The Exorcized Joker

This is not a review of a film, but of a character. Joker (2019), directed by Todd Phillips, hits all the marks of well-crafted cinema but drains its lead of his mythic quality. What remains is a mentally disturbed man in a clown outfit.

I began to read graphic novels when as an undergrad I idly drew a picture of Superman during a lecture on United States history. Without any reference material, I managed to recreate accurately every detail of the costume, which helped me realize I must know a great deal about Superman despite never reading a comic book or watching a movie about him. I interviewed my neighbors. Most of us, without any direct contact with the source material, could relate Superman’s entire origin story. We could name his love interest, his planet of origin, as well as a number of his foes. We had an encyclopedic knowledge of his superpowers, which are extensive enough to create a popular discussion topic: If you could have only one of Superman’s powers, which would it be? We made colloquial reference to the Superman mythology. A friend on a diet says he can resist any treat, but “Ice cream is my kryptonite,” and we all nod and perfectly comprehend his meaning. Confronted with an impossible task, somebody exclaims, “I’m not Superman, you know!” We trade fluently in Superman-imagery. Someone utters the word “hero” and a red cape flaps across our mental window. Another who boasts his thesis is “bulletproof” might as well stamp a capital “S” on the first page.

How did we all become so well-versed in a corpus none of us ever touched?

To say the least, Superman is a prominent piece of modern iconography. To risk saying more, he is a modern myth: a persona so deeply impressed into our culture that we share specific knowledge about him without ever being taught it.* We don’t even need to like Superman or find him interesting in order to refer to his mythology on a daily basis. No willful effort is being made to preserve his status, nor can society be forced to observe it. So Superman is more than an ideal we pursue (most of us do not), a mere model of heroism to admire and perhaps imitate; he is a popular archetype, a given who comes with the culture, a reference point we all hold in common. And while he might be a special case, reading a few comic books seemed to me worthwhile.

This has been a side project that occupies my leisure time (when I have it). Progress has been slow. I’ve completed just over a dozen graphic novels over half a decade. I began my collection by requesting recommendations from friends and consulting websites. My sole interest is with what can be called classics or great works of the genre. In that category, DC Comics is the undisputed king, and within DC Comics, Batman is the most celebrated character. In fact, over half the graphic novels I’ve picked up feature Batman. None of these is my favorite,** but it seems anyone who wants to read the best graphic novels will spend a lot of time in Gotham.

In the best Batman stories, Joker’s mental condition has always been a question, not a given. In a well-known graphic novel — Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum (1989) — Joker’s psychiatrist theorizes that he is not insane, but suffers from “super-sanity”: a perception of the world and the human condition that is overly clear. This is the source of the Joker’s personal pain, as well as his resourcefulness, adaptability, ingenuity, and his theatrical ability to understand people well enough to coerce, manipulate, and psychologically torture them. Joker was, for all intents and purposes, no human being but a demon — a fact conveyed as much by Dave McKean’s nightmarish artwork as by the text — and like a demon, no one can come into contact with him without becoming a victim. As Morrison’s work later shows, this includes Batman.

Joker (2019), directed by Todd Phillips, is the first film to feature Batman’s arch-nemesis as a protagonist. It gives a fresh account of the Joker’s origins, a topic which tends to receive more attention in cinema than comics. The grand exception in comics is Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (1988), which borrows elements from prior comics, such as The Man Behind the Red Hood (1951), but enjoys at least symbolic status as the “official” account of the Joker’s origins. In Moore’s imagining, Joker is a nameless family man and failing stand-up comedian who has “just one bad day” which pushes him over the edge and transforms him into a chuckle-headed homicidal maniac. Exchanging fists with Batman later in the story, Joker delivers his famous theory of humanity:

“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. You had a bad day once. Am I right? I know I am. I can tell. You had a bad day and everything changed.”

An origin story, as a genre, to at least an extent already de-mythologizes its subject. As a rule, it explains their most notable attributes and, in theory, grounds their behavior or beliefs along a linear line of development. Moore, however, manages to evade de-mythology with his “bad day” anthropology. If we read his work carefully, it becomes plain that The Killing Joke exists purely to satisfy curiosity. The man who precedes Joker is not essential to the character. What does it matter? Whether he got his start as a stand-up comedian or a Wallstreet business tycoon, whether he was a family man or a solitary party animal, whether he was a small-crime mobster or a model citizen, none of it explains the Joker. Any origin would do. The “one bad day” is the all-important genesis. Everything we need to know is there. His pre-history holds zero explanatory power for who he later becomes, and that’s the point. He was simply a man—any kind of man—who was in an instant possessed.

