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Friday 4 October 2019


The joke’s on us

From ruthless Reaganite to incel firebrand, society gets the Joker it deserves

By Alexander Larman

If you believe the breathless news stories, the arrival of Todd Phillips’ Joker in cinemas this weekend will be accompanied by the sort of civil disorder that was seen around the release of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X in 1992. That came in the immediate aftermath of the Rodney King riots, which tore Los Angeles to shreds, and Lee’s film, artistically impeccable though it was, felt like an angry cry of impotence at a time of enormous social and racial divides. Joker has claimed similar territory, albeit in more suggestive form. Already, American cinemas have begun banning masks and costumes from screenings, for fear of violent incidents, and police presence at showings will be stepped up.

The reason for the controversy is not warring tribes of cinema lovers engaged in furious argument as to whether Phillips’ film deserved to win the highest prize at the recent Venice Film Festival. Instead, it lies in how the character of the Joker has become linked with the so-called “incel” movement, an online community of men who, in the worst cases, associate their involuntary celibacy with a need to commit purgative acts of violence. A US Army memo, warning of potential trouble at screenings of the film, noted that “[incels] also idolize the Joker character, the violent clown from the Batman series, admiring his depiction as a man who must pretend to be happy, but eventually fights back against bullies”.

James Holmes, the man who opened fire at an Aurora cinema in 2012 during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, purportedly claimed to police that he was the Joker after he was apprehended. Holmes, currently serving 12 life sentences, has subsequently become a hero to some of the more extreme members of the incel movement. One anonymous blogger, who posts as “Rants Of An Incel”, wrote in 2016: “you lied to him, you ridiculed him, you pushed him out, you bullied him, you got him fired from his job. So, since you took away everything said incel has to live for, as well as any investment in society, he goes and shoots up a theater for revenge. Does said incel exist then?”

This is the central question that Joker poses. Arthur Fleck, played with brilliance by Joaquin Phoenix, is a mentally ill would-be comedian in early 1980s New York, at the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The city is riddled with homelessness and poverty, to say nothing of the enormous rats, and Fleck scrapes a living by dressing up as a clown. The ruling class, epitomised by Brett Cullen’s brutally heartless Thomas Wayne, smug patron of the one per cent, couldn’t care less about the people they step over to get to their benefit galas.

It is a grim world. For the first half hour, Phillips’ film shows us the gruelling misery of Fleck’s life, whether it’s caring for his fading mother, being beaten up by a gang of youths on the street, or stalking his single-parent neighbour. You can practically smell the decay and desperation. Then a co-worker of Fleck’s slips him a firearm, just before some drunken Wall Street yahoos decide to make an example of him. The Joker is born.

The most disturbing stretch in the film comes early on, when Phillips seems to offer a series of tropes that both condone vigilantism and equate sexual awakening with violence. After Fleck kills for the first time, he feels alive, dancing around a seedy restroom as if he were in the Bolshoi Ballet. To the accompaniment of the grinding chords of the cello-heavy score, Fleck returns to his squalid apartment block, no longer a nobody but a man of distinction. Imbued with this new-found boldness, he promptly seduces his neighbour, and is shown happy and settled.

The film appears to laud his behaviour; when his otherwise sympathetic new girlfriend sees the newspaper coverage of the deaths of Fleck’s assailants, she shrugs and says, “Fuck ‘em, they got what they deserved.” Are we being invited to fawn over Joker just as the media mistakenly fawns over Travis Bickle at the end of Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), as an avenging angel cleaning the filth from the streets? Should we be cheering on the revenge of the underclass against their masters?

It would be unfair to reveal some of the film’s cleverer sleights of hand, but thankfully this is no Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974) or Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009), films that seemed to take unseemly delight in their protagonists’ orgies of revenge against those who have purportedly wronged them. Instead, Joker might almost have been subtitled “A Provocation”, so daring is its blackly humorous social satire at points.

Phillips was previously best known for breezy comedies such as The Hangover (2009) and Old School (2003), which initially appear to have little in common with a dark-hued crime thriller. Yet there is a gleeful insanity at Joker’s heart that has much in common with his earlier films. At one point, by now fully immersed in his Joker garb and psyche, Fleck engages in a Gene Kelly-esque dance on the steps of his apartment building, watched incredulously by two cops. The music chosen for the scene is Gary Glitter’s ‘Rock and Roll Part 2’ – you can almost picture the director giggling at the sheer tastelessness. There are plenty of similar moments.

Joker works best as an intense character study of a desperate man on the verge of psychosis; something of a Phoenix speciality, given his earlier and similar work in films such as You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2017), The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) and even his Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (James Mangold, 2005).

