There’s a perverse thrill to the Joker. There’s charm in the chaos, comedy in the kills. Whether it’s Mark Hamill’s gleefully sadistic animated rendition, or the Clown Prince copyrighting fish, this is a monster we’ve all wanted to watch for over 80 years.
Even Heath Ledger’s Dark Knight interpretation is humming with electric mystery. I left the theater in 2008 impersonating and quoting Batman’s archenemy. Which is also to give voice to so many people’s greatest fear about Joker directed by Todd Phillips: Joker is a violent madman that still inspires us to smile.
Amazingly, Joker strips that satisfaction away. When the Joker laughs in Batman the Animated Series you might laugh along. When Arthur Fleck laughs in Joker you grab your ribs and take an Advil.
It’s the most interesting thing about the movie to me, holding a mirror up to all the things that make this murderous psychopath fun and declaring war on them. The preposterous degree of fear-mongering over Joker is ultimately much ado about the character at his least inspiring. It’s not just that you shouldn’t want to be like Arthur Fleck, it’s that Joker makes it abundantly clear that doing so would just make you an Arthur in clown makeup.
Why so mundane?
Ironically, I also don’t think that’s what Joker is trying to do. I don’t think it’s making a point that loving villains like the Joker at their most exaggerated is hypocritical. I expect that – much like they’ve said in interviews – Todd Philips and Joaquin Phoenix were assured of their conviction to make a “serious” movie that just so happened to connect to comic book intellectual property. Yes, Joker is a Scorsese cover band with a very convincing lead singer, but it’s also a lot more connected to the world of comics than I expected.
Joker wants to be a revelation, but somehow it still can’t break away from its core: Another comic book origin story.
Two of the worst ideas in comics are Wolverine’s origins and the Joker’s origins, and remarkably we now have movies about both of them (throw in Solo and Darth Vader to round out the Bad Idea origins Mount Rushmore). Trying to explain how the clown prince of crime came to be is inherently dull. Even Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke struggles to make “normal” Joker particularly compelling (I love Moore’s writing, but “failed standup” is a bit on the nose!).
At best, Joker origins actually lean in to the mystery of the character, whether it’s The Dark Knight’s multiple choice misdirection, or even Batman: Endgame’s assertions that the character is anything from the Devil himself to a myth that has existed for centuries.
It’s this take on an unreliable narrator that I really wish Joker had committed to more thoroughly. One of my favorite moments in the film occurs when we realize the Joaquin and Zazie Beetz romance has (possibly) been playing out entirely in Arthur’s head. Instead of continuing to wonder what Zazie’s character was doing, I instead began wondering how much of Joker was even real.
Again, this is at the core of the character for me. Joker, as I’ve known him in Batman comics for years, isn’t real. He’s elusive, both in terms of getaways and in terms of identity. Watching the film wrestle with this idea, but simultaneously want to ground Joker in the “real” Arthur Fleck is where it falls apart.
Bringing it full circle, I was genuinely surprised by how easily Joker gave in to the pressure to “Batman-ify” the movie. Sure, there’s no Dark Knight flapping around and beating on Joaquin, but we get a pre-Joker clown show for Master Bruce and Alfred, and copious amounts of Arthur convinced Thomas Wayne is his father.
The film’s ending is absolute embarrassing overkill, shuffling Batman’s origin story into the Joker’s first major riot in the streets of Gotham. Let it be said that whoever at Warner Bros signed the “1 Thomas and Martha Wayne gunned down in an alley scene per quarter” contract should be sacked, canned, and caned. To try to say “we made a real movie!” and at the same time shove the rise of Joker into Batman’s origin story is the pinnacle in hamfisted failure.
So yes, I think Joker begins from a faulty premise (We need to explain how society created a Joker!), and fails to raise above into something transcendent. Nonetheless, I am very much in favor of Joker’s ambition, and it’s place in DC’s comic book movie vision.
I’m also very willing to admit I’m judging Joker more harshly than a lot of comic book movies because it effectively asked to be held to a higher standard. For example, I also finally just saw Aquaman (purely as a result of my HBO subscription so I can check out Watchmen… Talk about the DC Comics effect!), and that is about as straight down the middle a comic book movie as you can make. Even where it fails, Joker’s artistic ambition is a welcome departure from such obvious installments in the DC Universe.
Post Dark Knight DCU Power Rankings
To conclude, here are my updated DC Universe power rankings. I don’t think we can continue to lump these together the same way I do for the Marvel Cinematic Universe because the shared universe concept is clearly in a state of Crisis on Infinite Platforms. Instead, I’d more or less consider this the “Post-Dark Knight” DC Universe rankings:
- Doom Patrol
- Wonder Woman
- Justice League
- Man of Steel
- Batman v Superman
- Suicide Squad
- There’s a little girl outside your window, but you blink and she’s gone
- Swamp Thing