Over the past 80 years, Batman's archnemesis The Joker has become one of the most recognizable fictional villains worldwide. It's not totally obvious why our civilization is obsessed with, of all things, a gangster clown, so this week Cracked's exploring the character's enduring popularity and what The Joker's many iterations reveal about us, the audience. Catch up with: part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, and part six.
Jared Leto was pissed. In less time than the break between Olympic games, Leto was forced to cede his position as the only movie Joker in town after Todd Phillips (the director of the Hangover films) announced he was directing a gritty new take on the famed supervillain's origin story. Leto reportedly called every contact he could imploring them to kibosh the project. "You've got to stop this," he allegedly begged.
Yeah, it didn't work. Not only did the movie get made, it won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, bagged Joaquin Phoenix an Oscar, and raked in over a billion dollars at the box office, becoming the highest-grossing R-Rated movie of all-time -- but only because Avengers: Endgame cut out all of its F-bombs and frontal nudity.
Clearly, a big part of the film's success was its connection to The Joker. Namely Heath Ledger's Joker, who, as we've noted this week, was probably as iconic as The Beatles. But we'd argue that the movie struggles to justify that connection, offering only the flimsiest, threadbare associations to what we know of Joker.
This isn't to say that our comic mythologies can't be played with and redefined in new and interesting ways. They absolutely should. But Joker was sold to audiences as an exploration of the character we already knew to a certain degree. And while Phoenix's Arthur Fleck does descend into violence while dressed as a clown, he's not funny, smart, or methodical, and certainly never rises to the heights of villainy we associate with the character. The movie dispenses with so much of the Joker mythology, it's not even clear why it's a Joker movie. It could have just as easily been called Sad Clown Man Who Murders a Handful of People and Occasionally Dances -- but then it wouldn't have made a billion dollars.
It sure seems like Phillips just exploited the popularity of the superhero movie in order to Trojan Horse his mid-budget Scorsese knock-off into the modern studio system -- and, yup, that's pretty much exactly what happened. Phillips conceived of Joker during the premiere of War Dogs, his dark comedy starring Jonah Hill that would go on to be a modest success at best. Phillips noticed a billboard for a comic book movie and "surmised that maybe the only way to make the sort of gritty Martin Scorsese-like drama he wanted to was by disguising it as a superhero story."
Even putting aside the fact that Phillips' strategy was to con nerds into paying to see his otherwise commercially unviable crime flick, that revelry for the Scorsese movies of yesteryear was consistently at odds with the story. Some critics hailed it for its view of "modern alienation," yet Joker is set in the early 1980s, for no other reason than film geek nostalgia and allowing the filmmakers to sidestep the hot-button issues of today. And the stunt-casting of Robert DeNiro as the Johnny Carson of Gotham City is a fun shoutout to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, but Robert DeNiro isn't exactly a laugh riot, and is ultimately as convincing as a comedic showman as he was as a Russian spy hellbent on murdering a cartoon squirrel.
Again, it's okay to contort these familiar characters, but what Joker substituted in place of established lore was also just gross and tone-deaf, replacing the familiar trappings of 80 years of stories with, for example, a prominent through line in which Arthur is constantly being questioned by Black women; his neighbor, a mother on the bus --
As well as his social worker, and the psychiatrist at the end, who Arthur seemingly kills.
One of the most fundamental flaws of the movie is that it so consistently gives us subtle hints that Arthur's simmering rage is motivated by racism and misogyny, but never gathers the nerve to directly engage with those themes. Even more galling is how the movie totally disregards the racial context of its real-life inspiration. The story's inciting incident is when Arthur is attacked on the subway by a trio of Wall Street yuppies and guns them all down, inadvertently becoming a folk hero in the process.
This part of the Joker's origin was blatantly inspired by the case of Bernard Goetz, the New York City subway shooter who you might remember from the time you drunkenly belted out Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" at karaoke night. Goetz, like Arthur, started carrying a handgun after a previous assault. In 1984, while riding the subway, Goetz was approached by four unarmed Black kids who asked him for five bucks. Believing it to be a robbery, Goetz pulled out his gun and shot three of them. The fourth, 18-year-old Darrell Cabey, cowered in the corner. Goetz said "You don't look too bad, here's another." Then, like Arthur and his final victim, Goetz shot Cabey in the back.
While all of the victims survived, Cabey was "paralyzed and suffered permanent brain damage." After skipping town for nine days, Goetz eventually turned himself into the cops. When news of his actions hit the papers, not unlike Joker, Goetz received a "groundswell of support" from those who saw him as a "hero" who had finally stood up to the city's criminal element, a sort-of real-life Charles Bronson from Death Wish. (Gee, no easy parallels to 2020 there.) The police hotline was "swamped with callers praising his actions."
