There is nobody in comic books like the Joker. Almost all villains, whether super-powered or otherwise, are driven by a motive, whether selfish or otherwise. The Joker? One remembers how Michael Caine’s Alfred described the character in “The Dark Knight”: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Sometimes known as the Man Who Laughs and the Clown Prince of Crime among other colorful aliases, the Joker was created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson as a crazed foil to the very purposeful Batman in “Batman” # 1 in 1940. It can be argued he has gotten only crazier and unpredictable through the years for DC Comics, making him the ultimate nemesis to the ultimate planner in Batman.
Each generation got its own Joker in various media. The first Joker was really a costumed criminal constantly in the Dark Knight’s crosshairs. When ABC premiered the “Batman” TV show in 1966, Cesar Romero matched that hit show’s silly, psychedelic, pretty much harmless nature. When Neal Adams reshaped the Joker in 1970 in his inimitably moodier style, the Joker became a much more dangerous, more unhinged bad guy. Tim Burton cast Jack Nicholson as a Joker perfect for Burton’s funhouse, very 1990s (it was already 1989 anyway) vision for costumed heroes and those who oppose them. In 1992, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s “Batman: The Animated Series” gave fans the most stylish Joker, voiced by Mark Hamill himself. When superstar artist Jim Lee started drawing Batman in 2003, he provided the most visually complicated take on the Joker. Thus far, the darkest depiction of the Joker was when Christopher Nolan cast the late Heath Ledger as the Joker in 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” a performance so disturbing it earned Ledger a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. What had promised to be a new generation’s Joker in Jared Leto in Zack Snyder’s 2016’s “Suicide Squad” turned out to be a critically drubbed aberration in the cinematic DC Extended Universe (DCEU).
There has been wild variance in how the Joker has been portrayed in terms of his actions, but he has always been a man in a garish suit, his face the grinning image of a clown, a permanent disfigurement. Like Batman who had a Batmobile, the Joker used the Jokermobile, which bore his visage on the front. He’s famously used a lapel flower that spews acid and a giant telescoping hammer. Perhaps the most insidious weapon the Joker ever used was Joker Venom, a toxin that killed people while giving them a frightening Joker-like grin. But no matter what he’s armed with, the Joker can’t be trusted. He can’t be profiled. He can’t be planned for.
That last part hasn’t changed, but now director Todd Phillips presents a completely different approach to the Joker with the new “Joker” film. The director and writer of the hugely successful “The Hangover” trilogy, Phillips devoted an entire film to chronicling one man’s descent into madness. After all, the movie doesn’t have the name “Batman” anywhere in its title, just the Joker.
Over the years, the Joker has had various origins attached to him with writers changing the story as it suited them. Phillips, who wrote the film together with Scott Silver, has emerged with a movie that is essentially all origin, one that has only the slightest links to the DC Comics Universe, including just the tiniest nods to the Waynes—no Caped Crusader at all here.
Instead, we get the Joker in a setting that seems so familiar it’s distressing. In this dirty, depressing version of Gotham City in 1981, Arthur Fleck is exposed to the conflicting cruelty and happiness of others in his day job as a clown and his nighttime pursuit of becoming a stand-up comedian. He cares for his ailing mother (Frances Conroy) and hangs with his friend Sophie (Zazie Beetz, Domino from “Deadpool 2”). But all around him, life seems to betray him. His inspiration is a talk show host named Murray Franklin, played by the great Robert De Niro. This isn’t looking all that good. “Joker” promises to slide down Arthur’s fall (or rise) into true insanity. It all will become too much for him.
Fleck is an all-new alter ego for the Joker. This story appears pretty much divorced from anything DC has put out regarding the Joker over the last 79 years; it is clearly not part of either Nolan’s Bat-verse or the DCEU. Phillips has talked about how “Joker” really is his original take on the Joker, and not merely his take on the Joker from the DC Universe.
The new movie’s not-so-secret weapon is its lead actor. Phillips had said that he had the perfect actor in mind for the role, to the point that he and Silver actually wrote the film for that actor, but doubted whether he would get him. Well, he got him. Joaquin Phoenix—controversial, talented, unpredictable—seems perfect for the part. You’d want to go see “Joker” just for him.
Aside from being Certified Fresh (76 percent) by review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, “Joker” won the Golden Lion, the award for best film, at the 76th Venice International Film Festival. Phillips clearly intends “Joker” to be a Joker film for noncomic book readers—or for fans of disturbing character studies.
The Joker has done terrible things. He killed Robin in “A Death in the Family.” He paralyzed Barbara Gordon in “Batman: The Killing Joke.” In the alternate future reality “The Dark Knight Returns,” he frames Batman by killing himself. What will he do in his own film?
One of the most original and memorable creations in comics, the Joker presents a contradiction in everything he represents. The name, the word itself, implies an attempt at humor, but, because of Batman’s omnipresent archenemy, it instead implies terror and mayhem. Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix present to you the mad new face of the Joker.
Warner Bros.’ “Joker” is now showing in cinemas.