5 Reasons 'Joker' Is A Terrible Joker Movie
WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for Joker
In case this is your first time on the internet, and this article your first stop, let us inform you that there's movie called Joker which just hit theaters. Social media is currently a bubbling puddle of melted cheese after all the hot takes this thing has prompted. Some people love it, some hate it, some think it is to the incel community what Labyrinth was to the "dudes who like to wear revealing pants and hang out with puppets" community.
We too have some issues with this movie. But let's put aside any societal implications and purely look at how this movie gels with the mythology of Batman. Yes, the Bat-verse is in a constant state of growth and change, allowing space for both gritty realism and neon-lit nipples. But we can't help but wonder if giving the Joker his own karaoke version of Taxi Driver does an inherent disservice to the franchise. After all ...
The Joker Is Supposed To Be The Opposite Of Batman
Batman's best villains reflect aspects of Bruce Wayne's own personality -- Two-Face his duality. Scarecrow his ability to inflict fear, Man-Bat his ... bat-ness and manliness. The Joker is unique because he represents the polar opposite of the Caped Crusader. While Batman dresses in dark colors, Joker wears a bright purple suit. Batman scowls, Joker has a creepy perma-grin. Batman has a strict moral code, Joker is unpredictable and anarchic. And in case you didn't notice, Batman is positively steeped in backstory. Every aspect of Bruce's alter-ego is clearly defined by his origin, which is why we all get to see the Waynes die in Crime Alley with more regularity than we see the dentist.
Without this detailed biography, we'd all think Batman was a lunatic. Even the Adam West TV show, which was about as edgy as a beach ball in a bouncy castle, went out of its way to reference the Waynes' murder in the very first scene of the pilot episode.
As Batman's opposite, by extension, the Joker should have no clear-cut backstory that defines his every motivation. The best iterations of Joker typically leave his past a mystery, give scant details about it, or make us question its authenticity (more on that later). Joker is nothing but an explanation for his actions. We learn how
Travis Bickle Arthur Fleck is a mentally ill clown who inadvertently inspires a lower-class revolt after gunning down some douchey business bros, and eventually learns that he likes murder so much that it makes him dance over and over.
But even if Todd Phillips wanted to tell a story wherein the Joker is a sympathetic protagonist, why not adjust Batman's role accordingly? Make the Dark Knight a shadowy, mysterious foe opposing our antihero. Instead we get (a weirdly classist) Thomas Wayne as a central character, whose murder we see yet again. By filling in the Joker's past and Batman's at the same time, the entire balance of their dynamic is thrown off. (Not to mention that Joker will be a senior citizen by the time Bruce becomes Batman.)
It's Way Creepier if We Don't Know Where The Joker Came From
Even ten years later, it's hard to shake Heath Ledger's interpretation of the character. After all, it won an Academy Award and appears on more dorm room walls than Scarface and John Belushi combined. While both Phoenix and Ledger take the "strung-out greaseball in facepaint" approach to the character, their Jokers couldn't be more different. Most importantly, the version we see in The Dark Knight is given no background information whatsoever. We never learn who he really is, and the Joker actively flaunts this by telling different stories about how he got his Glasgow smile.
Which is terrifying, but also allows the audience to try to piece together his true identity. We're personally fans of the theory that Heath Ledger's Joker is a former soldier, which subtly reinforces the movie's post-9/11 themes without explicitly beating you over the head with them. Patton Oswalt built on this idea, proposing that he's specifically "ex-military intelligence."
Even Joker's most famous comic book origin (and an obvious influence on Joker), The Killing Joke, allows room for interpretation. Putting aside some of the grosser aspects of the story (which even author Alan Moore regrets), the flashbacks we see aren't necessarily to be trusted. Joker is remembering his past as a failed stand-up comedian who turns to a life of crime (since podcasts weren't a thing yet). But at one point, he admits to Batman that he remembers different versions of his own origin.
Which explains the various strands of continuity in the comics, but also casts a pall of skepticism over the entire story we've seen. That narrative about a down-on-his-luck comic whose pregnant wife dies in an accident may not be true. Come to think of it, why would we even believe that his pregnant wife that died accidentally? The last time we see proto-Joker with his wife, he's ominously hovering above her with his hand outstretched. Even more disturbingly, her face becomes a clown's as we transition to the present.
In the present, Joker nearly murders a totally different woman, Barbara Gordon. And he sits on a throne of baby dolls next to flaming dolls' heads. Which could be a product of his trauma over the accident, or could it be a hint that the moment he first became the Joker was when he killed his pregnant wife. No one knows, and that's the point. What makes Joker so creepy and beguiling is our inability to completely understand him, regardless of how hard we might try.
It's More Interesting To Evolve The Joker Than To Explain Him
Joker arguably suffers from the same problem a lot of prequels do: We all know how the story is going to end. And just a year after Solo came out, we're still getting scenes in which an iconic character is randomly named by some jerk. But there's a way to explore similar themes to Joker without falling into these pitfalls. Instead of going back in time, why not move forward? Instead of showing us how Joker was once an everyday schmuck, why not explore a famous villain's potential for change? Comics have been doing this for years. Famously, in The Dark Knight Returns, the Joker is seemingly rehabilitated, which becomes the subject of public debate.
