The Joker may be the most iconic villain in comic book history. There is a reason for that.
The criminal anarchist appeals to our base human instinct for destruction, and in a world that seems to be getting crazier by the day, that’s an outlet we all need to explore. To stay sane.
Mass random shootings, terrorist attacks, rise in racial hatred, Brexit and, uh, Donald Trump, who combines all four in a bewigged ball of uber-villainous faux rebellion. The world is not a pretty place right now. It always has been crazy as a box of skunks, but now, due in part to the rise of social media, and the increase in knowledge, misinformation and hate rants that go par in parcel with that, we all know so much more about it.
Too much for own good. And it’s scary.
So, what better character to be inspired by than a guy who doesn’t cry about it, but instead shrugs his shoulders, laughs heartily, and screams to be the world, a la Howard Beale in Network, he’s mad as hell, and will not take it anymore.
The Clown Prince of Crime first appeared in the debut issue of Batman in 1940, a year after the titular character was first introduced in issue 27 of Detective Comics. The exact circumstances of his creation have been disputed but writers Bill Finger and Bob Kane, along with artist Jerry Robinson, all share credit for his inception. A major influence on the character design was acknowledged to be Conrad Veldt’s demented appearance in the German Expressionistic silent film The Man Who Laughs from 1928. It was the fact that he appeared fully formed without explanation that made him such a brilliant villain par excellence, an ongoing thorn in Batman’s side that would never stop jabbing at Gotham.
He was played to manic comedic effect by Cesar Romero in the Sixties Batman TV show, and again by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 big screen blockbuster, which made the error of explaining too much. The Joker’s mysterious past was reduced to that of a low-rent hoodlum responsible for killing Bruce Wayne’s parents, whose insanity is solely attributed to his disfigurement from falling into a vat of toxic chemicals, and his ensuing super-villain crime wave a continuation of his gangster lifestyle. Although, as a saving grace, the movie did at least throw up the uber-cool catchphrase “ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel The Killing Joke from 1988 also had the disfiguring fall the turning point in his transformation into mad criminal, but this was given emotional depth by making him a poverty stricken comedian grieving for the recent loss of his pregnant wife, and pushed that little bit too far. His leap into insanity is totally relatable. Hell, he’d have been crazy not to have flipped, at least a little.
Of course, there had been many different origin stories for the Jester of Genocide over the years in the comics (and The Killing Joke does borrow heavily from previous Red Hood plot lines), but many dilute the character’s strength, and cancel each other out. After all, isn’t the scariest thing about him is that he could be anyone? That he could be us?
Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning portrayl in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in 2008 threw away any such explanation, along with the white pigmentation. He’s a guy without a past or known identity, who smears makeup on himself to scare the living crap out of his victims, and accentuate his Chelsea smile.
And it works.
The ambiguity is an essential element of the characterisation, as Ledger offers up differing reasons for his scars. They could have been self-inflicted in sympathy with a disfigured wife, as he explains to crusading lawyer Maggie Gyllenhaal, or wounds from an abusive father, as he tells Michael Jai White’s crime boss seconds before he slices him open. Ledger’s Joker is the smartest guy in every room he walks into, his craziness possibly just an act he puts on to mess with people’s heads, heightening his unpredictability, and making him genuinely scary and dangerous. He doesn’t want our sympathy, or empathy. He may not even desire our hate or fear. He just wants to watch the world burn.
Now, with Suicide Squad nearing release, we have Jared Leto’s fresh interpretation to inspire us. Will he be funny? Will he be scary? Will he be crazy? Here’s hoping he’s at least all three and then some. Because, with a world as insane as ours, surely the only truly rational response is to just go a little crazy from time to time.
What better way to watch the world burn.