Newsmaker: The grin reaper
A new film promises a deep psychological study of The Joker, Batman’s nemesis and the greatest comic book villain everUpdated: Sep 06, 2019 19:45 IST
During the end credits of the 2011 video game, Batman: Arkham City, The Joker, having recently been felled by essentially his own hand, leaves Batman a message from beyond the grave. “Only you can make this world seem right,” he wails, mischievously malevolent, even in death. “Only you can make the darkness bright.”
This take on the decades-long Batman-Joker dynamic sees them not as lifelong foes, but almost as jilted lovers, unable to survive without the other. It’s a far cry from the rather rudimentary origins of the character, who has, over time, evolved from a cold-blooded killer in his early years to a gormless goofball when the American censorship laws became stricter in the 1950s.
The iconic supervillain made his DC Comics debut in 1940, just a year after Batman.
For decades, The Joker has remained an enigmatic symbol; an archetype that isn’t as much a well-rounded character by himself as he is the antithesis to The Dark Knight. Several filmmakers have tried to tap into this duality. While Tim Burton forever linked The Joker to Batman by altering their origin stories, Christopher Nolan saw him as an agent of chaos; ‘an unstoppable object’ pitted against “an immovable force”.
Few can forget that moment in the opening sequence of The Dark Knight when The Joker, played by the late actor Heath Ledger, whips off his clown mask to reveal an image that has since seared itself into our minds. A set of yellow teeth; grisly green hair; messy makeup; and a permanent rictus grin, caused either by an abusive father or a nagging wife, depending on which story you want to believe. In the film, The Joker offers a couple; in the comics, he says he likes to think of his past as ‘multiple choice’.
Ledger’s performance won him an Academy Award posthumously. His Joker was utterly unnerving, and yet, just about vague enough for the viewer to project upon him their worst fears. One of the most popular theories about Ledger’s Joker imagines him as a veteran of the army, stricken by PTSD and disillusionment, and skilled at close combat and interrogation. And while Jack Nicholson’s Joker neither demanded nor deserved such scrutiny, the actor walked away with a pay check that, adjusted for inflation, is valued at $100 million.
If you were to look closely, especially at Burton and Nolan’s films, you’d notice that The Joker and Batman are essentially two sides of the same coin – each of them a damaged soul; the sorry products of ‘one bad day’. This was the central thesis behind The Killing Joke, the seminal comic book, written by the legendary Alan Moore and with art by Brian Bolland.
The Killing Joke, along with Joker, a more recent graphic novel, created by the celebrated team of Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo, seem to be the biggest inspirations behind director Todd Phillips’ upcoming film, also titled Joker (although Phillips insists it’s an original story). Featuring three-time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix as the Clown Prince of Crime, it marks a drastic shift in the cinematic legacy of the character; it is less a comic book movie than a psychological thriller inspired by the films of Martin Scorsese.
The Joker has witnessed the downfall of democracy and the rousing of revolutions; and yet, he has endured, possibly more than even his greatest nemesis. Like Hamlet, he is handed down from one actor to the other; from one generation to the next; happy to assume his role as whatever kind of villain we want him to be. He has changed; we, on the other hand, seem to be stuck. And that’s a punchline The Joker would kill for.
- Cesar Romero - Batman TV series: In this 1960s show, the Joker relied more on pranks than murderous mayhem.
- Jack Nicholson - Batman: By altering The Joker’s origin story and making him directly responsible for the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, director Tim Burton implicated him in the creation of Batman.
- Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight: Ledger’s Joker has been described as an agent of chaos, an elemental force whose mysterious arrival in Gotham City threatened to disrupt social order.
- Jared Leto - Suicide Squad: Leto’s performance was marred by behind-the-scenes trouble, which left most of his scenes on the cutting room floor.
- Joaquin Phoenix - Joker: His interpretation has the period aesthetic of Romero’s Joker, and the psychological turmoil of Ledger’s.
First Published: Sep 06, 2019 19:29 IST