Yet it’s undeniable that the film is also an allegory for, and satire upon, Trump’s America – despite its period setting. It would be an unobservant viewer who did not notice parallels between the fictional hordes of baying activists wearing clown masks and the all-too-real representatives of Middle America who chanted “Lock her up!” At one point in Joker, Fleck manages to sneak into a theatre where the wealthy are laughing along to an old Charlie Chaplin comedy. Its title? Modern Times. M’lud, the defence rests its case.

Joker is the latest cinematic version of the DC Comics villain, and will surely not be the last – whatever happens at the box office and in theatres this weekend. The character first appeared in the Batman comic in April 1940, and was depicted as an eerily grinning serial killer with a pallid face and green hair, explicitly modelled on Conrad Veidt’s permanently grinning protagonist Gwynplaine in the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs. In his first appearance, the Joker was something of a standard-issue antagonist, described by Bruce Wayne as “a clever but diabolical killer… too clever and too deadly to be free”, and whose evil plot involved poisoning the inhabitants of Gotham City with gas. Only his striking appearance and the odd hint of manic mirth (“Are you so happy that you smile for joy, eh? I’m glad you have brought so much cheer!”) indicated that he would be set for a long and fascinating life in a variety of media.

Before long, the Joker’s threatening violence was toned down, turning him into a more straightforwardly comic character. This incarnation reached its apogee in Cesar Romero’s thoroughly camp interpretation in the 1960s Batman TV series and film. Romero was about as scary as Little Bo-Peep, prancing about with an infectious sense of gaiety. It was the era of Barbarella and James Bond, a time when flamboyance and bright colours were de rigueur. No wonder that many of the central figures in the series became gay icons, nor that the 1966 film is a much-beloved midnight classic along the lines of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), which it surely helped inspire.

Matters changed dramatically in 1988, when Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s comic-book The Killing Joke revised the Joker story entirely. It features an unsuccessful stand-up comedian being forced into complicity in a crime at a chemical factory which goes horribly wrong, bleaching his skin, dying his hair green and sending him insane. Years later, the reborn Joker commits a string of sadistic acts, arguing that he is being driven by the “black, awful joke” that the world has become; that he’s reflecting the essential inhumanity within society. Right down to The Killing Joke’s ambiguous ending, Moore boldly invited the reader to consider whether this particular clown could be a reflection of our own suppressed psyches, rather than some separate, unknowable bogeyman.

It was not long until Moore’s vision was translated into cinematic form. Revisiting Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman is a strange experience, especially after watching Michael Keaton’s deft meta-parody of the role in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014). Its strengths – notably the Danny Elfman score and Anton Furst’s monumental production design – are counterpointed by the usual failings of the genre, most obviously a weak script bearing too many traces of studio interference and lacklustre acting from many of the cast. Yet its most talked-about feature, then and now, remains Jack Nicholson’s performance as Jack Napier, a mid-level gangster turned psychotic clown-like mastermind after an unfortunate dunk in a chemical vat.

Although he is described by a supporting character as “an A1 nut boy”, Nicholson’s Napier is rendered, through sly sidelong glances and winks, as less a terrifying gangster and more a ruthless Reaganite. He could almost be the cousin of Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko, complete with master-of-the-universe ambitions, a blonde mistress and a quasi-paternal boss. Certainly, Nicholson-as-Napier would have made a more intriguing and successful Sherman McCoy in the 1990 adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities than Tom Hanks. He preens; he grins; he all but dances across the screen, leaving his co-stars anxious in his wake. And all this before his transformation into the Joker, an emergence from his very own chrysalis of evil.

This Joker’s lust for status and power fits the seedy corporate setting of Burton’s Gotham City. It seems appropriate that his master plan involves the poisoning of mass-market products such as makeup and deodorants. He enraptures the population by handing out fistfuls of cash, while travelling in a poison-dispensing balloon, dispensing waves as if he were a Roman emperor. Or, of course, Donald Trump.

Perhaps due to the script doctoring work of Charles McKeown, who had been Oscar-nominated for Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985) a few years before, Nicholson’s Joker is genuinely funny, spitting out witty one-liners with devilish charm. Whether he is reflecting on his former employer Carl Grissom (“a thief and a terrorist, but he had a tremendous singing voice”), offering his thoughts on mortality (“I’ve been dead once already. It’s very liberating. You should think of it as therapy”), or gleefully barking “this town needs an enema!”, he is a baroque creation worthy of a Joseph Grimaldi.

What he is not is frightening. His Joker appears with panache, cracks a few one-liners and makes lecherous advances towards Kim Basinger’s outraged photojournalist Vicki Vale. It is hard not to think of him as a kind of Sid James-manqué, prancing about in his purple suit, but also sitting obediently, waiting to be given the supervillain equivalent of a sound telling-off by Michael Keaton’s Batman.

We were eventually reminded that the Joker could be terrifying, rather than just amusing. It took nearly two decades for the character to appear again, his entrance teased by the great sign-off at the end of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), when Lieutenant Gordon sighs, “Now take this guy. Armed robbery, double homicide. Got a taste for the theatrical, like you. Leaves a calling card…” before producing a Joker playing card. The appearance of the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight proved to be one of the decade’s most talked-about performances, firstly because of the controversy at Heath Ledger’s casting, and secondly because of his untimely death at the age of 28. A general expectation, buoyed by Nicholson’s iconic performance, had arisen as to what an interpretation of the Joker “should” be. It became clear upon the film’s release that Nolan and Ledger were uninterested in following accepted protocol.

Ledger portrays the Joker in a gleefully unhinged fashion that is half tempter from a medieval mystery play, half al-Qaeda terrorist. He represents a scarred version of Alex from A Clockwork Orange (1971), committing horrendous acts of violence for the apparent joy of it. Unlike all the other incarnations of the Joker, he is deliberately presented without backstory – Nolan claimed that he wanted the character to be “absolute” – which makes the various accounts of how he acquired the scars that give him a Chelsea grin all the more chilling for their fictitiousness.

Even more so than other interpretations, this Joker is a psychopathic nihilist. He is in thrall to the Nietzschean idea that “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stranger” and apparently devoid of any human feeling as well. As Michael Caine’s Alfred comments of him: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Ledger’s death gave the film the unintentionally chilling feel of the character having emerged, briefly, from hell itself to cause unspeakable havoc. While both the Phoenix and Nicholson incarnations have moments where they hijack television to address America, neither offers the stark immediacy of Ledger’s Joker screaming “Look at me!” in camcorder footage that’s horribly reminiscent of Isis videos showing the ritualistic murder of their hostages.

The third main character in The Dark Knight is the incorruptible District Attorney Harvey Dent, the so-called “White Knight of Gotham”. As played by Aaron Eckhart, Dent appears to stand for honesty and integrity. He apprehends criminals by legal means, rather than being a multi-billionaire playboy who spends his nights beating malefactors while dressed as a giant bat. In his presentation of decency in a flawed world, Dent anticipates Barack Obama, who would be elected President shortly after the film was released.

By the end of the George W. Bush era, an exhausted America was sick of wars overseas and terrorist violence at home. Obama, and his presidency, epitomised a time of high ideals and lofty rhetoric, promising the world hope and delivering little of it. Even if he maintained his personal integrity, he was unable to fulfil his promises. A large part of his legacy was to allow the Trump administration to come into being. The Dark Knight asks whether good men who act from high-minded motives are always doomed to fail, and the Joker’s cynicism is proved correct. Dent ends up defaced, dishonourable and dead, with only Batman’s self-sacrifice concealing the truth from the world.

Of course, not every screen interpretation of the Joker reveals something important about society. As portrayed by Jared Leto in 2016’s Suicide Squad, and ruined by a dire script, he is little more than a shrieking, standard-issue villain. His appearance, all tattoos and eyeliner, represents a triumph for the make-up department rather than anything else, and conveys the sense of a bored young hipster – character and actor alike – playing dress up. Lacking the terror of Ledger or the humour of Nicholson, this is comfortably the least essential version of the character.

Nor does it have the poignancy of Phoenix’s Joker. Lank of hair, sallow of face and given to uncontrollable mirth, he is a pathetic figure as much as he is a terrifying one. His misfortune is to be a member of the downtrodden, forgotten populace – it is revealed at one point that his vital medication is to be stopped because of local council budget cuts, an unpleasant parallel to British austerity – and one without a voice. He embarks upon violence as a solution and, by doing so, becomes an icon for millions, in art and perhaps also in life. The definitive Joker for a new generation.

It’s as Ella Wheeler Wilcox once wrote, although she meant it differently: “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.”

All Photographs Warner Bros. & Getty Images

Further reading

The best Joker story of all time? (At least according to our editor Peter Hoskin.) Probably the ‘Soft Targets’ arc in Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s Gotham Central. This is what happens when the Clown Prince of Crime has a single sniper rifle and a countdown timer.

Two stories from the 1970s, ‘The Laughing Fish’ and ‘The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge!’, run it close.

In more recent years, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s run of Batman comics portrayed the Joker as a horrific force of nature.

Jia Tolentino, Talia Lavin and Alice Hines have all written perceptively about incel subculture.