No director better captured the demonic Joker than Christopher Nolan in The Dark Knight (2008). We can detect homages to Morrison’s thesis of “super-sanity” and Moore’s “bad day” anthropology in Heath Ledger’s performance. As he says, “See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.” More importantly, Nolan’s is the only cinematic adaptation that resists the temptation to relate Joker’s origin story. In fact, he makes moves to condemn it to obscurity. Shortly after Joker’s capture, Lt. James Gordon explains they have no information on the prisoner: “Nothing. No matches on prints, DNA, dental. Clothing is custom, no labels. Nothing in his pockets but knives and lint. No name, no other alias.” Nolan’s Joker is generated ex nihilo. More than that, he is a philosopher with an understanding of the frailty of human virtue that could have come straight from St. Augustine. The Joker knows that no matter how moral or ethical we may strive to be, we cannot weather all storms. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh is weak; the powers at work against us are great. All we need is the correct test to overwhelm and break us and the demons will crawl in through the crack.

Joker’s agenda is to arrange a “bad day” for his victims. He wants to propagate more Jokers. He is the end of humanity — the upside-down eschaton.

I have already given this subject more analytical attention than it probably deserves. It’s been a long time since I watched a movie. Anyhow, the new film thoroughly flattens the once-mythic Joker. Nolan’s Joker had demonic proportions; Phillips’s Joker is merely troubled. Nolan’s Joker had principles (albeit infernal principles); Phillips’s Joker is enraged. The old Joker could be sane; the new Joker must be insane. The old Joker was difficult to understand. He represented a different mode of reasoning, not absurd, but super-rational: reason which could not be reasoned with. This was fruitful to unpack, or at least diverting. The new Joker’s motives are easily explained and understood; any exposition can be summarized in three words: “He’s mentally ill.”

Anyone could be the demonic Joker. All they needed was one bad day. The right bad day, if you will. But the new Joker is a case study of the social treatment of the mentally ill. The circumstances which allow this Joker to exist are highly specific.

The old Joker was any of us. The new Joker can be nobody except Arthur Fleck. This is the key difference of a de-mythologized Joker.

I don’t care much whether or not this is a good direction. Some may say it dries up Joker’s story-capital. Others may lament that the Joker is now solidly this-worldly. He’s a comic book character in name only. It is easy to imagine someone like him existing in our world, but not a world shared with Batman. At least, not the Batman we know.

As others have pointed out, Batman is not a mythic hero like Superman, but the anti-myth hero, the mortal slayer of gods, the idealized self-made modern man whose every faculty is sharpened into a weapon. He not only takes up arms against the likes of Joker, but also other myths of the DC Universe, including Superman — most famously in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986). How can this Batman exist in the same universe as Phillips’ Joker? To eliminate the new Joker, he needs the right ally, not the right foe. He doesn’t need Batman, but a hug and some therapy. The Batman has always been the troubled brooding anti-myth, but to share the world with Phillips’ Joker, he too must be flattened. He too must be just “crazy.” What will their struggle be now, except a fist-fight between two psychiatric patients?

I’m not invested in the future of comic book characters. But there is a question I think worthwhile: What need did we have of the mythic Joker in the first place, or for that matter of any modern myth? Is the new Joker in fact a loss?

*Superman seems to me to be a meta-myth. I don’t use the suffix as it is often used to mean ironically self-referential. A meta-myth gains its character by overlaying another myth. In this case, the character of the Superman mythos rests on a deeper Messianic archetypal narrative sourced in the Christian tradition. This is not a controversial point. The parallels between the Superman myth and the gospel of Christ are often noted: The two have much in common as otherworldly visitors whose mild manners betray profound salvific power. (The two are even occasionally confused. In season nine of The Simpsons, an imperiled Homer cries out: “I’m not normally a praying man, but if you’re up there, please save me, Superman!”) I’ve never seen it done, but I would not be surprised if at some point a pastor somewhere opened his introduction to the gospel with “Jesus is a lot like Superman” and then listed points of comparison. This would show a meta-myth is more accessible to members of the culture than the deep-myth, and the archetypal character of the former is not intrinsic but derivative of the latter.

**That honor goes to Frank Miller’s Daredevil: Born Again (1986).

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