Aside from your first OTPHJ (over the pants handjob), it’s rare you remember the circumstances around seeing a film in the theater. But my memories of seeing The Dark Knight on opening night in 2008 are vivid.
I was back home from college for the summer, and the line at my hometown, old school movie house bent around the block. And this was just the line for seats — tickets had sold out weeks earlier in pre-sales, but there was no seat reservation system, so we had to arrive an hour early to secure good positioning. Once inside, the theater had the energy of a rock concert, with people wearing their favorite Batman T-shirts and random outbursts of hollers and clapping. And some even dressed up as Heath Ledger’s version of The Joker, the chief villain in the film.
It was The Joker that provoked the excitement. The Dark Knight was already the heavily-anticipated sequel to Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan’s critically-acclaimed, gritty reboot of the Batman franchise. And early reports were that Ledger delivered the performance of a lifetime as The Joker. All winter, fanboys such as myself consumed every morsel of leaked information we could about Ledger’s dark take on The Joker. And the film somehow managed to live up to all this hype — The Dark Knight is still widely considered the best superhero film of all time (if not the best film of all time), and Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his Joker portrayal.
You would think this would be enough to sate our appetite for The Joker and his maniacal laughter, but no — here we are, just less than a decade later, already planning for the second film reprisal of The Joker. Rumors leaked late last week that Joaquin Phoenix was being considered to play The Joker in a origin story film directed by Todd Phillips (of Old School and The Hangover). Esquire breathlessly responded to the news by saying “Joaquin Phoenix Is the Perfect Actor to Save the Joker.”
Save The Joker from what? The Joker doesn’t need saving. He was perfected by Ledger, whose dark turn as the clown-faced, purple-suited criminal mastermind was so convincing and disturbing that it’s largely believed to have played a part in the actor’s mental breakdown, and subsequent accidental overdose.
“Heath Ledger’s Joker [is] a menace so terrifying and unknowable that it feels like Nolan and the actor dug up something from so deep within that it was almost too much to handle,” MEL’s resident film critic Tim Grierson writes in a list of the best Batman films. (No surprise, The Dark Knight is No. 1.)
The only thing The Joker does need saving from is people who think he needs to be constantly reimagined, and portrayed by every self-serious male actor in Hollywood. Case in point: Professional overactor Jared Leto was tapped to play Clown Prince of Crime in Suicide Squad two summers ago — and his performance is typically clowned on for being over-the-top.
These are just lame attempts to outdo Ledger. Maybe someday there will be another Batman movie on par with The Dark Knight (unlikely). Even more unlikely is the chance there will be a Joker performance more memorable than Ledger’s. But even if that does happen, we will have spent years and hundreds of millions of dollar trying to marginally improve one character, instead of exploring literally dozens of other storyline possibilities.
Comic book writers suffer from a similar case of one-upmanship when it comes to The Joker, according to this commenter on the r/Batman subreddit [all sic]:
It’s kind of a cycle: Some really good writers have written some really good Joker stories, which set a high bench mark for expectations of what a Joker story should be, which then influences other writers to see this high quality as a chance to test themselves, and then try to create something equally as great to create the next bench mark.
There are a galaxy of interesting Batman villains, none of which have ever received the in-depth psychological treatment we keep giving The Joker. Part of this is because the nature of The Joker lends himself to more deconstruction than other, more superficial supervillains.
Benny Potter, who goes by the name Comicstorian on his popular YouTube channel, offers this explanation.
“When it comes to constantly returning to the Joker, I feel its due to the mystique of the character. The Joker] is someone who doesn’t seem to care about riches or power. Instead, his whole purpose seems to be getting Batman to stop him. He’s obsessed with chaos and this is something people like to see — someone just being chaotic for the sake of being chaotic. Without knowing the true reasoning behind the Joker’s motives other than guessing, he is far more interesting than, say, the Penguin wanting money.”
Potter is right — there is no rationale to The Joker’s menace. He is nihilism personified. And our natural, human desire for order forces us to keep examining The Joker’s psyche in the hope of finding some kind of rational explanation.
But this is folly. I know The Joker is Batman’s main adversary, and the perfect, evil counterbalance to Batman’s crime-fighting crusade. But as Potter notes, there is literally nothing there when you delve into The Joker’s psyche. And that is far less interesting than exploring the Penguin’s greed, the duality of Two Face or Mr. Freeze’s existential angst (or whatever). Let’s be creative. The Joker has been done and done incredibly well, and any subsequent renditions will only be derivative.
Our endless fascination with The Joker is a symptom of a larger disease in Hollywood — one that says we need to reboot, remix and rethink every single superhero franchise, with zero regard for how commercially or critically successful its predecessors were, or whether the new version will actually be additive. And it probably won’t.
I’ll probably never wait in line for an hour again just to see a movie, and certainly won’t do to watch Phoenix do his best “Why so serious?” impression.