Whether it’s a masterpiece, an insult to the source material, or Incel porn, if you’ve been on the internet recently, you’ve no doubt heard something about Todd Phillips’ Joker Film, released in North American theaters on October 5th, 2019.
The Joker – the yin to Batman’s yang – is one of the most iconic literary villains ever created. Arguably, there hasn’t been a more influential antagonist written since John Milton immortalized his vision of The Devil, a fictionalized version of the Christian deity Satan, in his poem, Paradise Lost.
Milton’s iconic depiction was so profound that many Christians still accept his artistic visual to be canon within Christian scripture. Think about that for a second, a fictionalized villain so ingrained into the human psyche that the thought of his creation itself informs our most pious lawmakers, lovers, and artists alike.
Can the spirit of a fictional character be so embedded in our collective psychology that it manifests or influences reality?
The past few depictions of the Joker have been divisive amongst long term Batman fans. The internet blew up with panic and rage when it was announced that Heath Ledger would be playing the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight; which most fans now recognize Ledger’s iconic portrayal as one of the best yet. The performance even won Ledger a posthumous academy award. This iteration was made even more iconic by the “Why so Serious?” merchandising made available in every Hot Topic and carnival booth across North America. DC and Warner brothers tried to strike gold again with Jared Leto’s total miss in Suicide squad, which depicted The Joker as a tattooed gangster similar in visual appearance to Die Antword but ended up presenting more like Insane Clown Posse.
However, it is very unlikely that this new portrayal of The Joker, by Joaquin Phoenix and Director Todd Philips, will be marketed to anyone under the age of 18. The notably controversial film has been making headlines not only about the quality of the film itself, but by protest groups who are nervous that a sympathetic approach towards the infamous protagonist could inspire the mentally ill and disenfranchised to act out in violent, Joker type ways. In these unbelievably divisive times, maybe that’s not as insane as it sounds?
Several cities in the United States have upped their police presence at theatres in fear of public shootings; a reaction to mass murderer James Holmes who – as rumor has it – was dressed as the Joker during a killing spree in 2012 which saw 12 people executed and 70 more injured during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises at a theatre in Colorado. A rumour, said to be fiction by current Colorado district attorney George Brauchler. In a recent Vanity Fair article, Brauchler attributed the rumour to former Colorado police chief, Ray Kelly, who simplified the attack by comparing Holmes to the Joker because his hair was dyed red. In the same article, Bauchler is quoted as saying (sarcastically) “Of course the crazy-hair-colored guy who shot up the Batman premiere thought he was the Joker, of course!” Brauchler added. “And yet it has no connection to reality.”
Still, rumour or not, there’s no denying the fear and panic over the Joker are very real. The emotions are hard to shake for those connected with the Colorado shooting. In September 2019, a letter to Warner Brothers Pictures, who produces DC Comic book films, urged the studio to donate proceeds of Todd Phillips Joker film to victims of gun violence. The signed document was quoted by the Hollywood Reporter as saying, “We are calling on you to be a part of the growing chorus of corporate leaders who understand that they have a social responsibility to keep us all safe.”
Although the Colorado shooting was seven years ago, the memory and fear continues to accompany the character to this day. Over Joker’s opening weekend, a Long Beach theatre self-evacuated in fear of a “suspicious subject” and reports of a shooting. The Long Beach Police Department issued a statement following the incident stating “Officers were on scene within a minute of dispatch & discovered patrons had self-evacuated due to a suspicious male adult who was wearing a backpack and looking out at the crowd near an emergency exit inside the theater.” Another theatre in Huntington Beach didn’t open on October 3rd, due to a “credible threat” surrounding the film. As well, many advocacy groups are stating that the film’s message supports incel violence and paints a sympathetic tone towards those prone to violence towards women.
Joker (2019) is a never-before-told origin story directed by Todd Philips (Hangover, Old School, GG Allen and The Murder Junkies) who also penned the script with co-writer Scott Silver (The Fighter, 8 Mile).
Warner Bros describes the film as, “an origin of the iconic arch nemesis and is an original, standalone story not seen before on the big screen. Todd Phillips’ exploration of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man disregarded by society, is not only a gritty character study, but also a broader cautionary tale.”
It has been a large part of the WB’s campaign to distance this film from the DCEU (DC Expanded Cinematic Universe), which gave us Jared Leto’s Juggalo Joker in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. To say the heavily tattooed take on the character was misguided would be an understatement to many fans of the lore.
Todd Phillips’ Joker film was getting Oscar buzz around festival season with many critics saying the reinvents the comic book genre and Joaquin Phoenix should be a contender for several best actor nods. Naturally, this has sparked much debate in the comments sections of nerd publications across the internet, as Marvel and DC fans say the shittiest things human beings could possibly ever say to (and about) each other. Since festival season, early reviews of Joker are sitting at 68% on Rotten Tomatoes, but the weeks to come may prove otherwise.
While Marvel and DC fans have been at odds since the dawn of capes, the internet has allowed for a new breed of shit baggery that pits fan against fan in a fashion that would also please most iterations of the Joker character. Some behaviour, so juvenile and mean spirited, it would seem “Smilex gas” could have hacked our handheld devices. The irony borders on parody.
