A Brooding, Psychotic New Joker Joins the Batman Legend

Culture Watch
tags: film, movies, Joker, superheros, Batman

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.


In the first few minutes of Joker, the new Batman movie, Arthur French, who later become the clownish Joker, is beaten up by a gang of rowdy teenagers. French is working as a low paid clown, in costume and mask, when they assault him. He goes home to his shoddy apartment, walking up all the floors because, as always, his elevator is broken, and joins his psychotic mother, with whom he lives in poverty. The forty-ish French drifts into different moods, happy and sad, ecstatic and brooding. French takes seven brands of pills each day to calm himself down. He cannot resist cackling all the time, a disturbing laugh that sends shivers down your spine. Then, a la Bernie Goetz, he gets angry at three rich  Wall Street types who harass him on the subway, whips out his revolver and kills them.


The public, that hates the rich, takes his side and people start to parade around the streets of Gotham City in clown masks.


French likes the attention paid to a killer. His moods deepen and, to save society, he starts to murder people. He shoots those he loves and those he does not love, a lot of them. There is blood all over Gotham City as he slinks away from his murders, cackling all the way home.


This newJoker is a dark, psychological mess, a man who, like the previous jokers in the Batman lore, has no feelings and no remorse. Gotham is scared. You will be scared.


Joker, that opened on Friday, is a brilliant, mesmerizing film, a deep and tantalizing look at a disturbed man and how sociological problems throughout his life brought him to his terrible state. Joaquin Phoenix, as the Joker is a sure fire Oscar nominee. He has lost a lot of weight for the role and his body quivers as frenetically as his head in many scenes. He shakes, he squirms, he squeals, he stretches, he clinches. He is just magnificent. He gives the Batman legend a new and dangerous focus in making a  character for the ages.


Joker has problems, though.  The beginning of the movie is very, very slow before it gets going with a roar with Joker’s first murder. The films moves on in spurts. It is electric for a few minutes, then dull and sluggish, then electric, then dull and sluggish. The film broods as the Joker does and gets a bit boring before Joker revs it up with more blood and gore.


In addition to Phoenix, there are fine performances by Robert de Niro as a famous talk show host and Frances Conroy as French’s sickly mom.


The film’s  message is controversial. It suggests that poverty and perpetual problems of life in the city will cause the working class to rise up and riot, murdering lots of people along the way. I don’t know about that.


Batman fans will love Joker, but they will cringe and shudder, too. This Joker is not like the other famed Jokers of history. Writer/director Todd Phillips has created a new man here and he is different. Oh, is he ever different.


There is no adult Batman, Joker’s arch rival, in this film, but it neatly ties in the early days of the Batman legend and introduces Bruce Wayne as a boy and gives you a nice look at posh  Wayne Manor.


The Joker is one of the oldest villains in comic book history. He first appeared in the debut issue of Batman in April, 1940. He was, and is, a psychopath who has no feelings for other people and no sense of remorse for crimes he has committed or people he has killed.  The Joker has no sense of right or wrong. He also senses no fear at all and believes he is invincible.    


Actor Heath Ledger described the Joker as “a psychopathetic, mass murdering schizophrenic clown who has no empathy for people.”


After two decades as a zany and colorful comic book villain, the Joker broke new ground as a frequent enemy of Batman and Robin in the goofy 1966 television series (BAM ! POW !)  Batman, which is in reruns on several national television stations today (I see it on MeTV in the New York metro area). The joker in that series was played with enormous skill by famed actor Cesar Romero, who giggled and laughed across Gotham along with the Riddler, Penguin and other larger than life, quirky bad guys.


Romero’s Joker remained iconic until that sensational portrayal by Jack Nicholson as the Joker in the 1989 Batman movie. It was considered by many to be Nicholson’s finest performance. His Joker was eclipsed by the very disturbed and very scary portrayal of the villain by young Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight in 2008. Ledger showed Joker as a psychotic master of anarchy and criminality.


