Updated: Oct 28, 2019
By Derek May:
“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.”
— The Killing Joke
Over the nearly 80 years since Batman’s greatest nemesis first graced the pages of Detective Comic books, those words by writer Alan Moore remain the closest we may get to understanding the maniacal, homicidal prankster known simply as “The Joker.” And for most of that time, readers and viewers have been satisfied with that. Part of the power of the character is his nebulous ambiguity, the fact that he seems more a force than an individual. Knowing too much seems a surefire way to tarnish his mystique. And so when it was announced that Warner Bros. was planning to produce a Joker origin story, like many a fanboy, I scoffed, bristled, and railed against the very notion. Then they announced that Joaquin Phoenix would play the Clown Prince of Crime . . . Are you kidding me?! And the film would be directed by the dude from The Hangover movies? . . .
But then I saw the first photos from set and started to soften—just a touch. Oh, it’s dark and gritty, with a 70’s vibe? Intriguing. De Niro’s signed on? Well, surely that’s a good sign. Then the first trailer hit. . . .
They got me again. I was all ready to hate this monstrosity, just like I was ready to hate Ledger, Bale, Affleck, Clooney . . . (ok, I was right on that last one). But damned if WB doesn’t have a knack for obliterating my preconceived notions. And now, after finally witnessing the birth of this version of the enigmatic Joker, I’ve never been happier to be wrong.
The movie is, quite simply, a work of art.
Borrowing heavily both cinematically and thematically from such classics as The Graduate, The Exorcist, The King of Comedy, and most especially Taxi Driver, the film is a deconstruction of the Man Who Laughs, exploring his traumatic life as a statement on class struggles, mental illness, and desperation rather than as an excuse to simply sympathize with a madman. That being said, early on we do indeed empathize with poor Arthur Fleck, a castaway even amongst the other dregs of Gotham City’s lowest rung. We can certainly relate to his situation, if not always to his psychological issues, and that’s an important point. As throughout most of his existence, the Joker is hard to pin down, but one thing that’s fairly clear is he’s a psychopath. He doesn’t have a conscience, doesn’t fit in with society or conform to its principles and, most importantly, doesn’t properly connect with the emotions of his fellow human beings.
This is explored in a variety of ways in the film, but one of my favorites was the way Fleck, a wannabe stand-up, dutifully jots down notes while observing one of his peers. He seems pleasantly bewildered by the audience’s reactions to a punchline, but doesn’t laugh himself, seemingly missing the joke. Instead he barks out that displaced cackle on the off-beat, proving his distance from the rest of the world. His humor is completely skewed, much like his perception, his emotions, and his understanding.
That laugh itself is put to ingenious use throughout the film as more than an affectation. For the first time, it’s something completely devoid of humor, a demon within him that bursts forth and causes him pain on a number of levels. To take something that iconic and turn it on its head is a stroke of brilliance and a fresh take on a character that, after eight decades, would seemingly have been wrung dry by now.
Instead, Phoenix’s performance provides enough layers to continue digging through multiple viewings. And yet, at its core, it is a somewhat simple tale of a man desperate to be noticed, to be accepted and loved, and yes, to make people laugh. Fate, it seems, has dealt Fleck one bad card after another, but at a certain point, he makes his own choices. While his numerous and varied afflictions and circumstances provide a rich and human character, at a certain point you can only understand, not excuse, his actions. As Fleck gives in to his homicidal nature, that sad and somewhat pathetic man evolves into something darker and, surprisingly, into an unlikely icon—a painted face for a movement that pits the downtrodden against the one-percenters.
That may seem like quite a transformation, and it is. To be able to legitimately pull that off is no small feat. And like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, Fleck is spurred by his own desires and a general disgust with the larger world around him until he’s set himself upon a course with no return. That commentary is central to the narrative, as the upper crust, embodied by Batman’s pre-murdered father Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), is pitted against a lower class distressed, angry, and ready to rise up at the call of a figurehead ready to stick it to the man. Director Phillips ratchets up the tension ever so slowly over the course into a final crescendo. In fact, the further Arthur descends into his own internal madness, the more intense the outside pressure becomes.
