Why does The Joker continue to fascinate US?
Jokerman: Joaquin Phoenix in the latest portrayal of the DC supervillain. Is he really a menace to society, or just having a laugh?
Why does The Joker continue to fascinate US?
THE X-PAT FILES - Scott Garceau (The Philippine Star) - September 15, 2019 - 12:00am

In 2012, during a midnight screening of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises in an Aurora, Colorado cinema, a nut job tossed tear gas grenades into the audience and killed 12 people with semi-automatic weapons. When arrested, the killer was said to sport reddish-orange dyed hair resembling the DC Comics character, The Joker.

After Heath Ledger portrayed the iconic Batman arch-villain in Nolan’s earlier 2008 film, The Dark Knight, he was said to have trouble getting back to normalcy, and couldn’t sleep more than two hours a night; the actor overdosed on an assortment of prescribed medications shortly after an Oscar nomination for playing The Joker was announced.

Now we have Joaquin Phoenix putting on the greasepaint in what people are already saying is the darkest, most disturbing cinematic Joker yet. Todd Phillips — not known for directing dark comic antiheroes but rather for those Hangover movies — was said to be gearing up for some weird reactions to his film (which comes out in October). Certainly, in a time when anarchic incels hide on websites and trade vicious racist and sexist jibes, while certain others take their darkest fantasies out into the real world, shooting up Walmart stores or cinemas or discos or schoolrooms, the idea of a crazy man behind a mask who views violence as a sick joke might seem… well, provocative, to say the least.

So why does The Joker continue to captivate people?

Why is it the Hamlet of supervillain roles?

Ask Phillips, and he’ll say the character is a blank canvas, one on which actors can pour their own brand of craziness: “It’s just another interpretation, like people do interpretations of Macbeth,” he told the New York Times.

Yes. But there’s crazy — and then there’s plain cray-zee.

Early versions of The Joker were played for slapstick laughs, like Cesar Romero’s chortling TV version on Batman (with his purple pompadour and gas-spraying lapel flower), though the original DC Comic version was more sadistic and lethal, killing off Batman’s pals and cohorts in various comic book installments.

Then there was Jack Nicholson, known as the leering embodiment of cray-cray in movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining. His Joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 rendition was darker — or at least Burton’s noir world made him seem so. Yet he was still basically just a chattering laughbox with a bit of murderous mayhem up his sleeve.

Joker’s wild: (clockwise) Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Jared Leto and Heath Ledger.

After more disturbing portrayals in graphic novels like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (in which Joker’s background as a would-be standup comic was introduced), the ground was set for Heath Ledger’s edgy performance.

You can’t shake Ledger’s Joker, once you’ve seen it. Delivering his lines in smeared makeup and a muckled Midwestern drawl, with a slippery tongue darting out between lines, he makes it clear just what the Joker’s all about: chaos.

“I’m an agent of chaos,” Joker tells half-burned Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in a hospital bed. “And you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair.”

Bruce Wayne’s manservant Alfred (Michael Caine) is having none of it, though. When asked by Batman what makes The Joker tick, he says, “Some people just like to see the world burn.”

It’s not money that goads The Joker — he burns a pile of it in The Dark Knight without a thought — nor is it revenge, a need for a worthy adversary in Batman, or any other typical motivations. He is pure crazy id, driven by the desire to see things blow up and burn down. That makes Ledger’s Joker deeply disturbing, but also somehow relatable. If you understand that a person is simply beyond logic and reason, their bizarre behavior begins to make perfect sense.

In a way, The Joker is the scariest villain because he is us, looking into the abyss of our worst impulses.

He is the ego unleashed, the id unsheathed, the lethal joke unburied. In a way he is what our Shadow, in the Jungian sense, wishes to express to a world that would keep its impulses bottled up, kept down in the dungeon.

That white face with its leering smile also resembles death, a death no less frightening because it’s so unpredictable.

And so it is that we, in the here and now, have accommodated ourselves to an era in which world leaders often adopt a similar logic of chaos, upending the expectations we once took for granted about “leadership” and “what works.” They tell the dirtiest jokes. They get away with the worst behavior. And something about us… sits in the stands and simply puts up with it. When Donald Trump was turning into a serious candidate, wiping out his Republican opponents one by one in 2015, in part by saying the things no other politicians would dare say in public, Conan O’Brien interviewed Deepak Chopra, who tried to explain Trump’s appeal in terms of “lower chakra energies.” Conan chuckled as Chopra gestured at his groin area, and we all got the joke: Trump was akin to America’s penis, set loose on the world. The joke may not be as funny anymore, but it was accurate in ways still worth examining today. Same with Duterte’s “loose” personal style, which some find charming and others simply wag an enraged, ineffectual finger at. The niceties of yesteryear no longer seem in play.

That’s where we are today, as Phoenix prepares to drop a Joker bomb on us like never before, if you believe the initial reviews of his performance. One inspiration for the actor was Conrad Veidt’s pathetic rictus-wearing circus performer in the silent film, The Man Who Laughs. Other touchstones for director Phillips were ’70s and ’80s loner nut-job character studies like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. Whatever the sources, the fact that our appetite for even more chaos, more cruel and bedeviling merriment, never seems satisfied begins to explain, a little bit, why the Joker remains such a fascinating puzzle.

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Follow @scottgarceau on Instagram.

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