The Joker moved to higher ground with Nicholson’s portrayal because it set him up as an important character, as important as Batman himself, and gave him real style. In The Dark Knight, Ledger’s joker did the same in a different way, taking a little of the spotlight off the Caped Crusader.


Many critics say that the character of the Joker has evolved from comic book icon to Romero to Nicholson to Ledger to Phoenix. Not so. Each character is distinctly unique because these celebrated actors chose to make him so. They are all different “jokers” and they are going wild on their own.


Nicholson’s Joker was a common mobster until he fell into a deep vat of chemicals and became disfigured with a pasty white face and permanent evil grin. Ledger’s Joker just bounded out of nowhere with his stringy green hair, faded makeup and mangled face. Phoenix’s joker is a misery of inner and outer conflict with a loud, cackling laugh.


Nicholson’s joker stole the show in Batman with his witticisms and snappy remarks (“Wait ‘til they get a load of me!”).


Ledger’s joker had some snap rejoinders, too, such as asking a man he is threatening, “Why so serious?”


Romero had gaudy pranks. Nicholson used sight gags that were deadly and his head was often thrown back on his shoulders. Romero leaped about the set, Nicholson pranced, Ledger slinked.


Romero’s Gotham City was more comic book than the metropolis of the other jokers. Nicholson’s Gotham, inhabited by a sulking Batman, was dark and evil. Ledger’s was dangerous and Phoenix’ is simply terrifying. 


All in all, these are guys you do NOT want to invite to your dinner party or your little girls’s birthday bash.


In 2008, sadly, the joker legend broke new and tragic ground. Just before the 2008 debut of The Dark Knight, Ledger died of a prescription drug overdose. His sudden death shocked the country (he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year, posthumously). It also forced people to see The Joker character in a new and sad way.


In 2012, the Joker made tragic news again when another Batman movie debuted, The Dark Knight Rises. It was screened at a theater in Aurora, Colorado. On January 22, a gunman, James Holmes, walked into the theater and began a shooting spree which left 12 dead and 70 wounded. Holmes, with his wild, scraggly red hair, was said by many theater patrons to remind them of the Joker. It was rumored, falsely, that Holmes was actually a fan of The Joker. The evil character became attached to the shooter in the minds of many.


That Batman movie became international news and a national tragedy. Warner Bros. scrubbed several openings and delayed many more. Even so, the movie earned a billion dollars world wide. The Joker will not be shown at the Aurora theater where those movie patrons were murdered.


Just recently, dozens of relatives of those killed or wounded in the mass shooting in Aurora signed a letter that asked Warner Bros. to donate a percentage of its revenue for Joker to charities of Aurora gun victims. 


Over the last few months Joker, that won the Venice Film Festival best movie award, has been the center of a firestorm over move violence. Many people are claiming that the violence of the new Joker might spur mentally ill people to go to yet another movie theater and murder people or wander into a city street, or park, and slay people. A website covering that has been monitored by police around the country. A theater in California received a threat and scrubbed several screenings of the film last weekend. The Los Angeles police have gone on high alert around movie theaters showing the Joker over violence fears.


At the quiet suburban theater where I saw Joker, signs were posted on entrance doors banning masks, costumes, bulky clothing and knapsacks.


To me, this is media hysteria. Phoenix, tormented by interviewer suggestions of violence, last week finally confronted the issue and, wisely, said that a disturbed person does not need to see Joker, or any other movie, to go out and commit violence. The film does not trigger it; they do themselves. How many thousands of violent movies have we all seen over the last 100 years? How many of them spurred people to commit murder? A handful, maybe less. As police note, better safe than sorry.


What do we do next, though, cancel all the cop shows on TV?


Let’s let the Joker bound about Gotham City in his clown face. We’ll enjoy his story and leave the rest up to the psychiatrists, hospitals and police.



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