There's more than one story tackling the idea of the Joker's sanity. In "Going Sane," Joker returns to a normal life after thinking he's killed Batman. And he assumes the name "Joseph Kerr" because, well, he still hates subtlety. In the recent miniseries Batman: White Knight, the Joker is essentially cured and tries to make amends for the crimes he's committed, becoming a folk hero and a political candidate in the process.
Joker covers similar territory, with Joker inadvertently kick-starting a protest movement. But Arthur himself is apolitical. White Knight asks us to grapple with a Joker who's making solid moral arguments. And Joker's backstory as a failed comedian striving for success? That too was covered in a beloved post-Joker story. In the episode "Make 'Em Laugh" from Batman The Animated Series, we learn that Joker was once a comedian. And despite the fact that he's since become a famous supervillain, he still obsessively craves that recognition from the public.
These stories expand our perception of what makes Joker tick. By making Arthur's transformation into the Joker the story's endpoint, Joker ignores the possibility that the character might be worthy of evolving, rather than simply explaining.
The Joker's Origin Works Better As A Twist
Obviously, this isn't the first time the Joker's been given an origin story. There's Tim Burton's Batman, and more recently whatever the fuck was happening on Gotham. But the best examples of Joker's origin story are usually in the service of a twist. When the Joker first appeared in 1940, there was no accompanying explanation. He didn't get his first backstory until 1951 with "The Man Behind The Red Hood."
The whole issue is basically a whodunit, teasing out the identity of the Red Hood, who in the final pages is revealed to be the Joker. It turns out he was once a normal thief dressed in a tuxedo and a red hood, possessing an unfortunate lack of fashion sense and a fifth-grader's understanding of chemicals. One day the guy accidentally took a dip in some toxic waste during a robbery.
He still doesn't give us a ton of information about things like who his mom was, if he ever had creepy fantasies about a female neighbor, etc. Batman writer Bill Finger seemingly thought it necessary to slightly expose the Joker's past in order to give his mystery a surprise ending. Similarly, The Animated Series never provided much info about the Joker's history until the movie, Mask Of The Phantasm. Joker isn't part of the story at first, and Bruce is horrified when he realizes that the Joker, a former hitman, is connected to a string of mob murders.
It's both a chilling reveal and propels the story toward its climax. Ed Brubaker's The Man Who Laughs gives Joker an origin similar to the original Red Hood story, but it's all revealed through Batman's detective work. The Joker's identity is a mystery to be solved, not just information to be dumped. And even then, Gordon claims they will "probably never know who he really is."
Please Don't Forget That The Joker Is A Criminal Mastermind ... And Funny
By the end of Joker, Arthur is certainly a dude in clown makeup who's killed a few people (like we assume most clowns eventually do). But oddly, in this ramp-up to him becoming the Joker, Arthur doesn't display most of the traits we typically associate with the villain. Joker isn't just a random thug; he's a genius at orchestrating elaborate crimes. It's hard to imagine Arthur Fleck remembering to zip his fly, let alone carrying out one of the Joker's wacky intricate schemes.
And Joker isn't merely smart, but also able to get away with actual murder right under the nose of the World's Greatest Detective, whether that's getting payback against his old gang in "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge" or announcing his victims in advance and still besting Batman, like in "The Laughing Fish." Similarly, in The Dark Knight, he's able to take out judges and even the police commissioner, all while they're under police protection.
Joker also runs a criminal enterprise, which is essentially like operating a small business. Which in Burton's Batman makes sense. Regardless of how you may feel about that particular origin story, Jack Napier being a gangster allows him to launch his Joker gang without straining credibility. He just swaps everybody's suits for cool leather jackets and hands out boomboxes pre-loaded with Prince cassettes. Arthur, on the other hand, literally lacks the acumen for clown college.
Joker's other defining trait is that he's legitimately funny. Whether it's Mark Hamill's Joker getting it on with a rusty animatronic housewife or Heath Ledger making a pencil "disappear," Joker should have the ability to make the audience laugh with his gallows humor.
There's almost nothing funny about Arthur Fleck. There are laughs to be found in Joker, but they're almost always at Arthur's expense, like when he drops a gun in the children's ward of a hospital or faceplants trying to enter an exit door.
All of which isn't to say that there can't be multiple, diverse variations of the Joker. There are three Jokers in the current comics. And Grant Morrison famously attempted to explain the character's inconsistencies over the decades in Arkham Asylum, suggesting that he has a "super-sanity" which allows his personality to randomly change. The problem with Joker isn't that it's so different from what we've already seen; it's that it purports to explain what we've already seen and never comes close. It's a prequel to a story it bears no resemblance to, and the study of a character who never actually becomes that character.
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