your inferential pathway is in conflict with your perceptual pathway. You may experience a quick sense of happiness from the faster sensory pathway followed by a double-take and then a feeling of anger or disappointment as the inferential pathway catches up.
Charisma is key to a villain’s magnetism: fitting then, that there is simply no villain greater at captivating the audience than the Joker – cinema’s best trickster.
However, for Bassil-Morozow, the character isn’t just about the joy of the joke:
The Joker is a very versatile, and a truly symbolic character. The popular culture is fascinated with the Joker because it reflects the dark side of the capitalist society, the social ills that come with urban living, and with exploitation and accumulation of wealth.
As such, he is very important because he allows people to reflect on their society via a fictional character.
From his early inception, the Joker has been Batman’s ultimate adversary: as Bassil-Morozow says, he ‘questions Batman’s role as a valiant hero by highlighting the negative sides of Western capitalist societies’.
His first major onscreen appearance came in the form of Cesar Romero, in the 1960s Batman TV show. The Joker’s darkness is unmistakable, but Romero’s vaudevillian turn was as hammy as they come; more practical joke-focused than the destruction-based tyranny of later iterations.
He was a cartoonish caricature that kids and adults could enjoy; an unproblematic, zany clown made for the slam-boom-wallop feel of Adam West’s caped crusader.
It was Tim Burton who added gritty edge to the cinematic Joker with Jack Nicholson’s Jack Napier – a murderous mobster thrown under the bus (and into a chemical tank), bleaching his skin and leaving him with a permanent ear-to-ear grin.
Flickering Myth’s film critic EJ Moreno told UNILAD that while he has problems with the ‘edgy 4chan’ trend of the character, he prefers when the Joker takes a more ‘fun, animated approach’.
In this regard, Nicholson’s Joker’s blackly comic theatrics feel part-and-parcel of Burton’s environment – an extravagantly gothic metropolis, more of a stage than a city.
Nicholson already has the acting prowess to hit the role home, but his portrayal is fascinating: he’s fiendishly corrupt and hideously arrogant from the off (‘You look fine,’ his girlfriend says. ‘I didn’t ask,’ he replies). ACE Chemicals simply enables the evil under the surface.
He considers himself to be the core of Gotham’s male-steered duplicity. One of Bassil-Morozow’s assessments of the character is particularly astute in Burton’s film: ‘The anger that comes with feeling ignored by politicians, with feeling lost, alienated and isolated in the city, with being cut off from power. He wants to gain some sense of agency by any means.’
His distasteful showmanship makes him irresistible: his prancing art museum assault to the tune of Prince, burning a man alive with a handshake-shocker and, of course, the legendary line: ‘Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?’
He says: ‘I’ve been dead once already… it’s very liberating.’ The world is his pantomime, and we’re there for the show.
Jared Leto’s hip-hop Suicide Squad Joker owes somewhat of a debt to Nicholson (if we’re being generous) – however, while managing to sketch a unique take, it’s hard to really attach yourself to him.
The amalgamation of ‘damaged’ tattoos, superfly ‘gangsta’ tropes and blunt eroticism hampered the character’s (im)purity – plus, his screen time was butchered in the editing room. He may want to ‘hurt ya really, really bad’, but we never got the chance to really believe it.
We need something to chew, even if that’s ‘nothing’. There’s a difference between a total absence of agency and equitable chaos – he has very, very little bearing on the plot apart from being a fashionable addition.
To think at one point, Leto’s Joker looked terrifying – check out the original trailer for Suicide Squad below:
The answer to the perfect Joker lies within Jungian psychology, with the ‘shadow’. Bassil-Morozow explains that this character ‘represents the worst, the taboo sides of human personality. These taboo subjects need to be discussed otherwise they will find an outlet in other ways, including various types of violence’.
This brings us to, quite possibly, the greatest performance the world has ever experienced: Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.
Our first glimpse of Ledger’s Clown Prince comes at the end of a backstabbing bank heist. William Fichtner’s character lays on the floor, crippled by gunshot wounds. He spits: ‘Criminals in this town used to believe in things; honour… respect.’