Alongside these already substantial forces is an underlying plot exploring Fleck’s background and potential place along that societal stratum. What initially concerned me as too broad a peek behind the curtain turned out to be one of the most delightful twists of the film. As with Ledger’s turn in The Dark Knight, we are left to wonder what is really true when it comes to the history of Arthur Fleck. To me, that’s a necessary element when dealing with the Joker, as his ambiguity is essential to the character. Phillips and Phoenix both, thankfully, understand this and somehow manage to give us more than we’ve ever gotten but never more than is needed.
This fine line runs through to every facet, from tone to commentary to characterization—and even to the level of violence. You can’t have a story of a homicidal maniac without a few victims. But the violence isn’t gratuitous or taken lightly. Requisitely intense, it’s all shot in such a way as to more often than not suggest the worst rather than actually show it. Horrific acts sometimes burst forth at unexpected times—not unlike Fleck’s laugh—punctuating stretches of quiet introspection. Similarly, Fleck’s spontaneous outbursts of dance mirror his quickening into something new, something above the restrictions of his job, his mother (Frances Conroy), and the very rules of the world at large.
While the cast is unsurprisingly at the top of their game, Phoenix deserves particular recognition. Considered something of a distant odd-ball himself, Phoenix dives deep to bring each minute element of Fleck to the surface. Losing over 50 pounds for the role, he often bears his twisted, emaciated body and writhes on screen with a sort of horrific delight. The hooked nose, crooked teeth, and hunched torso natural to the actor all seem perfectly suited to the role, as if born to play this man. As Fleck begins to wash away and the Joker steps into the spotlight, you can see the torment and toll the transformation has taken on both actor and character. Whether Phoenix was shooting for an Oscar or not, he’s certainly earned the right to a nomination. There’d be some cosmic symmetry should Phoenix join his friend Ledger in winning for the same role (take that Leto!).
Joker is the film no one wanted and yet had the grit and sheer willpower to make itself a zeitgeist powerhouse of disturbing beauty. Darkly funny in all the wrong ways, a force of political and social upheaval, the movie is the man in all the right ways. Phillips managed to pull off something I truly did not think he was capable of (seriously, he did Starsky & Hutch for god’s sake!). But I think he was smart enough to surround himself with the best: screenwriter Scott Silver (8 Mile, The Fighter), Phoenix, De Niro, Conroy, producer Bradley Cooper . . . The results speak for themselves. Despite Scorsese’s recent comments (which I think are naïve and ludicrous), Joker proves comic book films can have as much depth and meaning for us and our world as any other film: an exploration of the human condition, the stratification of society, the (mis)treatment and ostracization of mental illness, the glamorization of the outlaw, and the outcome of a lifetime of abuse culminating in one bad day for one disturbed individual that could be any one of us under the right circumstances. Joker won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly worth your time as a fresh reinvention of an iconic character, a psychological study of a tormented man, or simply as an exquisite work of art. Either way, I’m sure it’ll put a smile on your face.
YANG: Ranking the Bat-Verse
The release of Todd Phillips’ Joker proves that both the Bat and the Clown are indelible yet malleable icons that are constantly being reexamined and reimagined. As long as a creator stays true to the essential values and essences of the characters, there’s almost nothing you can’t do with them. Batman, of course, has famously been everything from pastel-loving campster to bone-crunching badass. And as always, his arch-nemesis towed the line right beside him. As goes Batman, so goes Joker, being either the silly comic foil or the nefarious homicidal genius depending on whatever tone or level of villainy is required.
So I thought it’d be fun to take a look back at some of the most prominent tales in the bat-legacy and the actors who’ve brought them to life. Now, something of a disclaimer, these characters have been around for 80 years’ worth of stories, so it’d be impossible (or at least overly tedious) to list every incarnation here. So I’ll comment on a few that are either famous or have simply best caught my attention.
