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“What would I do without you?” The Joker asks Batman in The Dark Knight. “You complete me.” He’s right in more ways than he realizes, as the newly released Joker shows: the Joker, by his very nature, needs Batman, and, more importantly, so does the audience. Because without the Dark Knight there to serve as a ballast, the Joker’s anarchic, twisted, disturbing nature, and Joker itself, becomes unbearably difficult to watch.
Admittedly, in terms of film qua film, Joker succeeds in what it sets out to do. It’s well directed, Joaquin Phoenix turns in an incredible performance as the titular character, and the story provides creepy insight into the psyche of its psychopathic subject. And in fairness, Phoenix’s Joker is not necessarily more evil than past incarnations of the character. Heath Ledger’s turn as the Clown Prince of Crime, for example, was just as twisted, just as nihilistic. Also, Batman: The Killing Joke featured a Joker committing acts just as depraved and horrific. These Jokers, however, did not exist in a vacuum, and the stories in which they’re present also feature counters to their dangerous ideology.
Joker, in comparison, is devoid of any sort of moral challenge to its villain. Watching someone engage in truly despicable, grotesque evil on screen without anyone rising to challenge it, without any sense of hope for viewers is a truly painful experience, one that unsettled me so deeply I had to turn away from the screen on several occasions and nearly walked out at one point—and I managed to sit through the entirety of The Shape of Water, so that’s saying something. With scenes of murder that are realistically graphic and intense, it feels almost as if you’re watching artfully shot found footage of homicides. While it is unfair to say that Joker celebrates its protagonist, or even that it portrays him in a sympathetic light, the movie makes no argument against him, relying solely on the audience to pass judgement on the character.
The Dark Knight and The Killing Joke succeed just as well as Joker in diving into what makes the Joker tick, but the stories also provide an alternative to the villain’s sick worldview. Perhaps the most powerful scene in The Dark Knight comes when the Joker has tricked the city into evacuating onto two boats: one filled with the prison population, one filled with the citizens of Gotham. The boats are given detonators and the occupants are told to blow up the other boat or be killed themselves. After much debate, neither side decides to go along with the Joker’s game, resigning themselves to death rather than engaging to murder. Even under duress, they reject the Joker’s chaotic approach to life.
Joker took even more influence from The Killing Joke, which, like Joker, gives the character a backstory as a failed comedian, who turns into the murderous clown after life gets him down. Like the film it inspired, The Killing Joke was created specifically to explore the motivations of the Joker, showing how the pressures of the world finally led him to crack. But, more importantly, it also shows that he didn’t have to become what he is.
In the comic, the Joker decides he wants to prove that anyone would have gone down his path if they’d experienced the hardship he had. So, he kidnaps Commissioner Gordon, shoots and paralyzes his daughter Barbara (it’s implied that he also rapes her), then strips down the commissioner and brutalizes him. In addition to the physical torture he endures, Gordon is forced to look at pictures of what the Joker did to Barbara, yet when Batman rescues him Gordon insists that Joker be brought in “by the book.” The experience leaves him scarred but not broken, showing that it wasn’t the tragedies of the Joker’s life that created him, but rather his choice in response; that we all have such a choice to make when faced with hard times and that giving into darkness is never inevitable.
These stories succeed while the Joker fails because a foil provides real depth to the character. Seeing the ideological conflict between Joker and the forces of good draws attention to the ways in which his nihilistic view of the world falls short. While Phoenix talks a good talk about how his new film is a serious character study, Joker merely shocks and disgusts viewers with scenes of depravity. Toward the end of the movie, Joker states that he always thought his life was a tragedy, but he’s come to realize that it’s really a comedy. These are, of course, the ramblings of a madman; his life is tragic and so too is what’s been done with this film.