Critic's Notebook: The Joker's Unsettling Journey From Campy Villain to Serial Killer

Jack Nicholson in Batman, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Joaquin Phoenix in Joker - Photofest- Publicity - Split - H 2019
Photofest (2); Warner Bros. Pictures

As embodied by Joaquin Phoenix, the title figure of Todd Phillips’ new film differs from the Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger interpretations in crucial ways.

Here he is: the Joker as a figure of pathos, vulnerability and terror, ultimately a terrorist who is himself terrorized, victim of inner demons and outside forces in a dystopian Gotham City (New York in the 1980s) where morality and compassion have ceased to exist. A few porn shops and adult movie theaters dot a despairing Times Square landscape, and in the outer boroughs buildings are boarded up, abandoned and covered in graffiti. Deteriorating tenements are flanked on all sides by piles of uncollected garbage and hungry rodents. 

In Todd Phillip’s compelling, but flawed, prequel Joker, the Joker’s tormented origins are revealed, setting the stage for his mythic relationship with Batman (who makes a brief appearance as a small boy). Joker (a.k.a. Arthur Fleck) — played by Joaquin Phoenix in a dazzling performance — lives with and serves his sickly, demanding and delusional mother (Frances Conroy) while eking out a pittance as a clown for hire. He has his sights set on a career as a stand-up comic despite being talent-free and suffering from a psychiatric condition characterized by uncontrolled, piercing laughter as his angular body spasms this way and that. 

The marginalized, degraded unfunny comic on a downward spiral is nothing new. The King of ComedyThe Comedian and The Entertainer (with the incomparable Laurence Olivier) covered similar territory. But Fleck’s tragedy is much more convoluted as he faces one blow after another. He is brutally mugged and beaten, loses his job and his psychotherapist’s publicly underwritten program is eliminated. Without access to his meds, his life becomes a toxic mix of self-aggrandizing fantasy (spurred on by hokey pop tunes of the past) and suppressed rage. A friend gives him a gun — choice plays no role in his acquisition, though predictably enough he morphs into a serial killer, joyously proclaiming that he feels alive for the first time. It’s his liberation, wholeness and empowerment.

The Joker has taken quite a trip from his 1940s comic-strip origins, a development that’s most revealing in his transformation from supporting character to protagonist who can be seen, depending on the viewpoint, as a sociopathic criminal or revolutionary anti-hero. Or both. Or maybe something else altogether. 

The Joker as an archetype personifying manipulation, guile and deceit dates all the way back to the ancient Greeks. In card games — and Tarot card readings — he can play any number of parts, though he’s always wild (think wild card), unruly, unpredictable, an outlier writ large. And it’s a constant motif among all the actors who have tackled the Joker — from Cesar Romero’s cartoony spin on TV’s Batman, a ‘60s celebration of kitsch/camp, to Jack Nicholson’s joyous nihilism in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman to Heath Ledger’s dark existential Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2007) — that each interpretation is informed by its film's aesthetics and the zeitgeist that spawned it. Jared Leto also took on the criminal mastermind, evoking a creep in a genre-defying, strikingly unentertaining film, 2016's Suicide Squad.

But Phoenix’s Joker is arguably the most sinister because he is accounted for and explained in the most social-realistic terms. He is meant to be understood, if not forgiven; indeed, some might see Phillips and Phoenix as apologists. 

In part, he is an heir to The Dark Knight’s Joker (Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his brilliant portrayal), whose life was informed by a brutalizing father who sliced up his face. But on another level — and this makes him singularly different from Phoenix’s Joker — Ledger was playing a 21st century Caliban, an embodiment of fury, chaos and anarchy. Social forces were not at play. His Joker is a demonic, asexual lizard, his tongue flicking in and out across a parched, bloody red mouth frozen in a grimace pasted on a white death mask. He’s a shape-shifter, and even in drag, at one point dressed as a female nurse, he suggests an animal-human hybrid, androgynously robotic. 

Ledger’s Joker has no connections to anyone except Batman, with whom he shares a perverse bond that partakes of the inevitable. They are destined to be foes engaged in a predetermined choreography for all eternity, defining, complementing and sustaining each other in a cataclysmic space. In The Dark Knight, the Joker’s savagery is contagious and has the potency to infect everyone. But in the end, purity of heart, individual and collective, triumphs. The Joker cannot beat the body politic. 

Of course Tim Burton’s Batman ends on an affirmative note, too, but his universe, with its romance, sexuality and moments of wild comedy, is not to be taken too seriously. Galaxies away from the worlds forged by Nolan and Phillips, it’s a place where randomness rules. Consider the pic’s amorphous setting: There are the boom boxes and pop-culture references of the '70s and '80s, but the cars and costumes suggest the '50s and Batman’s castle is gothic with a nod to Fritz Lang.

Nicholson's Joker (Jack Napier) is a patchwork quilt, too, and, like the other Jokers, born a bad seed. Yet his fate is also shaped by fluke. Take his disfigurement, for example, when he accidentally slips out of Batman's grasp and into the boiling acid. It's a turning point that sets Napier on his vengeful path and mushrooming dementia. An extraordinary touch: The more repellent, hideous, demeaned and dejected he grows, the freer he becomes. Who can forget the scene in the museum as he sings, dances and hurls paint at priceless, iconic art, including pieces by Rembrandt and Degas? It's shocking — and on some level, titillating, too.

Nicholson — my favorite Joker — creates a figure of his time and place, but one who’s also timeless. He is at once a psychopath, a prankster, an anti-heroic romantic and a great comic showman, with a touch of the self-referential. The actor plays Jack Nicholson playing the Joker; the line between the star’s scenery-chewing screen persona (think The Shining) and the Joker himself is wonderfully blurred. 

To the degree that both Nicholson and Ledger's Jokers are vanquished and order is restored, both Batman and The Dark Knight are extensions, however tangentially, of the comic strip. Joker represents a major departure. In the end, it turns into a dramatized diatribe against economic and social inequality as the haves and have-nots battle it out in the streets, with the Joker a spokesperson for the Little Guy who has been forced to kill the rich and then anyone else who gets in the way. Rioters wearing identical clown masks are looting, turning over cars, burning down the city. The apocalyptic vision violates the more lighthearted source material and the political addendum feels tacked on. 

Worse, it’s none too clear whom you’re supposed to be rooting for. Who are the good guys and who are the heavies? Perhaps that’s precisely the point. It doesn’t matter what side you’re on. In a world gone mad, we’re all Jokers and we’re all interchangeable. 

Simi Horwitz is an award-winning film reviewer and feature writer. Her work has appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, Backstage, Film Journal International, The Forward and American Theater.