This Joker is no joke

lubna abdel aziz, Tuesday 4 Feb 2020


If you are familiar with Comic Book characters that took the screen by storm, then surely Batman comes to mind. How can there be a Batman without his nemesis, his arch-enemy, the frightful, super-villain called the Joker.

This master criminal wears a clown face by day, as he is a clown for hire, but by night he breeds horror and dread to the citizens of Gotham City.

This infamous criminal is perhaps as famous and as popular as Batman himself. He has been portrayed on TV, cartoons and feature films about 14 times and still counting.

Only the most accomplished actors are capable of portraying the character of such a vicious, psychotic, murderer as the likes of Cesar Romero in the TV series and on film, Jack Nicholson, in Batman, the late, great Heath Ledger in Dark Knight and the most recent performance of Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.

As played by Nicholson, in Batman (1989) his Joker ranks 45 in the American Film Institute list of best top 50 villains.

The Joker himself was ranked eighth in the Greatest Comic Book Character of all time and in 2006 Wizard magazine listed him the first villain of all time.

Ledger won a posthumous Oscar in 2008. He once said: “Madness is like gravity; all it needs is a little push.” Some believe the role was the push to madness that caused his death.

Phoenix has already won the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards and is likely to grab the Oscar for his formidable portrayal.

What is it about crime and criminals that attract us so much? Hard to believe that the Joker has been studied through the lens of psychology and used as an example of evil, villainy and moral bankruptcy.

Mind you, he is only a cartoon character and the creation of a great classic author. However, the complexity of this comic book character is unparalleled by even his closest villainous analog.

Created by Bill Finger, writer, and Jerry Robinson, artist, he was first introduced in the DC Comic Books that featured Batman in the spring of 1940. He was originally conceived as an evil court-jester type, a violent psychopath who murders people for his own amusement.

In his initial appearances he was a straightforward spree-killing mass murderer and was slated to be killed off by stabbing himself as Batman and Robin run off into the night. The editor, Whitney Ellsworth, thought the Joker was too good a character to kill off. So he was spared, to the delight of millions.

This recent film attempts to trace the origins of the Joker. Nobody knows who he truly is. Is Arthur Fleck his true name? It has never been confirmed. A failed comedian —alone in a crowd who seeks connection as he walks through the crowded streets of Gotham City. A clown by day, he is disguised at night in a futile attempt to feel that he’s part of the world around him.

Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Arthur begins a slow descent into madness, transformed into a criminal mind. His actions exceed our definition of villainy.

Madness has been vilified since the 15th century. Mad people were a threat to society, but the Joker defies simple definition.

Is he a trans-human, exceeding human potential — a cyborg model of hybridisation by blurring the lines between the human body and the genetically “other”?

He sees himself as a tragic figure who never received the love and support of a runaway mother. Is that only an excuse for sympathy and understanding?

The struggle between good and evil has ancient roots, pitting the monster against the God-like hero, Batman, in a repeated cycle of life and death? Or could it be that he mirrors what Batman does, but one is a hero, the other a criminal? If Batman is an inspiration why not the Joker?

This psychological thriller directed by Todd Phillips premiered at the Venice Film Festival where it was rapturously received with an 8-minute standing ovation. It has already amassed over $1 billion at the box office and received 11 Oscar nominations, exceeding all other entries.

Speaking of Oscar nominations, all seem to display a penchant for violence. If it is not World War I (1917) it is the brutal Manson murders (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) or another mob killing spree (The Irishman) a broken family (Marriage Story) befriending Hitler (Jojo Rabbit), war between families (Parasite), or war between car-makers, (Ford v Ferrari). Only some relief from Little Women.

The very gifted actor Phoenix, tackles the Joker with such ferocity, at times eerie, at times creepy, distinct from Ledger’s ingenious handling of the role, yet both delve deeply into the body and soul of a tragic figure, a criminal mass murderer or a raving madman.

Hats off to his merciless interpretation of the mysterious, dark, gritty comic, who never makes you laugh. But when he laughs, your blood turns cold so hysterical, uncontrollable, pathetic, like a lone wolf howling in the night.

If Phoenix wins the gold it will be partly for his brilliant interpretation of Johnny Cash, in the 2005 biopic, in which he virtually becomes Johnny Cash, yet the academy members chose to ignore it, handing the golden statuette to his co-star who did little to deserve it.

Such is the way of Hollywood.

Such is the way of life.

“Show me a hero and I will show you a tragedy.”

  F Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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