Inspired by the nomination of the film Joker for eleven Oscars, including best film, best director, best adapted screenplay, best actor, and seven technical categories, this post will look at the Joker as a character as portrayed in major Hollywood films. Three films to be exact. The first, Joker itself, which may win big at the Oscars two days after this article posts. The second movie Joker we’ll examine will be from 1989’s Batman, directed by Tim Burton, starring Jack Nicholson, er, I mean, starring Micheal Keaton, with the Joker only playing a minor backup role ( 🙂 ). And lastly we’ll talk about the The Dark Knight and it’s Joker-figure, infamously portrayed by Heath Ledger.
Just as the Oscars have categories, so will this post. Er, well, no, not “just as.” More like shooting off on my own tangent, but you’ll see in a second.
We’ll look at these different visions of the same character and evaluate them in the following categories: Realism, Origin, Justification, Creepiness, Lethality, Leadership, Film Message, and Evil Influence. How do the different jokers rate versus one another? Then, we’ll conclude each section with a well-known real-world human being whom I judge to have things many things in common with each version of the Joker.
Note this post is not a detailed review of the movie Joker but instead discusses it with a presumption that you’ve already seen it if you wanted to. Some spoilers follow.
The Joker in Joker
Realism: This film will get the, er, “Speckie” award for realism. A story about a mentally ill guy who is downtrodden and oppressed and who flips a switch at some point into becoming a merciless killer certainly feels realistic. The movie spends a lot of time showing the Joker’s sufferings and makes him into the primary object of the audience’s feeling of sympathy for the protagonist.
However, in some ways the film offers a very good imitation of realism rather than realism itself. Can someone who has been beaten down in life and who has suffered “flip a switch” and become a cold-blooded killer? Er, actually it’s more common for someone with such emotional turmoil to become a hot-blooded killer, who kills in rage, or even one who positively enjoys killing. So the Joker’s cold-bloodedness in this film is not actually realistic, even though it feels realistic. And the fact that this Joker’s actions inspire widespread imitation is a stretch of realism and is more a reflection of how the society is portrayed in the film than anything strictly realistic. Plus, the fact that this version of the Joker escapes arrest is a bit unbelievable.
Origin: Since the entire movie, which really is more of a commentary on society than a superhero tale, is supposedly about the origin of the Joker, what it is that makes him who he is, you might also expect me to hand out a “Speckie” to Joker. But I won’t. As a story about some poor suffering guy who then turns bad, Joker pretty much works (with a few objections I’ve given in the paragraph above). But as a story for the origin of the super-villain “the Joker,” the film does poorly. Arthur Fleck is a dangerous man at the end of the film, not someone you’d want to accidentally splash with your car as you drove by–but he isn’t any kind of genius and certainly not a criminal genius. So as the origin story of the super-villain Joker, I judge Joker to be the worst origin story of the three we’re looking at.
Justification: Joker shows over and over again how powerless Arthur Fleck feels in life. His walk into evil comes because shooting people down gives him a sense of power. Though I would object that suffering actually makes some people more empathetic rather than less, it’s certainly true others take out their suffering on everyone else. The film Joker spends the most time establishing its justification for the Joker’s actions, thus is a strong contender for this “Speckie” I’m handing out. Still, because the film shows him becoming more of a cold-blooded killer than a passionate one (though we could say he is “coolly passionate”), I think the justification provided this character doesn’t quite match his actual actions. No Speckie.
Creepiness: The one and only scene with the Joker and Bruce Wayne together in Joker features Arthur Fleck reaching through the bars of the mansion gate and reaching for young Bruce Wayne’s mouth, inserting his fingers into the corners, and pushing the mouth into a smile. Very creepy. Among other creepy scenes. Yes, Heath Ledger’s Joker continually seeks to be disturbing, but due to the strength of Joaquin Phoenix’s acting, his Joker wins the Speckie for the creepiest portrayal.
Lethality: This version of the Joker shoots some people, totally without any detailed plan. And basically gets away with it multiple times. Yeah, real people do this often enough, but (thank God) they usually get caught. This “joker” would soon wind up in a prison or a mental institution. So while deadly, this joker is in a sense the least lethal of the three.
Leadership: The Joker in Joker is also by far the worst leader. In fact, while his actions inspire some imitation, the notion that this person could deliberately lead anyone to do anything would make the other two Jokers collapse into fits of laughter.
