When The Jokes Stop
How did we get from there to here? In 1940, comic book villain the Joker was introduced as a lunatic criminal with a warped sense of humour. The DC Comics universe was rich in superheroes but was never so good with villains. Superman had Lex Luther and Brainiac but Batman’s Joker stood out. In the 1950s he became a whacky prankster in response to regulation by the Comics Code Authority, then returned to his darker roots during the early 1970s. After the end of the 1966 television series, sales of Batman fell and the title was nearly cancelled. It revived by finding its dark side and recognising that comics were no longer for children.
By 1988 the Joker was committing murder, had a backstory involving Arkham Asylum, and was being drawn by a British team, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. Their graphic novel The Killing Joke expanded on the Joker’s origins, describing the character as a failed comedian supporting a pregnant wife. The Joker had always been a murderer (the early comics were surprisingly casual about death) but now became lethally insane, and more disturbingly still, rooted in the reality of urban blight.
In doing this DC was following Marvel’s development arc, with relatable characters and real-life problems, set in a recognisable world. Where DC had the fictional Gotham City and Metropolis standing in for American cities, Marvel was using real geographical locations and giving key roles to women and a rainbow of characters from every type of background. DC had always been sternly patrician and finger-naggingly moral, while Marvel dealt in louche meta-fiction that made readers feel in on the joke.
Like most good villains in the DC universe the Joker had many reinventions and new backstories. At one point he had his face removed and replaced. By the time we get to the latest and most controversial incarnation of the Joker he has entered into full Travis Bickle mode and has left comics far behind. The laughing kiddie villain has evolved into a grotesque, damaged street-crazy. This gruesome, unpleasant version was given the gravitas its director sought by controversially being honoured at the Venice Film Festival this year.
Each Joker reflects the period of its development. Joaquin Phoenix’s version arrives in a time of tented homeless cities, refugee-haters, extreme polarised politics and Trump-created hostility. By now comics dominate popular cinema, and the positions of Marvel and DC have reversed themselves, kindly DC adopting a cloak of darkness and Marvel moving to family fun with the frankly fabulous Avengers series.
But they’re still comic-book superheroes, and therein lies the problem. The fundamental basis of the concept hasn’t changed in eighty years and was always rather silly and shallow, not much more than a child’s wish-fulfilment dream. So loading horrendous real problems onto a supervillain doesn’t make him deep, just deeply unpleasant.
There’s something in the Hollywood psyche that perpetuates disturbing grotesqueries and ultra-violence, a bunker mentality that lives for the day when it’s just ‘us’ and ‘them’, with the spoils going to the better armed. The rest of the world doesn’t really have these film genres in the same way. European friends of mine love movies but won’t watch Hollywood films because ‘they’re always about revenge and shooting people’. Even when India and Japan ape the style of Hollywood movies they rarely have the stomach for the same level of crudity.
In real life people didn’t take revenge and shoot people – except now they do. I don’t believe that movies influence behaviour but they clearly reflect the times in which we live. And if the Joker reflects his society, or even just a section of it, the US is in terrible trouble.