However, It’s not just the fans who are going mad. There are countless blogs, vlogs and articles on the internet claiming that actors who played the Joker on film, all seem to have a darkly profound connection with the character.
Jack Nicholson, who played The Joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film, allegedly said, “I warned him,” after hearing of Heath Ledger’s death. Many seem to think Ledger’s Oscar winning performance is what drove him over the edge, but countless statements from people close to Ledger refute this. Rumours of Jared Leto sending containers of his own bodily fluids to other actors on the set of Suicide Squad seemed to reignite the hysteria, but ultimately that just turned out to be a reflection of his performance and character. Most of these claims aren’t substantiated by anything credible. However, the idea put forward by many in our collective consciousness that venturing into the character’s mind can greatly impact someone’s actions or psychological well being, is in itself hysteria – which is also fascinating.
In fact, from the perspective of the actors who have played the Joker, quite the contrary. César Romero, who played the Joker in what we now call Batman 66’, had a wildly successful career as an actor and dancer before his outrageous performance as the clown prince of crime. His performance only amplified by Adam West’s subdued, calming, Batman. Romero’s take on the Joker laid the foundation for how content consumers would process the character for generations; a performance which still garners massive amounts of respect from thespians to this day. When asked how he got into the roll, Romero famously said his it was easy; “When you get in an outfit like that…you fall right into it….”
On a recent episode of Jimmy Kimmel, Phoenix himself stated that playing the Joker was fun and that the mood was incredibly light hearted on set. Shortly after saying this, instead of a clip of the movie, Kimmel’s show aired a scene where Phoenix was caught on film yelling at someone on set. The recipient of the yelling, a DOP who would whisper while Phoenix was acting. After seeing the clip, Phoenix half-heartedly apologized in a hilarious manner. Taking responsibility for his actions, while simultaneously saying the “but you really shouldn’t be whispering while I’m acting”.
Currently, in the comics, it would seem that writers and editors are taking advantage of multiple iterations of the Joker. Writer Geoff Johns is gearing up for Three Jokers, a finale that’s been teased since right before DC’s Rebirth, having had Batman learn the true identity of the Joker during the Darkseid War. Batman temporarily becomes the god of knowledge and learns there may actually have been, or there are, three Jokers he’s been battling over the course of history. Could this tie-in lead to a Joaquin Phoenix Jared Leto crossover? Most likely not. Phillips has said multiple times that he would like this movie to live on its own. Shocking, as he had no aversion to two sequels to his own Hangover franchise.
It wouldn’t be out of character for the DCEU though, DC Comics are heavily rooted in the multiverse, which was first featured in the 1980’s comic book crossover event, Crisis On Infinite Earths, and depicted many versions of the same characters throughout time teaming up to save all of existence. The DC multiverse allowed for comic creators to take liberties with traditional DC characters, and create different types of stories while not altering what fans know to be main story canon. Could Superman be Russian in a another universe? Why not? One of the most successful attempts would be Alan Moore’s Killing Joke, which can be considered canon or not, depending on the reader. The Killing Joke, which has been the touch stone of Joker comics, seems to be one of the very few titles that Philips borrowed from to create his version of the Joker, as both versions are struggling comedians prior to becoming the super villain. In newer depictions of The Joker by Writer Scott Snyder, we’ve learned that Joker is immortal after it is revealed the character touched a meteorite many, many years ago. How this will tie into Three Jokers? We’ll just have to wait and see as Three Jokers release date has been pushed to early 2020.
The Joker was originally created in 1940 by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson and first appeared in Batman issue one (April 25, 1940), published by what is now known as DC Comics.
Credit for the Joker’s creation is disputed; Kane and Robinson claimed responsibility for the Joker’s design while acknowledging Finger’s writing contributions.
In an interview with American journalist Frank Lovece, Bob Kane disputed Robinson’s co-creator claims saying, “Bill Finger and I created the Joker. Bill was the writer. Jerry Robinson came to me with a playing card of the Joker. That’s the way I sum it up. The Joker looks like Conrad Veidt – you know, the actor in The Man Who Laughs, the 1928 movie based on the novel by Victor Hugo. … Bill Finger had a book with a photograph of Conrad Veidt and showed it to me and said, ‘Here’s the Joker.’ Jerry Robinson had absolutely nothing to do with it, but he’ll always say he created it till he dies. He brought in a playing card, which we used for a couple of issues for the Joker to use as his playing card.” Originally, the Joker was planned to be killed off during his initial appearance, but was spared by editorial intervention. It would seem that The Joker has been inciting controversy and escaping death since his inception.
Whether you’re on team Kane, or team Robinson, the character of the Joker was created nearly 300 years after John Milton released his poetic version of the devil in 1667’s Paradise Lost. More and more often these days, the Devil is used as a punchline in cartoons and comics, diluting his fear factor. As public opinion moves away from religion, and the devil becomes less and less relevant, the thought of the Joker’s influence can still terrify an audience enough to evacuate a theatre. As Batman continues to gain popularity and religion wanes, will Joker’s unpredictably evil tendencies be the new paramount of what society considers to be evil? Will the tease of his films continue to make police, advocacy groups and politicians uneasy? I guess we’ll know in another 200 years or so.
Listen to this week’s Joker film discussion on Mass Nerder here:
And check out a quick review here: