“Have You Ever Danced With A Villain in a Pale Moonlight”
Jack Nicholson as The Joker in “Batman” (1989)
A very famous writer once said "It’s very tough to create a good Hero in a film but it is far tougher to create a good villain". This is at the centre of all great movies ever made in any part of the world. For example in India, the iconic movie "Sholay" is known far more for its rustic villain "Gabbar Singh" than any of its heroes. In Hollywood too, villains are the enablers of conflict and the story itself. So a Tony Montana in "Scarface" might be a ruthless, womanising, short tempered crook but gets all the love from the audience every time he comes to the screen.The Joker however is a different breed.
As I write this essay, Todd Phillips’ “Joker” movie’s trailer has invaded the internet and has over 35 Million views in a few days on YouTube which is abnormal for a DC film without Superman/Batman. This cements the mystic of The Joker as a villain.
The aim of this essay is to look into the origins of The Joker and try to de construct him as a character and analyse on how he stacks up against his peers in other comic books.
The Joker and his origins
In 1989 when the first "Batman" came out, it broke many records but what stood out in the record books was the pay package of $60 Million to Jack Nicholson to play The Joker. Nicholson bought Joker to the big screen with all its grandeur and madness. Since then global audiences have embraced almost each and every portrayal of the Joker in motion pictures. Although , even before Nicholson burst on the screens, The Joker was widely known amongst the fans of Batman and its comic books as well. Created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson. It is known widely that the basic look of Joker was inspired by actor Conrad Veidt in the 1929 film "The Man Who Laughs". According to Michael E Uslan, Exec Producer of all Batman Films, The Joker is also derived from the 1846 short story by Edgar Allan Poe known as "The Cask Of Amontillado" where a family carnival is the setting for a murder plotted by a man dressed as a jester.
In perspective of its creators, The Joker was actually a failed comedian (Real Name is Jack Napier) at a local club and who couldn't save the life of his wife and kid as he had no money. This was the defining moment in his life. The Joker character appeared for the first time in 1940 in the comic book # Batman 1 and has been a tentpole of sorts for Batman and the DC comics pantheon for decades now.
Can evil be fun? Can crime be the choice of the righteous? Is there an element of fun in doing bad things? The Joker in many ways is the epitome of fun in the crime world. His bright coloured clothes and elongated laugh are remembered by readers and viewers of film. In contrast, Joker has a far more colourful world than his arch nemesis ie The Batman. To put it mildly, Batman has to endure all the problems in Gotham as well as confront a lot of issues on the personal and professional front in all his adventures. On the other hand The Joker has fun doing everything he gets involved in. Rarely in a movie or comic book, has he shown any kind of remorse/ guilt over his actions. One of his signature tools is his calling card. The card has appeared umpteen number of times with his face on it.
He is also an entrepreneurial villain who depends on his followers. His mad love for colourful costumes is evident. He wears exquisite colours to say the least. In the "Batman" of 1989 he plunders an upper class art gallery and kidnaps Vicki Vale. Unlike other villains he sits down calmly and gives an intro of sorts to her about his perspective on art. He soils famous art works and calls the artworks useless. These traits distinguish him from other villains by a long shot.The Joker believes in anarchy and feels that there is something deeply philosophical in his work. In the comic "The Killing Joke", he explains that "Memory is the most cruel thing ever". This clearly is about how his family passed on due to him being incompetent as a comedian and that those memories still haunt him. But the key to understanding him is to understand his world. Director Christopher Nolan dealt a bodied blow to the critics of Joker who felt that he is just an evil clown. Nolan bought Joker's point of view out on the big screen by giving it an academic touch.
The conversation with Harvey Dent in "The Dark Knight"
A far deeper perspective into his mind is illustrated by the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. In his initiation of sorts of Harvey Dent into Two-Face, he clearly states the affairs of the world from his perspective. He openly states that he is an agent of chaos. According to him, he is from the lowest of the low and shares that by introducing anarchy change is possible. There is also a mention of the hatred of the upper classes when he mentions that all people in authority have their schemes and plans and that he doesn't want to be part of it. He clearly wants to establish a new order. This whole conversation is prophetic to say the least. More like a Gita talk between Krishna and Arjun in "The Mahabharata". Never before has a villain in a film recruited yet another super villain.
The Joker and other villains in popular culture
The most riveting thing about the Joker is that he sees himself as a reformer of sorts who believes that the world should adapt to his principles and value systems. This has catapulted his influence on other antagonists in films and television alike. Darth Vader, Tony Montana, Loki, Bollywood villains like Mogambo and Dong, Pennywise the clown from IT are all Jokers of sorts who love fun, action and crime at the same time. Marvel fans have pointed out that Thor's brother Loki is a rival to Joker but the fact is that he is part of a larger family of super gods. The Joker is an independent force and doesn't belong to any family. Although Loki too is entertaining and is inspired by the Norse God of mischief. The Joker is also the poster boy of rebellion in the DC Comics world.
On an academic level, The Joker is seen by many as a change agent of chaos who reflects the pain of the ones who took to crime as they didn't have anything else. This doesn't mean that The Joker can be considered a Hero but it does make the case of him being a man with a sense of purpose and cause. In the epic "Mahabharata" the Kauravas were looked upon as the evil and enemy but they too had reasons why they went to war. In some ways, The Joker has a few impressions of Kauravas on him- he is skilled, planned and has a cause to fight for. He kills for a reason and for sending a message.
The Batman-Joker Chemistry
The relationship between The Joker and Batman is a fascinating love story of sorts. They both have a secret admiration for each other. In the defining comic "The Killing Joke", the last scene shows them both enjoying a hearty laugh. Another fascinating discussion happens when they both are hanging on a rope in "The Dark Knight" where Joker remarks "You are truly incorruptible" as a way of admiring his work. In the 1989 "Batman", Jack Nicholson as Joker sheepishly announces to his gang that "I wish I can have these amazing toys what he has...I wish". Yet again he appreciates Batman's gadgetry and his taste. Now the thing to note is that this kind of secret admiration between a Hero and Villain is unseen in other comics or stories.
Relevance in the DC Comics arsenal
The Joker is possibly the most prized asset in the DC Comics family. Marvel has Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Dr Strange as heroes but they don't have a super villain like The Joker. Even in the latest Avengers movie, Thanos is all power and opulence but he doesn't have the humour and wit of The Joker. I don't think Marvel has ever produced or is producing a super villain story ever. The clown prince is indeed unique.
The future of The Joker
After appearing in over dozens of TV Shows, animated films, motion pictures and video games, The Joker has been evolving rapidly as new writers have created their own visions of him. If one looks at the grinning thug Joker of the 1966's movie, it looks totally different from the Joker of "Suicide Squad". The Nolan version of The Joker is portrayed as a visionary entrepreneur amongst the criminal class with a strategic mind for crime.With his origins movie coming up, The Clown prince of crime is far from over !
Joaquin Phoenix as The Joker
Phoenix seems to be a shoe-in for the Joker’s origin story. If one looks at his nuanced semi-comic , semi-tragic portrayals in movies such as “Her”, “Gladiator”, “Inherent Vice”, “ The Master”, “Walk The Line”, Phoenix seems to have the emotional depth to portray a psychologically complex character like the Joker. The fact that Warner Bros. has committed over $50 Million to this film which does not star “Batman” is itself a testament to the fact. “Joker” will be a watershed moment for DC and will hopefully give them some ammo against the mammoth Marvel Cinematic Universe characters.