I love the Joker. I have loved his character since I was a child watching Batman: The Animated Series in the 1990s. In fact, it was Mark Hamill’s stellar portrayal of The Clown Prince of Crime that got me to love this character who is so wonderfully mad, so wonderfully deranged but also so very in control. I loved everything about this character who seemed more like a myth than a fixture in the criminal underbelly of Gotham City.
It surprises many that for being someone who loves DC Comics and the Joker as a character that I didn’t like Heath Ledger’s version of the Clown Prince of Crime in The Dark Knight and while my usual gripes about the choice to make him some random dude with bad makeup and a Chelsea Grin, my big gripe with the role was the choice to make Ledger more an agent of random chaos rather than a targeted criminal who wants to ruin Batman’s day. I remember that choice to depict the character like that being concerning to me; and then the Aurora theater shooting happened.
I remember feeling this inherent antagonism now with those who used the Joker as a bit of a short hand for a person who wants to rationalize bad behavior with a comic book analog. It’s a similar feeling I have with people who will use the Punisher symbol mixed with Back the Blue motifs as if literal vigilante Frank Castle would care about officers with badges. It’s using a comic book character as a bit of a scapegoat for more troubling thought patterns.
The Joker is a complicated character with many canons through comics and movies but the version that always rings true for me is a combination of two canons: Batman: The Animated Series under Paul Dini and Bruce Timm and Alan Moore’s comic The Killing Joke. The Killing Joke as a graphic novel works perfectly for when it was released. It was the late 1980s-1990s, Alan Moore still didn’t like women and still liked a lot of sexual violence and it codifies an origin for the Joker that makes him less a mad man who happened to fall into acid but a tragic put upon man at his tether who happened to face a miserable and tragic consequences. The crux of the story is that everyone is just one bad day away from snapping and when I read the comic as a youth and the movie as a young adult, I felt that Kierkegaardian level of angst. I’ve had many terrible nights and the fact that much like the allusion the Joker is making to Batman, that just one of those nights seems to be what separates me from being a hero or a monster. But Alan Moore is a strong writer, even if you can feel and understand where the Joker is coming from you still recognize and realize that he’s a bad person who does not have justification just because his life was bad. A dead wife is not an excuse to be a criminal. I always respected the works that did a better job of framing the Joker while still keeping him strangely sympathetic or at least understandable and in all fairness, the times were different. I was shocked DC waited as long as they did to animate The Killing Joke but it was such a close adaptation (if you can ignore the parts with Gay Draco Malfoy as Babs’ friend and the absolutely not needed sex scene with Batman) that you can understand how we go from Jack Napier to the Joker without writing him a pass.
So when there was an announcement about the newest Joker film with Joaquin Phoenix taking the role too seriously that’s supposed to be outside of the canon but heavily inspired by the narrative (basically the movie centers around a washed up comedian who is fed up and tired and decides to take life by the balls and be a criminal about it and incites social unrest and violence as recompense for his imagined slights) I was concerned. The movie was announced a year or so ago and unless you’ve been hiding under a rock (which if you are, please let me join you), last year was a mess of violence against women, trans women, people of color and an onslaught of the sanctity and safety of public spaces. 2019 seemed to only bring more violence, more hatred and more fear. Recently, it was announced that a moved titled The Hunt was going to have its release date altered because it seemed in poor taste to show a movie with a plot that centers around liberals hunting conservatives like The Purge after the violence that happened in Dayton and El Paso.
I wanted to defend The Joker (2019). I wanted to give this movie a chance because it truly does look like a fresh and new take on a story I know by heart. However as the reviews started to trickle in, critics confirmed my greatest suspicion, that this movie was a fever dream for entitled people who would love nothing more than to have an excuse or rallying cry to gather around and use as fuel to stoke the fire in their souls. We don’t need any more stories about men who take out their hatred of women due to their lack of ability to get a date or keep a relationship steady by means of violence. We don’t need any more stories that glamorize mental illness and shun the need for medication. We don’t need more stories that perpetuate the myth that a tragic backstory is an excuse to be a garbage person.
We just don’t need those stories anymore and in my opinion, the film is irresponsible. We’ve faced so much loss and death in just the last few years that I can’t imagine it is ethical to release this film. Any other time in history, I would say that it is not the media’s job to teach people not to be terrible. I’ve lived nearly 30 years with comics and I’ve never once rationalized cruelty with “Well, this drawing is mean because they also have dead parents.”but increasingly, it is apparent that people just cannot be trusted to see the movie for what it is; a movie, not a guidebook for bad behavior or an Anarchist’s Cookbook for explaining away terrible things.
I won’t shame anyone who goes to see this movie. I hope it’s good. I genuinely do. But I think I’m sitting this one out.