Let’s start things off with the man of the hour, that Clown Price of Crime: The Joker! Let’s a take a look at some of the best and worst versions of the Man Who Laughs:
Mark Hamill – For my money, the best of the best. Hamill has voiced the Joker in various animated incarnations for almost 30 years and has remained the standard by which all others, live-action or animated, are judged. Why? Because Hamill somehow managed to capture every conceivable aspect of the character during his tenure to unmatched perfection, from kid-friendly silliness to horrifyingly maniacal. And that laugh . . . I mean, come on.
Heath Ledger – The man the internet scoffed at who subsequently blew everyone away. Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight was eerie, intangible, disturbing, and even endearing at times. It was a take no one had ever seen on screen before, utterly unique and equally unforgettable. We witnessed something truly remarkable for that one brief, shining moment, and it still saddens me today that we will never see what might have come next.
Joaquin Phoenix – The auteur managed to follow in the footsteps of Ledger while crafting something equally original. Phoenix’s Joker is the best of both worlds, a completely original character merged seamlessly with the best traits of the iconic madman. Like Ledger, we may have to make do with a one-off performance, but talk is out there, so you never know what might happen.
Cesar Romero – The mustachioed man of mirth holds a special place in my heart. Aside from maybe the early animated versions by Frank Welker and Larry Storch, Romero was the Joker of my childhood. Watching reruns of the ’66 Batman series on television or special screenings of the film in theatres, Romero grabbed my attention and delighted me with his whimsy and unabashed joy. On a personal level, he may be my all-time favorite Joker and the perfect counterpoint to West’s boy-scout.
Jack Nicholson – I was eleven when Tim Burton blew my mind with his dark take on the Dark Knight. Til then, my exposure to Batman and friends had been light, silly, and harmless. But Nicholson upped the ante as arguably the star of the film, enthralling me with the most sinister and homicidal take I’d seen to that point, and the version that would change my perceptions of the character forever.
Troy Baker – While Baker is an accomplished voice actor in his own right, his animated Joker to me is basically a spot-on imitation of Hamill’s, and honestly, that’s not a bad thing. While he certainly slips in his own take, he proves he knows and understands the character and brings forth that maniacal mirth with aplomb. And the fact that he can fool me by doing both a spot on Hamill Joker AND a spot on Conroy Batman in the same film is nothing short of mind-blowing (seriously, see Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).
Kevin Michael Richardson – Certainly a unique take, the baritoned voice actor spun his own version as Joker on The Batman animated series (2004–2008). I can’t help but see a lot of Hamill in his performance, but once again, that’s not a negative.
Jared Leto – I’ll say this, I give the man props for coming up with his own take. Leto’s Joker was a modern-day gangster, a man of flash looking to shock his rivals and leaning heavily into the psychotic, homicidal aspects. While not my favorite, it’s unquestionably a bold choice and adds something new to the pantheon of performances.
Zach Galifianakis – For the Lego Batman Movie, Galifianakis gave us a sweet, lovelorn Joker pining for his nemesis Batman. That’s certainly in keeping with the character, and it’s a clever focus for a more kid-friendly incarnation.
Larry Storch – Going way back now, the man known best as Koko the Clown and for his hilarious turn on F Troop actually voiced the Joker in multiple incarnations starting with The Batman/Superman Hour back in the late 60’s. You could say he set the stage for animated Jokers to come, and many of us are instantly transported the moment we hear that iconic voice.
Michael Emerson – I’ll be honest, I didn’t much care for Emerson’s (Lost, Person of Interest) take on Joker in the animated retelling of the seminal The Dark Knight Returns storyline. While he managed to capture the essence, I found his voice too soft and lilting to effectively ground the man in the necessary menace. But hey, to each their own.
Cameron Monaghan – Alright, this one just flat-out annoyed me. I gave up on the Fox series Gotham after about season 2, in no small part to the back and forth of whether Monaghan was even playing the Joker or not. As I understand it, he was, but it’s still left somewhat ambiguous. Either way, from what I did see, he was doing more of a take from a comic line that I personally did not enjoy, a Joker far more gory and gratuitous than I cared to read or watch. Still, I know that has its fans, and if nothing else it cements the versatility of the character.
The villains can’t have all the fun, right? Let’s take a moment to examine the hero opposite the clown.
