Now I am an enormous Batman fan. I love the Dark Knight’s mythos, the films, the video games, the tv series. He is my favourite comic book character and the reason why, no matter how much better the MCU films are than the DCEU, I prefer DC over Marvel. I said it. Fight me. Come at me, I dare you.
And of course, there is no Batman without the Joker. Every single on-screen iteration of the Dark Knight has had his Clown Prince of Crime. Be it Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto or the myriad of voice actors who’ve taken on the role. And now the crazy club has a new member. Joaquin Phoenix. And yet, this new film has shifted the roles. Batman has always been the protagonist and Joker the antagonist. Good versus Evil, Right versus Wrong, Discipline and Order versus Insanity and Chaos. That has been their struggle over the 80 years of their collective existence. One looks to uphold the laws and the values of society (though he steps outside of them) and the other goes out of his way to prove that because they can be broken and destroyed means they never existed.
In this new film, Batman is nowhere to be seen. Bruce Wayne is a child here and his parents are still alive. The film entirely focuses on a man purported to be the Joker in his early stages. The reason I say that is that the Joker has no fixed origin story. He has no definitive beginning. As he has said himself: “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” I wasn’t convinced by the idea of an origin movie on a character built on not have any real origin. And having not seen it yet, I can’t say I am convinced but I am looking forward to seeing what Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix have done with the character. I’m not someone who thinks a movie has to be absolutely faithful to the source materials in every single way. I have no problem with whatever changes they may have made as long as they remain true to the soul of the character.
The hot topic issue surrounding this movie has been its level of violence and seemingly glorifying it to an impressionable audience. My response to that would be ‘Well what exactly were you expecting?’ This was never going to be a fun funny film. This character is anything but a clown. He’s been shown skinning people alive from the shoulders down (its as horrific as it sounds), going on a sniper killing spree at Christmas, having his face cut off and then stapled back on top of the muscle, and gassing people to laugh uncontrollably until they asphyxiate, with a grotesque grin on their face. He’s not exactly Coco the Clown.
I think the lack of Batman in this film has caught some people out, without the character on the side of good to reaffirm that these actions are wrong, that they are outside the norm. The fact that the Joker is the protagonist also fuels the sense of the film somehow being on his side. I highly doubt that was the intention of the studio, the director or the actor. This film has been described as a character study, of a man who suffers immense pain throughout his life, emotional and psychological, including through a disorder that causes many to shun him, and physical. The people of Gotham beat on this guy until he snaps and lashes out. The story is told from his perspective but that doesn’t mean the audience is meant to root for him.
I know concerns were raised by the families of the Aurora cinema shooting, which was at the premiere of a Batman movie, and I cannot begin to know their pain, but here I think their concerns are not misplaced but maybe overblown, if that doesn’t sound too crass or unfeeling. The film is about one man’s descent into madness after the circumstances of his life push him beyond his limits and his violent reaction to that. And the society he lives in plays a part in that descent.
Two quotes from DC writers who worked on Batman comics stick with me about the Joker. One was “You don’t know what he’s going to do; maybe he won’t kill you, maybe he’ll hand you a thousand dollar bill, he’ll probably kill you. But you can’t be sure.” And the other was that the other Batman villains have their justifications for what they do and why they do it, but the Joker does it ” because I’m as nutty as a squirrel and I’m proud of that.” That is at the heart of the Joker and what this new films seeks to examine. They aren’t looking to glorify the violence of the character, they understand it is at the core of what the character does.