“Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.”
— The Killing Joke (1988)
The Joker is a matter of perception.
You can’t know him because he doesn’t know himself. He appeared fully-formed, with random origin stories that were deliberately vague and contradictory. He is an unreliable narrator even to himself, a mind palace made of funhouse mirrors, a prism of profound schism. The truer question than Who he is is What is he? Since the ’60s, comics fans have been keen on all stories being part of a cohesive continuity. But in truth, like Coyote myths, these are all unique tales by different creators across time that share reference points. The Joker is a Rorschach test. As a diagnosis he is Dissociative Identity Disorder, as a concept he is litmus paper for the times.
The public thinks he’s a clown because they haven’t read the stories. The Joker is a psychopath who wears the guise of Pagliacci in sheer irony. From his debut in Batman #1 (1940), The Joker was a serial killer—four decades before the term became common—who used his victims as performance rituals to terrorize all, laughing only from avarice. His cruel grimace comes from the disfigured lead in the German Expressionist film The Man Who Laughs (1928), based on Victor Hugo’s novel. His mayhem came from lurid pulps, his persona from the physiognomy parade of Dick Tracy’s rogues gallery, his definition solely from being The Batman’s multipolar opposite.
The Joker is a cautionary tale, all of the wrong moves across the line that The Batman will never cross. But within two years he swayed from murderer to prankster, when nervous editors abandoned the adult Pulp roots of comics to appease parents who mistook them for just being the funny papers with staples. The Joker spent the ‘40s as a clown and the ’50s as a rarity, a parody of himself, dying by degrees from ignorance and Wertham. The Batman 1966 TV show branded the denuded character as a buffoon into millions of eyes worldwide. Oblivious to his origins, the masses react ever since with moral panic when the original true character is unveiled on film.
The Joker is an immoral compass, pointed in complex times, adrift in complacent times. Hugo’s protagonist Gwynplaine, an abused pauper who transcends class barriers, has been viewed as a “sliding signifier,” a semiotics term for something that has shifted radically in meaning from one perception to another over time. Like film, comics went high-art in the early-‘70s through the counterculture; gritty, urban, adult, ethical, ambivalent, artistic. The Batman became a hyper-realistic night vigilante in NYC-esque urban decay under writer Denny O’Neill and artist Neal Adams, and in 1973 they resurrected The Joker as a theatrical murderer. In Frank Miller’s imaginary future tale The Dark Knight Returns (1986), The Joker terrorizes a postpunk dystopian Gotham (including killing an interviewer on-air), enthralling the aimless and the angry. Quintessential writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland’s standalone tale The Killing Joke (1988) understood that his mystery is the core of his menace, teasing out a pitiable origin as a delusory myth. Christopher Nolan channeled these three milestones as the film The Dark Knight (2008), Todd Phillips funnels them as Joker (2019).
Joker wears all these classic page sources on its lapel along with film allusions, in period equivalents from A Clockwork Orange (1971) to Henry (1986). Like a lost New Hollywood classic, the film’s 1981 Gotham is truly 1975 NYC: bankrupt governance, garbage strikes, torched boroughs, turf violence, dispossessed citizens, moral confusion, and slashed social programs.(This war on the poor proved to be a gentrification scheme by the rich to seize land and power, real supervillains who gradually took over the city, state, and nation.) Robert De Niro’s appearance here acts as a metatext: the film is as much the rancor and squalor of Mean Streets (1973) and the polity and psychosis of Taxi Driver (1976) as it is the satire and neurosis of the oft-cited King of Comedy (1983). Like an urban Gwynplaine, The Joker is the abused pauper whose perceived triumph is a sheer spiritual loss, spiraling from the confused anguish of Dog Day Afternoon (1975) into the deluded entitlement of Falling Down (1993).
Joker is a matter of perception. Is it a great film, or an evocation of great films? Yes. Two aspects hurt it: it can be generally predictable, and often wears its sources too clearly. But three factors make this film work and edge it close to greatness. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s cascade of cello serial tones are an intimate foil to the industrial tympani of Zimmer’s Dark Knight anti-anthems. Her mournful chamber dirges radiate spiritual corrosion hastened by the cruel metronome of echoing percussion, like distant footsteps striding toward an inevitable tragedy. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography uncannily recreates the Rotten Big Apple with grainy stock, neutral palettes, and corroded spaces of steel and stone and plaster and greasepaint. The film dissolves documentary into diary: the emotional distance of static long shots gradually fold into frenzied handheld close-ups of the lead’s emotional disintegration, guiding us from remote apathy to feeling ambivalent complicity with him through our sympathy. But the center is Joaquin Phoenix’s hypnotic performance; while Heath Ledger conveyed the enigma of the character, Phoenix captures the tragedy. With the luxury of time and limelight, Phoenix mesmerizes in a brave and layered deconstruction of madness, from Ray Davies everyloser, to Andy Kaufman’s discomforting performance art, and finally into a reptilian vamp of Bowie’s Thin White Duke. The result is a powerful indie art film more akin to Aronofsky than to Nolan.
But how do you depict a psychopath without glorifying a sadist? The original Joker helped lead to the underlying problem of the new Supervillain: the mass perception that Mental Illness = Evil. He was created in an era when these were breezily conflated, an attitude only magnified with time and archetypes. Thomas Harris researched the real-life Mindhunter cases for his thriller books, but consider how all of his antagonists—from Lecter to Verger—actually have more in common with the 1940 Joker: psychopaths with extremely theatric flair. Because this psyche shorthand is so telegenic, the evil genius and serial murderer have now converged across all culture, unleashing a procession of mad supra-villains who act like superstars. Serial Killers, though the most rare of criminals, are the Boogeyman of today: the latest straw man of our social anxieties. In our own general schizoid rationality, killer vigilantes from Death Wish to Bernard Goetz get mistaken as proactive heroes, while citizens struggling with mental health issues are mistreated as potential felons. Along with its lead actor’s performance, Joker’s true bravery lies in challenging those attitudes by trying to distinguish them. The mentally suffering are too often stigmatized instead of being treated compassionately; with its careful use of empathy, the film quietly argues against our casual ostracization or demonization of mental illness, while still soberly differentiating the delusory myth-making of the truly murderous. What is he? The Joker is you when you lose the moral line. Causation? Films about The Joker don’t cause violence, they comment on it to arrest our own real failings.
This film is the arc of one bad alley to another, and the karmic turnover that connects them is the killing joke. The ‘80s Comics Renaissance was the advent of maturity, and The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke were advanced thought experiments and cautionary parables outside of the regular canon’s constrictions. But Alan Moore disowned The Killing Joke because he worried that mature sophistication was in danger of devolving into teen aggro, and then ‘90s comics proved him precisely right. The Mature ‘80s revolution gets blurred into its exact opposite, the Immature ’90s, under the generic muddler term “Dark” by the lazy and the late. As corporate heads propose a new DC Black line of adult-themed films, it’s crucial to remember the success lesson from the acclaimed page revolution that begat this screen revolution: be careful to support adult works in the hands of mature creators, not bandwagon “Dark” works by immature hacks. This film is the transition from one good revolution to another, and that’s no laughing matter.