What makes a good Batman?
He’s tough, sure, that’s a given. Every actor knows they need to present in body and voice an intense menace to back up the terrifying martial skills of one of superheroes most accomplished fighters.
He’s smart. No, like REALLY smart. Most versions on screen sort of gloss over this fact, substituting engineering knowhow for cognitive superiority. Sure, the Bats got gadgets, but he’s more than that. The best portrayals reveal the keen detective skills, his quick analytical mind. In live action, I feel we’ve only ever brushed the surface of this. There’s SO much more to it, and quite honestly, the best examples outside comics seem to come from animation.
So here’s a quick look at some of the most prominent actors to ever wear the cowl, in order of my personal favorites, mostly ranked in terms of how accurately (in my estimation) they captured the Dark Knight in all his complexity.
1. Kevin Conroy – The seminal voice of the Batman, defined by Conroy’s unmatched ability to present intelligence and menace (not to mention a sly Bruce Wayne) all in one package.
2. Jason O’Mara – He’s taken over the role in many of the animated films, and while it took me a while to warm to him (had to get Conroy off my mind), he’s proven he can find the character in all his many facets.
3. Adam West – While perhaps not the toughest Bats around, I might argue no one has better presented Batman’s keen intellect and thirst for justice than the Light Knight himself.
4. Christian Bale – I still have trouble getting over the voice, but he certainly defined Batman for a generation (at least). Though Bale’s battles were more isolated and personal, and often concentrated on the Bruce Wayne side, he certainly has gotten as close as just about anyone to bringing the comic version to life.
5. Ben Affleck – There was a time I’d be shocked to have him here at all, let alone this high, but I have to admit, he brought not only the physicality but an observational intelligence to the role.
6. Michael Keaton – Keaton was never the toughest, the strongest, or the most menacing, but he had a raw intensity that showed through and made up for his (lack of) physicality. One of the best to ever balance both Bruce and Batman in one.
7. Bruce Greenwood – Another veteran voice of the Bat, Greenwood gives a very unique take on the character, leaning perhaps a bit more to the softer side but still packing a punch.
8. Peter Weller – Only voicing the character in the animated Dark Knight Returns adaptation, Weller was an inspired choice for an older, grizzled Batman.
9. Val Kilmer – A little stiffer and more reserved than we’d seen prior, I always like Kilmer’s physicality in the role, but never bought his dull, wooden Bruce Wayne.
10. Clark Bartram – Some of you won’t recognize the name, but Bartram portrayed Batman in the cult classic short film Batman: Dead End, which saw the Dark Knight pitted against . . . the Predator! Yeah, the alien one. Amazing film, and in his brief appearance, Bartram made a solid Batman perhaps as close to the comics as we’ve ever seen live. (P.S., the Joker here was played by Andrew Koenig, the late son of Star Trek actor Walter Koenig).
11. Robert Lowery – I owned the old Batman serials from 1949 on VHS for years, but only watched them a few times. Lowery’s take was an honest reflection of the time but not always the easiest to swallow in this modern age. Still, he played the role with gusto and panache.
12. Will Arnett – You can’t say his take on the Caped Crusader from the Lego movie franchise isn’t unique. Focusing far more on the arrogance and insecurities of the character, it’s a worthy addition to the various takes and one that takes that sort of medium to truly pull off.
13. George Clooney – Horrible casting. While I do find his Bruce Wayne palatable, his portrayal of the Dark Knight is best left forgotten.
And finally, here’s a quick list of some of my favorite Batman works, from animation to live action, television to feature films.
What are your favorites?
1. Batman: The Animated Series
2. Batman Begins
3. The Dark Knight
4. Batman ‘89
5. Batman Returns
6. Mask of the Phantasm
7. Batman ‘66
8. The Dark Knight Returns
9. Batman vs Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
10. Batman Ninja
11. Batman: Dead End
12. Batman: Gotham by Gaslight
13. Batman Forever
14. The Lego Batman Movie
15. Justice League
16. The Dark Knight Rises
17. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
18. Batman and Robin ‘49
19. Batman & Robin
20. Batman ‘43