It’s this particular iteration’s complete apparent absence of these two things that make him a captivating force of nature – he says himself he’s a ‘dog chasing cars’, he wouldn’t know what to do if he caught one. ‘The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules,’ he says, and that’s his nasty charm – the very essence of chaos.
One only need listen to this monologue:
You know what, you know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all part of the plan.
But when I say that one, little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!
… Oh and you know the thing about chaos: it’s fair.
Chaos is fair – the driving force behind this Joker’s onslaught. This may be a character that enjoys wild glee as much as a cruelly sardonic wit (‘How about a magic trick? I’m gonna make this pencil disappear…’), but his overarching ethos is delectably abhorrent.
‘Madness, as you know, is like gravity… all it takes is a little push.’ The Joker inspires you to consider the fragility of order, the fickle nature of the world’s criminals and politicians – for him, it’s never about money.
He likes cheap things like a gunpowder, and has nothing in his pockets apart from a calling card, knives and lint – he wants to send a message. He believes the world deserves ‘a better class of criminal’ – for the audience, his unadulterated love of the bad is, for the lack of a better word, good.
He’s a master manipulator and criminal mastermind – his flakiness is an illusion for his diabolical intricacy. So when he appeals to our insecurities with the claim: ‘I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve’, it’s irrepressibly easy to relish.
Aaron Belz wrote on Shared Justice that ‘a society that gives play a place is healthier not only culturally but politically’. We can revel in Ledger’s Joker’s disregard for humanity, we can even massively enjoy it – the key is the difference between entertainment and seeing the Joker as a means for action.
All art may be inherently political, and we can use his destruction as a metaphor for our times, as a commentary on modern people and politics – but he never has and never will be intended as a recommendation.
It’s similar to the old Grand Theft Auto argument: can a medium designed to entertain incite violence? The upcoming release of Phillips’ Joker has raised many eyebrows: some have cited 8chan manifesto culture as a reason to be scared of the film’s potential impact – it is about a white terrorist after all.
Phillips’ Joker, one crafted with humanity and (intentionally) problematic sympathy, is probably the most controversial iteration yet. Without his theatrical fixture as Batman’s foil, the film encourages us to comprehend the man behind the make-up, the tortured soul left to the curb by a society that ‘treats him like trash’.
He inhabits a seemingly oppressive milieu ruled by the rich and maintained by a staggering lack of action – his social worker brushes off his ‘negative thoughts’ with medication and routine, time-passing questions.
As a cipher for commentary on today’s mental health crisis and a critique of Trumpian politics, the film is more superficial. It’s in the blitzkrieg of Phoenix’s harrowing, electric performance that you feel the very essence of the Joker – a man whose courtship with violence, murder and power becomes far too powerful, too easily.
Check out the first trailer for Joker below:
Before, we’ve only ever met the Joker as a monster – even Nicholson’s character is introduced to us as a scumbag. By tracking Arthur’s descent and rise into madness from the fringes of paranoia, depression and insecurity, it inspires the audience – no matter how morally repugnant – to feel just a twinge of jubilance as he heinously conquers Gotham.
While at times it’s almost reminiscent of Howard Beale’s ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!’ speech in Network, the film is absolutely not an endorsement of its fictional movement; rather, it’s a mesmerising reimagining of villainy.
A film – as a piece of art with its own integral set of (or lack of) rules and, inevitably, biased morals – does not need to sensitively attune to the real world. We can’t compromise creativity – whether it be optimistic or cynical – in the face of adversity.
‘Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn,’ – and that’s why we need the Joker. His intrinsically inhuman nature is his appeal, a figment of a world without peace, civility and order – it’s immensely cathartic.
Remember: ‘It’s all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for… it’s all a monstrous, demented gag! So why can’t you see the funny side?’
‘Why aren’t you laughing?’
Joker is out in UK cinemas now.
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After graduating from Glasgow Caledonian University with an NCTJ and BCTJ-accredited Multimedia Journalism degree, Cameron ventured into the world of print journalism at The National, while also working as a freelance film journalist on the side, becoming an accredited Rotten Tomatoes critic in the process. He’s now left his Scottish homelands and took up residence at UNILAD as a journalist.