by AC Recio
The Joker is one of the most recognizable fictional characters in history, often named as the greatest comic book villain of all time (1, 2, 3), and with his origin story hitting theaters recently, it’s no joke that the Clown Prince of Crime is generating buzz around the whole world. Joker is one of the most anticipated comic book films of the year, winning Best Film at the Venice Film Festival and attaining prestige status even before premiering. But just what should we expect from the latest adaptation of the infamous comic book villain? Let’s take a look at the history of the Joker in comics, film and TV to see just where this movie stands in the character’s canon.
The Joker made his comic book debut in Batman #1 in 1940 as the Caped Crusader’s first villain – a serial killer who uses “Joker Venom” to kill his victims, leaving permanent smiles etched on their faces. He was extremely popular among readers, appearing in nine out of the first twelve Batman issues, and his growing popularity made him a regular feature of the comic book for years to come.
However, as public outcry increased against the negative effect of comics on children (a story for another time), the Comics Code Authority (CCA) was established in 1954 to ensure that excessive violence, gore and sex were not depicted in comic books. This greatly affected the characterization of the Joker, which shifted from that of a remorseless criminal mastermind to a goofy prankster character, which made its way to his adaptations in other media.
What brought the character into greater public consciousness was Cesar Romero’s portrayal in the 1966 Batman TV show. This version of the Joker was excessively campy (much like the show he was on), leaving jokes as clues for Batman and Robin to solve. This was the how the public viewed the Joker for years to come – a theatrical thief who had a penchant for elaborate crimes and riddles. But despite the TV show’s popularity, comic book sales continuously declined, leading to the Joker disappearing from the pages of DC Comics for four years.
The Killing Joke
By 1973, the CCA had been greatly altered, allowing more freedom in depicting violence in comic books. This led to the writer-artist team of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams taking the reins on the Batman comics. Their work has since been credited as seminal, bringing the Batman mythos to the modern age with a darker approach that distanced itself from the campy TV show. O’Neil and Adams brought Joker back to his roots as a homicidal psychopath, which has inspired almost every future adaptation of the character since, including Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in 1986,Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke in 1988, and Grant Morrison and Dave Mckean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.
It wasn’t until the 1989 Batman film that the greater public was made aware of this darker version of the Joker. Played by Jack Nicholson, the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman was mostly based on recent comic book canon and was portrayed as a homicidal maniac – but with the rising popularity of gangster movies in the ‘80s, it was decided that the Joker would also be a gangster. This movie effectively introduced the Joker as a psychopath to casual fans and moviegoers, overriding the goofy and campy portrayal of the mid to late ‘60s in the mainstream.
Subsequent adaptations followed this “homicidal maniac” mold for the Joker, but all of them in the realm of comic books and animated series. It wasn’t until 2008 that we would get another live action portrayal of the character, again changing what he symbolized in the eyes of the public.
“On my world, the ‘J’ stands for ‘Anarchy’”
The late 2000s superhero movie boom saw Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight introduce the Joker as an agent of chaos – one who relishes in anarchy and disrupts the social order through heinous and unpredictable crimes. Heath Ledger’s unique portrayal of the character, untimely death and Oscar win helped propel the character to unforeseen heights, making the Joker relevant as ever.
Along with this newfound popularity, the Joker became a symbol of anarchy to millions of people worldwide. This was not unprecedented, however, as The Dark Knight’s Joker drew inspiration from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke which explored themes of anarchy and the thesis that “all it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.” Moore is an anarchist and is known for writing characters that eventually become symbols of anarchy themselves. An example of this is V for Vendetta, one of Moore’s most well-known works, which was adapted as a film earlier in 2005. The titular character V was coopted by Anonymous, an international hacktivist and cybercriminal group, using the same masks used by V to conceal their identities in public.
And as such, with anarchy now inextricably linked to the Joker’s character, there are also bound to be misinterpretations among the many people who view this character as a symbol to rally under because of perceived injustices. One of these misinterpretations resulted in the Aurora mass shooting of 2012 during a screening of The Dark Knight where the shooter introduced himself as “The Joker.” Another misinterpretation has the alt-right and incel culture appropriating the Joker as a symbol of their movements.
With Jared Leto’s portrayal of the Joker in Suicide Squad being both panned by film critics and poorly received by the general public, the portrayal by Heath Ledger remains the golden standard by which the new Joker movie will be judged. And it seems that this new movie is doubling down on anarchic themes and is heavily influenced by Alan Moore and Heath Ledger’s Joker.
Having seen the movie myself, it clearly tries to send a political message – the Joker is a mentally ill man who is failed by society, social services are underfunded then cut off, billionaire Thomas Wayne is running an anti-poor campaign as a mayoral candidate of Gotham, the citizens are disenfranchised, and Joker becomes a symbol of protest and civil unrest at the current state of the city – but despite all these things, the Joker himself never looks past his own interests. He kills those who personally wronged him, but no more. You can see the decaying condition of Gotham and the people around him, yet it is never fully explored how these people feel and what their motivations are. All we see are citizens relishing in anarchic violence with no point or reason. The Joker himself says he is not trying to send a political message.
So what is the movie all about if not the failings of society in catering to marginalized people? Is it just the story of a selfish man on a quest for revenge? Is he a villain, hero or anti-hero? The thesis is sloppy and the social commentary is hollow. In this regard, the Joker film tries to have its cake and eat it too – a masquerading as a political commentary but without a purpose, painting self-serving wealthy people as villains but also portraying marginalized people as those who enjoy violence as and end and not a means to an end (i.e. protesting for change), and the Joker himself as a symbol of anarchy yet personally apolitical. So this is where we land – with the Joker’s punchline falling flat and nervous laughter from a weary audience.