Film Message: Joker comes on strong with a message about the downtrodden and how we as a society should treat them better–lest, you know, general neglect of mental health services and men being super mean to other men they see as weak (as in genuine toxic masculinity) will cause lots of people to flip over to evil. The film also portrays wealthy people, including Thomas Wayne, Bruce Wayne’s father, as lacking empathy and in general causing regular people to suffer. A general revolt against the wealthy is a feature of this film. Does the film actually justify killing the rich or does it simply predict that if rich people remain as the movie portrays them, then “this is what you can expect”? I’m not sure–though I’d say the film can legitimately been seen either way.
Note how the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents right in front of young Bruce Wayne, such a key moment in the origin of Batman, becomes totally different in Joker. Instead of being the work of an inherently dangerous sociopath (1989’s Batman), the Waynes are shot during a general unrest inspired by the Joker’s actions in part but even more by how awful inequality is portrayed in the film and how terrible wealthy people are according to the story. So it’s almost a justified killing. Not justified as in, “killing people is okay,” but rather “what do you expect under the circumstances?”
This message, which supports the way a lot of people feel about our society, even though it has dubious moral value, is such a major feature of the Joker that I’m reluctantly handing it the Speckie for this category.
Evil Influence: Both inside and outside the story world, how much influence does this version of the Joker have?
In the story, for “reasons,” many people find his actions inspirational. A riot against the wealthy ensues. NOTE that criminal gangs and general lawlessness, a primary concern in the other movies this post looks at, is totally different in his film. There is no evidence of general lawlessness–just a response to oppression.
I’m more interested in the evil influence outside the story–could this tale put in someone’s mind that inequality and general nastiness on the part of some wealthy people justifies killing them? Actually, I think yes, the story could inspire someone to think that way. Though of course the vast majority of people who watch the film won’t think that at all.
And of course this movie contains “strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images” as per its rating. Which isn’t that noteworthy nowadays in and of itself, but people strongly associate this kind of content with realism. Making it harder to realistically portray events without using these elements. Which I would call a minor evil influence.
In addition, this movie makes a perhaps-unintended commentary on the nature of evil–that evil comes from circumstances of dysfunction. That evil is a treatable mental condition, in effect. For me, this clearly fails to account for actual things people do and the reality of sin. So for that reason, I’m not giving my fictional “Speckie” award to Joker in this category.
Famous Real Evil Person Most Like: If we were to search public records of murderers, most likely we could find someone who matches Arthur Fleck better than the person I’m about to name. Which is appropriate in a way, because Joker functions better as a biography of some murderer you’ve never heard of than a story about someone infamous for super-villainy. But still, to make a comparison, I think I need need to pick someone famous, even if the comparison is flawed.
The Joker in Joker is most like John Wayne Gacy.
For those who don’t recall the name, Gacy was a serial killer in the Chicago area who captured teenage boys and young men, had sex with them, tortured them and killed them, and buried them under his house. This happened in the 70s and he had 33 known victims.
As a sexual predator and serial killer, Gacy is inherently different from the Joker as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix. Granted their differences, including Gacy having almost no known justification for the things he did, they do share some traits in common. Both are solitary killers who gained a degree of notoriety. Both worked as clowns, though Gacy did so as a volunteer and that was Arthur Fleck’s job. Both killed for strictly personal reasons. Neither had any master plan or deliberately lead any kind of movement. Both would be potentially very dangerous to a certain group of people, but not everyone (Arthur Fleck spares the life of a midget he’d worked with, even as he callously murdered another former colleague right in front of him).
The most important point of this comparison is to show that even though Joker portrays someone who becomes villainous, he is no leader, no criminal mastermind. Just dangerous to the wrong person who runs into him at the wrong time. Like John Wayne Gacy.
The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman
Realism: While in some aspects I think the Joker in Batman does parallel real-life people, the overall tenor of this movie is not realistic and the portrayal of the Joker in some aspects doesn’t even try to be realistic. The Joker is a larger-than-life figure, that’s how Batman shows him. Lots of details are not realistic at all, including the vat of chemicals Jack Napier falling into supposedly permanently damaging the nerves to his mouth (but no other nerves), the giant pistol the Joker uses to shoot down the Batwing, the impossible heights of the Gotham Cathedral, etc. etc. So as a realistic portrayal, this film comes at the bottom of the list.
Origin: As the origin of a super-villain, starting with someone who is already an important figure in organized crime and pushing him a bit further is a good start. In terms of explaining his origins, it was also good to place him as the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents, showing him to be someone who was always a sociopath. He just got worse when he “lost his mind.” But the story falls down when saying it was a plunge into chemicals and having his appearance altered as a result that put him over the edge. There’s no psychological depth there. So no Speckie for Jack Nicholson.
Justification: Jack Nicholson’s Joker is a crime boss first and foremost. He is going for wealth, luxury, beautiful women (though in his most creepy moment, he deliberately mutilates his lovers) and in general trying to make money off crime. A totally normal justification–though when you look at this random killings through the chemicals he distributes to the public, which he launches into after making himself the new crime boss, his reasons may seem to fall down into the cartoonish. But the story articulates a reason for him–he considers death a form of art. While the reason is weird, he has a reason that makes sense within the context of the story world.
And given the truly strange things people have praised as art, this justification strikes at a fear that creators will build something dangerous, consequences be damned. That someone will love their creation to the degree they lose sight of the effect it can have–they don’t care about hurting people, they just want to follow their own creative impulses, with no restrictions. Certainly this fear of creativity-without-restrictions is based on a realistic reaction to many human inventions. So I give the “Speckie” for best Joker in this category to Jack Nicholson.
Creepiness: This version of the Joker is the least creepy of the three. Though he does have several creepy moments, including his deliberate mutilation of the faces of his paramours.
Lethality: While this Joker is certainly responsible for the deaths of many people, in person he’s not much of fighter. He kills mostly through actions he plans and has others carry out. Lethal, yes, but no Speckie for this Joker.
Leadership: On the other hand, this Joker is by far the best leader of the three. Arthur Fleck in Joker not only has no leadership skills, he has nobody directly serving under his command. Heath Ledger’s Joker, who is a leader, but who continually and casually sacrifices his own men, inspires thoughts of “why does anyone ever actually follow this clown?” (“pun” intended). Nicholson’s Joker may have horrifically random plans for the public at large, but his troops serve him because he give them reasons to do so–loyalty in exchange for loyalty. Speckie awarded!
Film Message: Unlike Joker, in which the message of the story permeates the film and parsing out exactly what that message means is probably one of the main reasons Joker has been nominated for “Best Picture,” the 1989 version of Batman was low on deliberate messages. Still, simply by portraying one character as the hero and another as the villain, the movie has a message about the nature of Good and Evil. First, that such categories actually exist. Second, that one of the most important defining characteristics of evil is to lack empathy for others–one of this Joker’s prime characteristics. (In fact, that’s the message that laughing at the distress of others sends more than any other–that I feel no empathy for you.) I happen to like this message better than what Joker offers, but because the message is apparently accidental and very similar to the message behind The Dark Knight, no Speckie will be awarded here.
Evil Influence: In the movie, the Joker encourages his troops to engage in a certain measure of zany criminality. Sure, he influences them to do things they otherwise would not do, but his influence on others isn’t really what this film is about.
As for real-world potential to inspire evil, the idea that evil is cool and good is boring might worm its way into a viewer’s mind from this film. Because Batman is dark and brooding and good, while the Joker is fun and happy and evil. Though I actually am more concerned with people who believe happiness is a characteristic of being good, inherently part of the package of goodness, which it isn’t necessarily (as most versions of Batman show).
So overall, this film neither portrays, nor in fact is responsible for much noteworthy in terms of “evil influence.” (No Speckie!)
Famous Real Evil Person Most Like: Again, as a comparison, the person I’m about to name fails in a number of ways to completely match the Joker in Batman, but I feel better about this analogy than I did comparing Arthur Fleck to John Wayne Gacy. Who among historical figures that come to mind saw himself as an artist over his entire lifetime? Who was more noteworthy for his leadership and ability to inspire others than anything else? Who followed a vision for the world that meant good things for his followers, but death and destruction for those “not on his team”? Who had a vision for the future? Who used poison chemicals to destroy people?
The Joker in Batman is like most like Hitler.
