Punchlines: Talking about the Joker for 2019’s International Batman Day

Posted: September 21, 2019 by patricksponaugle in Comics, Opinion
Tags: , ,

As is traditional for me in September, in recognition of International Batman Day I try to have a post about my favorite superhero: the Caped Crusader. But with a Joker movie on the horizon, starring Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role, it seems fair to talk a little bit about the clown prince of crime and my observations over the years.

It’s not surprising that in the ~80 years that the Joker has been Batman’s number one nemesis (arguably) the character has had changes and experienced evolution in concept.

Introduced in the 30s as more-or-less another criminal with a schtick, the Joker’s clown-persona was more of a sharp contrast to his cold, calculating murderous ways than someone committing wacky (but still murderous) crimes.

In the Joker’s premier appearance, he seemed to be a figure with a vendetta and a need to advertise his upcoming crimes as a challenge to the police. Unlike the Riddler, another villain who had to telegraph his larcenous intentions, the Joker wouldn’t present obscure references… he’d forgo any obfuscation or vague-booking and just use the radio to explicitly announce his intention.

Joker: Tomorrow night at Midnight, I, the Joker, will kill Judge Judgerson. For reasons. I’m very extra.

The Gotham City police would rally, but the target would inevitably die because the Joker had previously poisoned them with a delayed-effect toxin. Or the Joker was patiently hiding in a suit of armor in the victim’s home and would stealthily hit them with a poison dart at the right time.

Or the Joker was disguised as a cop on the protection detailed. And would gas everyone in the room legitimately protecting the unfortunate target.

There’s nothing particular comedic about these crimes, other than the Joker’s trademark use of a poison that causes as a side-effect uncontrollable laughter and/or a painful smiling rictus in the victims as an allusion to comedy.

For years, there was no identity associated with the villain (unlike Selina Kyle, Edward Nygma, or Oswald Cobblepott) – the Joker was just the Joker. Eventually, the Joker’s permanently bleached white skin and green hair was established as being the result of chemical exposure after being tossed into a vat of an industrial chemical soup by Batman during the proto-Joker’s foray into crime as the Red Hood.

When the Joker’s origin was adapted for Tim Burton’s debut of Batman, Jack Nicholson’s Joker was given the name of Jack Napier, who according to the movie’s lore was responsible for the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne. (You know, the triggering event for Bruce Wayne to one day become Batman. What? You didn’t know that Batman’s parents were murdered? Good thing I’m here to inform you of this obscure fact…)

I tend to be a Joe Chill purist when it comes to the Crime Alley triggerman that ended the Waynes that fateful night, but I’m flexible enough to keep the canon of the multiple movie universes separate from the comics. This flexibility is required when considering the various incarnations of cinematic Jokers.

Christopher Nolan’s somewhat-grounded-in-reality Batman series took a step backwards with the Joker character. I don’t mean that negatively – it wasn’t a regression in character or some similar narrative complaint – the kind that heedlessly gets leveled at Jaime Lannister all the time (sorry for my Game of Thrones fan shading commentary) but what we previously knew about the Joker was reset. Heath Ledger’s dangerous chaos-embracing villain had no prior to connection in-universe to Batman. He didn’t murder the Waynes, he hadn’t been tossed into a vat of caustic chemicals by Gotham City’s premiere vigilante. (Or at least, that’s not a tale he related during his various contradictory origin story recitations.) His name may or may not have been Jack Napier. (But probably not.)

This blank-slate nature of Nolan’s vision of Joker put a certain elemental quality to the villain. It defined him less in criminal terms and in more existential terms. This Joker represented some kind of anarchic expression, a murderous version of Harlan Ellison’s rebellious antisocial prankster from “Repent Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman. It might be unfair to cast Batman as the dystopian enforcer and executioner the Ticktockman, but since Frank Miller loves to present Batman as some kind of fascist, why not?

Heath Ledger’s Joker proved that we didn’t necessarily need to know the Joker’s backstory (something that was largely undeveloped for decades in the comics, honestly) for him to be a compelling character and capture our imagination and interest.

With Ledger’s untimely passing, it seemed almost taboo to have another cinematic portrayal of the Joker. Ledger’s take was so memorable and mold-breaking.

I’m not usually one to complain when a new take is done with a character. This might be a heretical statement from me, but I didn’t mind the Andrew Garfield rebooting of Spider-Man (even if those two movies were not necessarily all that great) and I’ll argue that the Tom Holland re-reboot of webhead Peter Parker was excellent.

But maybe the Joker’s portrayal by Jared Leto in DC’s Suicide Squad was … ill advised. I know this is not a controversial take; Suicide Squad was a terrible movie. The Joker existed in the movie largely to provide problematic direction for Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, which might have been fine had the Joker not been wildly … blah.

Not the Joker, in my opinion.

I’m not here to lecture on the problems with Suicide Squad or Leto’s Joker. It’s quite possible that people enjoyed both the movie and this Joker.

I’m just not sure what the script was doing with the Joker, or why the director thought this was good, or what Leto was even doing. Well, I do understand the pressure to try and put a fresh stamp on something. The Joker as a concept is already a strange character. This is not out of place for any of the Batman rogues. I mean, just what’s up with the Penguin and his fashion choices? In this economy?