The nearly all-white jury cleared Goetz of the murder and assault charges, leaving him on the hook for illegal gun posession only. While people like Al Sharpton blasted Goetz's actions as an "overreaction that is soaked with race and bigotry" he was never charged with a hate crime because there was "insufficient evidence that the shooting expressed a racial motive," according to then U.S. Attorney and future Borat 2 star Rudy Giuliani. The verdict threw a veritable powder keg into the city's volatile "race relations."
So the fact that Joker took this true story from the recent past, whitewashed the victims, and dodged the issue of race entirely is pretty fucked up. Worse, the film contorted Goetz's supporters into a protest movement, not cheering on violence against Black youth, but targeting income inequality -- which is an especially troubling conflation to make because Black communities in the U.S. are affected by poverty at a much higher rate than white ones. Allegorically aligning Goetz's supporters with critics of America's disproportionate wealth distribution is at best lazily indifferent, and at worst, grossly irresponsible.
And we haven't even gotten to what the movie purports to be about, which is alienation and mental illness. Phillips claims that the broader theme of the movie is about "kindness and empathy" which doesn't totally stick. Yes, we empathize with Arthur for much of the movie, but when strangers react to his eccentricities with apprehension or fear, a part of us accepts that reaction as perfectly valid because in the back of our minds we know that we're watching a movie called Joker about a guy who will become the goddamn Joker by the end.
According to Phillips, it was important for him to "shine a light" on the "broken" mental health system. But that too makes little sense. Yes, we see that social service cuts leave Arthur without access to medication -- but that only happens after he's killed several people and has gone full Fight Club, hallucinating dates with his attractive neighbor. Some health experts blasted the film for further stigmatizing mental health; the movie ends with Joker shooting Robert DeNiro in the face, but in reality, "people with severe mental illness are responsible for less than 1 percent of all gun homicides." And they are "10 times more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the general population." Even worse, the movie's success may have had a tangible negative in the way we think about mental illness. A recent study found that people who had watched Joker had "higher levels of prejudice toward those with mental illness" which might "erode support for policies that we know to be beneficial for those with mental illness."
Another problem is ... Arthur may not even be The Joker. Due to the staggering age difference between Arthur and Bruce Wayne, before the movie had even come out, some fans theorized that this Joker merely inspired the Joker who would go on to battle the Caped Crusader. Then there's the ending, which may imply that the movie we saw was all an elaborate fantasy that exists only in Arthur's head. The film is also peppered with subtle references to previous Batman stories; Bruce's treehouse pole echoes Adam West's Batpole --
Similarly, a painting from the museum sequence in Tim Burton's Batman shows up in Arthur's apartment. Maybe these aren't just Easter Eggs, but clues that Arthur exists in our world and has cobbled together a delusion in which he becomes the Joker he knows from the world of pop-culture (thankfully sparing us a cameo from a beefy Austrian wielding an ice gun). Even Todd Phillips suggested that the character in his movie may not be the actual Joker. Which, again, is weird because it's called Joker.
Our view of the movie may have been tainted somewhat when it was first released amidst the fears and "credible" threats that the movie would spark real-life mass shootings (which thankfully never happened). But watching it now, it's kind of shocking how tame it all is. The presentation is certainly brutal and heavy-handed, but compared to other Jokers, Arthur's crimes are downright quaint. Arthur killed a talk show host? Nicholson's Joker murdered his most loyal follower for literally no reason. Arthur suffocated his mother to death? The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series brought dynamite to a child's birthday party.
And Phoenix is genuinely great here -- it's honestly hard to fathom that this gaunt, tortured clown was also Johnny Cash and the guy who had sex with his phone. But it's hard to talk about this Joker in comparison with others, mainly because the character of Arthur Fleck is such a divergence from what we've seen. To compare Phoenix's work as The Joker to, say, Heath Ledger's is like comparing Sean Connery's take on James Bond to Candace Cameron Bure's take on DJ Tanner -- they're such fundamentally different characters that there's almost no point.
But there's no arguing that this Joker resonated in the public consciousness in a way no other had. No, he didn't inspire any action figures or cringey parade floats -- but people all over the world began wearing Joker outfits to actual protests. And the Bronx staircase in which Joker (sigh) danced to the sounds of Gary Glitter's "Rock & Roll Part 2" like the after guy in a Metamucil commercial, famously became a popular tourist spot -- much to the irritation of neighbors.
Maybe we shouldn't be shocked that this was always where Batman movies would inevitably take us. The modern films began with Burton, whose film's were always more fascinated with Batman's rogues gallery than the Dark Knight himself. Even then, it was absurd that these tonally bleak stories clearly geared towards the sexual anxieties and political fears of adults were forced to sell themselves via Happy Meal toys.
But even if you hated Joker, comic books themselves have proven that audiences can handle multiple, wildly different versions of the Joker, even simultaneously. And we tend to get the Joker we deserve at the time. In the words of Akiva Goldsman, one of the guys who made Batman & Robin: "The characters are durable and they are afforded different realizations ... they change, and are changed ... by the historical moment they're in" and ultimately "that's what we yearn for."
Top Image: Warner Bros.