“But Hitler wasn’t funny at all!” you may object. True, but that wasn’t the aspect I was comparing. “But the Joker didn’t kill nearly as many people as Hilter!” True, but Hilter headed up an entire nation with a much greater capacity to kill than Gotham City gangs had. This version of the Joker, if he had all power, would have most likely have “artistically” killed millions. “But the Joker is nowhere near as hateful as Hitler was!” True–and a very significant difference. Hitler was highly emotional and hateful and the Joker simply thought killing was funny, mostly emotionally detached as he killed. Still, I don’t think killing-even-though-you-hate-less makes the Joker’s intentions benign. “But Hitler was much more evil!”
Well, yes, I agree Hitler was more evil–certainly the Joker in Batman showed no lust for genocide. But John Wayne Gacy, driven by sexual lust, was also more evil than Arthur Fleck. The point of comparison is not to say the characters are the same in their effect or power, but that there are similarities in motivations and methods of operations. Der Führer was dangerous not because he personally was a killer, but because of what he led others to do for their own benefit, at the detriment of others. Like Jack Nicholson’s Joker.
The Joker in The Dark Knight
Realism: The Dark Knight cast off the more cartoon-ish elements of Batman, striving to adopt a more realistic feel. Yet in some ways it’s not like ordinary reality at all. The Joker has a horde of followers who are completely reliable but also completely expendable–not a realistic thing. Batman gets chased by the police to salvage the reputation of Harvey Dent–hey, why does that make any sense at all? (I mean, if there’s gonna be a cover-up, why not say crime bosses killed each other?) Plus, some physics things I won’t delve into. Suffice it to summarize that The Dark Knight is only moderately realistic.
Origin: The Dark Knight does not portray the origin of the Joker. He simply shows up on the scene, all kitted up and ready to go. A few times he talks about how he got the scars on his face. There’s an implication at one moment he was a victim of abuse, but later it becomes clear that he was lying. His lack of clear origin makes him more mysterious, more frightening. So in a surprise move, I’m giving the “best super-villain origin” award to the version of the Joker that actually contains no origin story! (“I’m so surprised, but proud, to have received the Speckie award in this category…” 🙂 ) Though this contains an editorial comment on my part–evil doesn’t need to be explained nearly as much as good does. (Do we have a solid case of abuses and slights that made John Wayne Gacy who he was? Or Hilter who he was? Not really–only a little of that kind of thing happened to them.)
Justification: The Joker in The Dark Knight has no clear justification for his actions. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” Michael Cane’s Alfred explains to Batman. Some people will find this unrealistic–but that’s because they are hook, line, and sinker buying into the idea that human evil is aberrant and requires some special origin story to explain it. Actually, some humans from infancy show no sign of empathy for others. Some humans really do kill and engage in mayhem for no clear reason. And most humans, as both studies and history have shown, will participate in evil if an authority figure is telling them to do so. People are not usually devoid of empathy, but people much more easily accept evil than the evil-is-mental-pathology view allows for. Still, I already gave out a “Speckie” for the no-origin origin. I won’t double down with a no-justification justification.
Creepiness: Yeah, Heath Ledger’s Joker is pretty creepy on multiple occasions. It’s a tribute to Joaquin Phoneix’s tremendous acting that Arthur Fleck manages to be an empathetic figure we pity most of the time, while at particular moments out-creeping Heath Ledger’s Joker. The Dark Knight’s Joker is more consistently creepy, but I already gave the Speckie to Joker–Arthur Fleck–Joaquin Phoenix.
Lethality: Both in personal, physical actions and by nefarious plans, this Joker is the most lethal of the three. SPECKIE winner!
Leadership: While this Joker is awfully good at coming up with detailed plans–unlike Arthur Fleck–I really wonder how he gets anyone to follow him. Any observant subordinate would quickly realize how bad this Joker’s plans go for his foot soldiers and would not want to participate. The only way his followers make sense is if they are trapped on his team, with no way to escape it. More on that in a bit, but still, while this Joker is a leader, he isn’t one you can imagine a normal person following. No Speckie here.
Film Message: This movie does get message-y at times. Of course it resonates in harmony with 1989’s Batman that there really are categories of Good and Evil and that Evil needs to be resisted. Very true. This movie does even better and makes it clear that resisting evil doesn’t necessarily have to do with physical victory in a fight. The two boatloads of people, each rigged with explosives, each with a controller to blow up the other ship, was about tempting people to do harm to others–resisting the evil at that moment was found not in a physical fight but in refusing to play along with the evil plan. By deciding to be good, even at the risk of their own lives.
