From the moment a short teaser – test footage, clapperboard and all – was passed around the Internet last year, it was clear something was different about this Joker. Soundtracked by the song ‘Laughing’, an ominous, late ’60s soft rock hit for the Canadian band The Guess Who, the brief snippet made the film’s tone crystal clear. “I should laugh, but I cry…” opined the song’s opening couplet as the man in the video stared blankly at camera. Not so much ‘why so serious?’ as ‘why so sad?’ In just over 30 seconds, this Joker was established as someone who lived in our world, not in that of paper and ink. And that… well that was really frightening.
The last time we saw the Joker, in 2016’s Suicide Squad, actor Jared Leto had repositioned the character as some sort of silly, listless Soundcloud rapper. Lil Skies wired on Haribo – too silly and too stylised to really scare. Conversely, Phoenix’s Joker lived on our street. We saw him every morning when we went to buy milk. Arthur Fleck, as we’d later learn his name, looked… average. Dull yet practical clothes. Knitwear. Dank long hair. We knew this man. We’d never spoken to him – God no – but we’d seen him. In the park, going nowhere, doing nothing. In the supermarket, rooting around for discounts. On the bus, watching the rain pepper the window. He was the unknown man in the background of photos. The man we all hoped we’d never turn out to be.
The Joker, as a concept, turns 79 years old this year. That’s some run for a character originally billed as a cameo – the debut issue of Batman, in April 1940, to be precise. The loosely-accepted origin story (jettisoned for Todd Phillips’ movie) involves physical disfigurement and tragedy. Joker (in the guise of the criminal Red Hood), falls into a vat of chemicals while on the run from Batman. His skin is bleached, his hair coloured green and his lips stained bright red. Eventually, he’s turned insane by the chemicals.
Phillips’ movie riffs on details lifted from a different Joker origin story, 1988’s Batman: The Killing Joke (penned by British comics great Alan Moore) in which the Joker is a failed comedian, who again commits crimes under the guise of the Red Hood, this time in order to support his pregnant wife. He still falls into a vat of chemicals and he still becomes insane, but the death of his wife and unborn child is proposed as the motivating factor. There’s always been an element of sympathy directed towards the writing of the Joker. Always bemusement in vilifying the victim of an industrial accident and yet venerating a masked villain who swings from gargoyles at night, breaking the bones of the nocturnally bad. It’s arguably a contradiction that drives the Joker’s character.
All this is part of the reason that Phillips’ Joker has seen fevered critical commentary prior to release. It’s easy to feel sorry for the hand life has dealt him. But what does that mean? Is this Joker the hero of our story? Isn’t that a little bit irresponsible? Is responsibility even in an artist’s job description? Of course, we’ve been here before, director Oliver Stone certainly has. And like the Natural Born Killers furore a quarter of a century ago, all this ignores what art is fundamentally supposed to do. “In a decaying society,” wrote the Austrian writer Ernst Fischer, “art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.” In short, via a slightly fumbled simplification of Fischer’s point, art is supposed to reflect the times in which it was created. Working to this brief, Phillips’ Joker excels. This is the Joker that 2019 deserves. A window into our fractured, some would say broken, world.
The Joker character has done this throughout its existence, certainly on screen. The ’60s Batman TV series was camp and colourful, perfectly in sync with the razzle-dazzle of the era. Executive producer William Dozier – who openly stated that he’d never read a Batman comic – once described his show as the only situation comedy, at the time, without a laugh track. Thanks to Cuban-American actor Cesar Romero’s refusal to shave his moustache off (instead covering it up with white face paint) it also featured the most hirsute version of the Joker ever.
Tim Burton’s 1989 creation – with Jack Nicholson taking the role – offered another take on the villain’s origin. There’s still misfortune in the chemical factory, but in Burton’s world, Arthur was once the gangster Jack Napier, who pulled the trigger on Bruce Wayne’s parents. The film had a confidence about it that was at the core of ’80s Hollywood. Big, brash and an introspection-free set. A film full of pomp. Prince did the soundtrack for God’s sake.
In 2008, with his private life crumbling (the actor died six months before the film’s release), Heath Ledger approached the role as an entity more akin to a terrorist than a master criminal. Less than a decade after 9/11, Ledger perfectly captured the often-overwhelming anxieties of the era. The Dark Knight would eventually win him a posthumous Oscar.
Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the Joker – performed like a man who has had his bones gleaned of cartilage, then reassembled like a puppet, then being controlled by the jitteriest of hands – is the man we all ignore, every day. He’s the man who rarely has a conversation between waking in the morning and going to bed at night. Who never got near the modest promise he showed at school. Who was sold a lie. His problems – rage, disgust, loneliness, dislocation – fester and grow like mould in a Petri dish. A perfect storm formed in the absence of community and empathy. That’s no justification for his actions, obviously – and he probably is supposed to be the hero of the story. But that’s more a criticism of our shitty world than it is Phillips’ film or his take on the Joker.
Joker arrives in cinemas today (October 4)