Getting the Joke: Can An Iconic Villain Work Without His Hero? Thoughts on the Upcoming Joker Movie

Well.

I can’t say I’m surprised. But I am creeped out a little, and a bit underwhelmed. So maybe DC is working at lowering the bar so as to wow us?

My brother has been arguing that Marvel overall makes better content than DC. Never mind that we grew up on WB 39’s Batman and Superman show blocks. It would help, however, if DC films overall took pages from the MCU and focused on expanding their roots rather than trying to grab for dollars.

The New Teaser Trailer

October 4, DC will release another villain-centered film, about the Joker. They released a trailer. Only, in this case, Joaquin Phoenix is the Clown Prince of Crime, who seems to be an ordinary man that turns to criminal behavior after a series of bad days at a terrible day job. He wears makeup to hide his true face and tries to fake a smile. We still don’t know what exactly causes him to snap.

Who is The Joker?

The Joker is Batman’s most well-known villain. He’s a man with a terrifying clown face, who often tries to poison people with gas that leaves them with frozen smiles on their faces.

Notable live-action Joker actors include Cesar Romano, Jack Nicholson, and Heath Ledger. Cesar was certainly the funniest of the three, due to his stealing the show as well as any cash available on the live-action Batman series. Heath had the most realistic take on the Joker as an agent of chaos that can grasp morals but just doesn’t care.

Voice actor Jokers are even more legendary; we know Mark Hamill who gave us the definitive Joker voice for the DC Animated Universe and subsequent spinoffs. Kevin Michael Richardson did a remarkable job on The Batman, especially since he came after Mark did and had big shoes to fill. Jeff Bennet had the best Joker song ever on Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which epitomized Joker’s chaotic attitude towards the world as he gains godlike powers. Even Zach Galifianakis got a moment of his Joker hitting on Batman while hitting him in The Lego Batman movie.

An Ideal, Not A Humanized Being

Most incarnations of the Joker treat him as an “arch-criminal” who uses the insanity plea to stay alive. In his first appearance in the Batman comics, he targeted three public officials and poisoned them, just because he could. He deliberately got himself committed once to take advantage of a patient at a psychiatric ward. Even so, Batman and Robin know that the Joker is a rational human being who could grasp consequences.

The insanity defense came into play when the Silver Age switched to the Bronze Age in comics, and Joker actually started killing too many people to justify putting him in a normal prison. One newspaper comic series had a defense team make the plea when they agree to take Joker’s case; they pay the price for it since no one wants the team defending the Joker.

Each incarnation varies on if he gets the insanity defense or treated like a rational human being; the parody in the Lego Batman Movie uses Arkham Asylum as the default prison for all the prisoners in Gotham, including him. Batman: The Animated Series has the implied take that Joker is actually sane but relies on the defense when it suits him, as shown when he gets declared sane after inheriting millions.

Finally, we get to the Dark Age. Here, Joker all but admits that he and Batman have an inexplicable connection. He needs a figure of complete reason and authority to thwart. A Joker without a Batman is just a sad clown and failed comedian. Batman Beyond lampshades it in their film Return of the Joker, where the new Batman tells off Joker for wasting his life trying to get a laugh out of Bruce who doesn’t laugh. Lego Batman centers the plot around Joker wanting Batman to admit that they need each other and have a relationship, where they hate each other with mutual fire.

Here is the thing: both the former films were written by Batman fans, engaging in two surreal animated worlds built on loving nostalgia. Paul Dini, Glen Murakami, Bruce Timm, Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna,
Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, and John Whittington know they had more flexibility because those worlds have less consequences. Lego Batman is a pastiche on 70 years worth of fights.

“Cool Motive, Still Murder.”

The big issue with humanizing the Joker is that, realistically, a man like him wouldn’t last long after being caught and sent to prison. Eventually, someone would put him away forever or off him, as is implied happened to the Joker in The Dark Knight after his actor’s untimely death. That Joker has immunity for all his crimes stretches the suspension of disbelief.

There is also the fact that Joker causes harm. And the people he makes suffer are stuffed into the fridge, like Barbara Gordon into The Killing Joke, or Dr. Harleen Quinzel, who became Harley Quinn. One of the best Batman comics and Animated Series episodes, “Mad Love,” addresses this; Dr. Quinzel was a naive Arkham intern that believed Joker’s sob story about having an abusive father. When she turns to crime and traps Batman, the Dark Knight reveals that Joker has a million sob stories, each with different variations, that he uses to win people’s sympathy. Harley refuses to believe Batman until Joker pushes her out of a window for “stealing his thunder” and explaining the joke. Even with this, she can never leave the Joker or his bad influence until he dies for real, and with his death comes the offscreen realization at the horrible things she’s done and endured.

A Joker with less depth works because we remember he’s a clown and a monstrous one. He can make us laugh and gasp in horror at the same time. We don’t question the logic in most animated films because we see them on an abstract plane. In live-action, you mess up the Joker and you just get titillating shock value, as we saw with Suicide Squad and Harley Quinn joking about having schizophrenia. (No. DON’T do this.)

Can A Feature Joker Film Work?

I have my doubts, for the reasons stated above. Doing a live-action Joker requires a willing suspension of disbelief. It’s hard to translate his comic book shenanigans to real-life actors, as we saw with the first Batman. They’re too stylized and ridiculous.

Also, again, Joker’s main shtick is that he harms people and uses the clown persona to underplay the horrors. This isn’t Venom, where Eddie Brock without Peter Parker in his life manages to negotiate with a hostile Symbiote. The Dark Knight pulls no punches in showing that he murders dozens and causes havoc in the city. That’s what makes the movie work, that his actions have consequences and no jokes can undo that. (We are not mentioning Suicide Squad.)

Despite this, maybe it could work. The trailer also features other characters with clown masks causing havoc; Joaquin’s Joker also doesn’t kill anyone onscreen. Once he murders a person, the sympathy points go down. They go down hard. But he hasn’t killed anyone. Yet.

I hope Joaquin can pull it off, speaking as a Batman fan. A good DC movie matters because we know that DC can make good movies when they focus on stories. My worry is they’re just making this for the money, to fill the niche that Venom has created with supervillain protagonists.

Next article on Joker will be covering his top five moments in cartoons, from various incarnations. I hope to also cover the other Batman villains that I wish would get the feature-length options, both well-known and underrated.

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Priya Sridhar: A 2016 MBA graduate and published author, Priya Sridhar has been writing fantasy and science fiction for fifteen years, and counting, as well as contributing columns to Chalkpack Magazine and drawing a webcomic for five years. She also enjoys reading, biking, movie-watching, and classical music. One of her stories made the Top Ten Amazon Kindle Download list, and Alban Lake published her novella Carousel. Priya lives in Miami, Florida with her family and posts monthly at her blog A Faceless Author. Website Twitter: @PriyaJSridhar