The idea is that being Good is not just about fighting bad people trying to kill others, but is more importantly about resisting Evil in yourself. That’s a message I heartily approve of. I like this message much more than what’s found in either of the other films.
However, I felt the message got muddled by declaring that if only people knew Harvey Dent had done wrong that would do some kind of horrific damage to the morale of people in Gotham City. Yes, people can get hurt when they learn of someone they thought of as a paragon of virtue has fallen into shameful behavior. But the problem there, I would say, is expecting any real person to be a paragon. Paragons are best found in fiction, where they can model what their creator thinks is ideal behavior for you to imitate if you chose. But real people would be better served by recognizing other real people are capable of doing wrong you’d never expect.
Besides, as much as I find the message of Joker to be morally troubling, Joker handled it’s message more artfully than The Dark Knight, in which “the message” was mostly made known through impassioned speeches. Artistically there’s a lot to be said for showing the message through actions, rather than through things directly said (though directness is at times appropriate–it depends on the audience).
Evil Influence: This Joker is all about evil influence! However he manages to get his followers to obey his orders to their deaths, he does. Yet his central premise is to get people most other people see as good to do things most of us see as evil. He wants people to choose to blow other people up–to pick one family member over others–to despair that anything good can happen in the future. To accept the idea that it is society that’s profoundly dysfunctional in loving plans, not him for destroying them. That breaking people and wending them to his will is what he was put on Planet Earth to do. That if Batman has one thing he won’t do, that’s the very thing the Joker wants him to do.
How about real-world potential for promotion of evil? The movie does rather normalize extreme violence, though it consistently portrays such violence as bad. The movie does casually embrace the idea that lying to the public is a good idea–covering up Harvey Dent’s fall into insanity is a good thing. Because the public can’t handle truth. Such a notion isn’t particularly supportive of the morality of truth-telling. We could say the Heath Ledger’s Joker glamorized evil by being more interesting than Christian Bale’s Batman. Perhaps The Dark Knight even significantly helped inspire the interest in the Joker as his own character that’s given us the current Joker movie.
But overall, because The Dark Knight primarily conceives of the Joker as an evil influence on others, seeking to prod them to do wrong, therefore I give this portrayal the Speckie-award-I-invented-for-this-post. (YAY!)
Famous Real Evil Person Most Like: Please excuse me for veering from using a human person as my example here. But when we are talking about someone who is seeking to destroy and ruin, someone whose backstory we don’t know very much about, someone primarily interested in prodding good people to do evil things, who is openly cynical about people ever sincerely doing right, who has a horde of insane but also insanely loyal followers, who is negatively focused on destruction of good rather than any form of creative vision, all of that paints a picture of a particular person.
The Joker in The Dark Knight is most like Satan.
Granted Satan works almost exclusively behind the scenes, cannot be punched in the face or killed by any human means, has an influence much broader than Gotham City, and generally only inspires people to kill others, rather than directly killing himself. But still, as one with no empathy for human suffering, no desire to build or obtain or create, who seeks to put good people in situations what will cause them to become evil, this version of the Joker is very much like Satan as portrayed in the Bible (discussed in a previous post here).
So with eight made-up “Speckie” awards to give out, the “Travis Perry Academy” assigned 3 Speckies to the Joker in Joker, 3 to the Joker in The Dark Knight, with only two going to the Joker in Batman. What does that count really mean, since I both made up the categories and judged them?
It means I think the Joker is a character worth thinking about and writing about. I think the Joker film is very interesting and has some strong points. But it also has weak points, most notably how it fails to explain the origin of a super-villain. And has a muddled and potentially sinister “kill the rich” message embedded within it.
It means that while I consider Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker to be memorable, his portrayal was no greater than Heath Ledger’s, simply different. Though both performances were in some limited ways less impressive than what Jack Nicholson and Tim Burton did with the character.
I think Joaquin Phoenix deserves an award for best actor. But best picture? Best director? Best screenplay? No, I don’t think so.
So what do you think about the Joker as a character? Any comments on my analysis? Any particular thoughts about Joker the movie? Or other examples of the Joker as a character?