We understand that characters created during the pulp era of the early 20th Century might need a more modern spin in our present. But some things work across the decades and should not be so easily thrown away.

Nolan’s Batman series was (despite magical city-destroying plot devices and international assassin conspiracies) somewhat presented as a gritty reality. Supervillains in general feel very unrealistic and therefore out of place in such a setting. But Ledger’s insane antagonist in the Dark Knight somewhat transcended the reality of the movie and worked despite that. He was the Joker – essentially a cartoon character – but he represented dread. His eyes were not laughing. There was a cold purpose to his actions, possibly only understood and appreciable by him.

This tracks well with the original appearance of the Joker. The murderous clown whose eyes contradicted the sentiment that his grin might be masking.

Leto’s Joker was just … cackling. It’s as if Leto was playing someone who was not the actual Joker but was impersonating the criminal in this version of the DC Universe, and had hollowly adopted the role without the essence. (Maybe the blend between art and life was too strong here, with Leto.)

This might not be the craziest head canon, since in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, Batman visits the Joker in Arkham Asylum and discovers that the villain had escaped and had left behind an imposter, who had disguised himself using white makeup (as opposed to having permanently bleached white skin.)

Literally not the Joker. He’s using make-up to impersonate the Joker’s permanently disfiguring appearance.

The Suicide Squad Joker was a step back (in the negative way) by making the Joker less interesting. I could see how the Nolan Joker could command a cult-like following from fanatic criminals. I could not see why anyone had actual dealings with the Leto Joker.

In last year’s Batman Day post, I mentioned that I had not yet read Sean Murphy and Matt Hollingsworth’s Batman: White Knight, the self-contained story where a run-in with a vengeful Batman and copious amounts of experimental anti-psychotics had resulted in the Joker becoming sane. Going by his name, Burton movie-canon Jack Napier, the newly sane Napier began to crusade against Batman’s extra-legal activities, ones given tacit support from law enforcement.

I … I still have not finished reading my copy. I don’t mind the concept, but the story somewhat overly puts its thumb on the scale to present Batman as aggressively and recklessly dangerous, and the Joker having some kind of not-actually a murderous serial killer situation. At one point, one of the characters (I need to find the graphic novel and dig the actual quote out) comments that weirdly, the only actual crimes the Joker has been guilty of in a prosecutable sense were robbery or trespassing.

The Joker, now sane and… without permanently bleached skin and permanently greened hair. Maybe… maybe this isn’t actually the Joker? Maybe I should finish reading White Knight.

Okay, I get that when Batman shows up and wrecks things, a lot of evidence might be inadmissable in court. But…

The Joker (on the radio): Tomorrow night, I, the Joker, will kill Judge Judgerson, for reasons. I’m just that extra.

The next night, Judge Judgerson dies laughing from poison, with a smiling rictus.

Commissioner Gordon: It beats me who did this.
Jury: It could be literally anyone.

If you want to suck me in with a story about the Joker going sane, let it be the Joker. The murder clown. The monster. Not a misunderstood-mostly-harmless-prankster guy who Batman seems to have a wildly out-of-proportion reaction to.

I’ll wrap this up with my favorite cinematic presentation of the Joker, in a most terrifying form. From 1990s under-performing film The Exorcist III. Although the actual character of the Joker was not in the movie (Batman was not in the film, fighting criminals or exorcising demons) there’s a scene in a darkened cathedral/church. The demonic presence that’s up to shenanigans throughout the movie manifests atmospherically to give the audience that creepy feeling, and one of the statues of a saint – for a brief moment – looks very different.

This was a very unsettling image. I was watching this movie on Halloween.

The association of the Joker with a demonic force was visually powerful, and just made sense. The Joker is not mundanely evil, he’s transcendently evil. He should terrify us.

It’s part of the reason why I’m not super-interested in seeing the new Joaquin Phoenix Joker movie. Not just because there won’t be a Batman in it (there might be a young Bruce Wayne – I understand that Thomas Wayne as a politician is in the film) but I don’t know if I want to be terrified by a character with motives that I can recognize from reading the newspaper.

This might be a version of the Joker who causes me to want to watch Batman deal with Jared Leto’s Joker after all. A Joker I can comfortably laugh at.

As usual, my thoughts on Batman (and in this case, the Joker) celebrate the day of recognition of the (arguably) World’s Greatest Detective because he was my main fave when I was a kid.  I’m always happy to discuss Batman, friends, and hopefully I’ll have more to say next year. I mean, I can even talk more about the Joker, since I haven’t touched on another presentation of the Batman-less Joker from the now-ended GOTHAM television show. But that can wait for another time.

See you next year. Same Bat-Time, same Bat-International Day.

Images of Batman and the Joker are variously from Batman and Detective Comics, as well as the Batman: White Knight series and images from the Dark Knight, Suicide Squad, Exorcist III, and the Joker film. Obviously, Batman and his image are owned by DC Comics/Warner Brothers.

I make no claims on any of the images, but some claims on the text here. So there.

For the record, Batman and the Joker are fictional. It’s best that they stay that way.

© Patrick Sponaugle 2019 Some Rights Reserved

  1. Are you totally sure they are fictional?!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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