An argumentative essay defending the greatest antagonist in the history of pop culture.
December 13, 2019
The Clown Prince of Culture
The comic book phenomenon Batman first appeared to the world in May of 1939. Then, on April 25, 1940, the world was introduced to a new class of antagonist: one that directly impacts the protagonist to create dramatic, sadistic, and thoroughly compelling stories. In order to imagine Batman, a person must also imagine the Joker. The character has traveled through many phases including, but not limited to: the campy 1960s with Cesar Romero, the 1980s where the character was seen as a king of crime with Jack Nicholson, the late 2000s where Heath Ledger reimagined the sinister clown as an anarchist, and most recently in 2019 where Joaquin Phoenix used the character to portray the damage that society can inflict upon those with mental illnesses. Although there are many contenders that are disastrous and ruthless, the Joker is the greatest antagonist in the history of pop culture because of his unique characteristics and impact on society.
The 1940s were a time of war and chaos. The rise of superheroes with Superman and Batman gave hope to children and adults across the nation. Then, Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson created one of the most gripping characters in history: the Joker- a direct counterpart to Batman. Inspired by Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs (1928), the Joker first appeared sporting his signature purple suit, green tie and hair, pale white skin, and red lips. Many characters have changed their look over the years, yet the world knows the Joker by these same attributes. If someone were to ask a random individual on the street, "How did Lex Luthor originally look in his appearance?", that person would most likely say, "He is bald of course!" The reason they would say this is due to the fact that Lex Luthor has been shown with bald hair in his many television and film incarnations. However, their claim would be incorrect because Lex Luthor originally had red, curly hair. The Joker's unchanging features make him the most recognizable and familiar character in the history of pop culture.
Not only is the Clown Prince of Crime one of the most recognizable characters in history, he has also become one of the most profitable. The 2019 character study Joker, directed by Todd Philips, has surpassed many box office records in just months of showing. Joaquin Phoenix's performance as Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill loner that has been ruined by the society around him (which inevitably leads to his transformation into the Joker), has gripped fans around the world. Phoenix had taken great inspiration for his version of the character by studying individuals with pseudobulbar affect (a type of emotional disturbance that involves uncontrollable episodes of crying or laughing). From an economic viewpoint, the movie was made on, roughly, a sixty million dollar budget; it has recently earned over one billion dollars. The film is now the highest grossing R-rated movie in history, surpassing Fox's Deadpool (2016). Because of its sixty million dollar budget, the Joker has also become the most profitable movie of 2019, conquering Marvel Studios' Avengers: Endgame. This is just one example of the character showing off his wealth. Heath Ledger's portrayal in 2008 has also become one to remember.
2008 featured, arguably, the best comic book film to date: The Dark Knight. A gritty take on an already dark character, the movie, directed by Christopher Nolan, was not only successful with the fans but also with the critics. The film received a score of 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and nine out of ten on IMDb. It also took home two Oscars: best sound editing and best supporting actor (Heath Ledger). Ledger brought something profound to cinema: a truly compelling and chaotic antagonist. He had completely transformed himself into the Joker, and according to an article from Business Insider, he secluded himself in a hotel room for roughly a month and kept a strange diary that contained all of his lines and ideas for his portrayal; some pages included images of Malcom McDowell from Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Many have argued that this role changed Ledger and led to his untimely death, but the world will never truly know. However, what the world does know is that Heath Ledger changed how cinematic antagonists are perceived forever.
Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix's sadistic take on the clown are not the only interpretations of the character. One of the most unique aspects of the Joker is his idiosyncratic origin story. The thing that makes his origin so special is that there is no one true beginning. The comic issue that introduced the Joker in 1940 never explained how the Joker came to be, which has left many doors open. Due to this decision by the creators, other writers have been able to develop their own ideas of how the Joker came to be. The most notorious and widely accepted of them all came about from the mind of Alan Moore in The Killing Joke. Arguably one of the greatest comic stories since 1988, The Killing Joke reimagines the villain as a failed stand up comedian who loses his pregnant wife and eventually joins the Red Hood gang. Being a part of this gang, the comedian is chased by Batman and falls into a vat of chemicals. This event transforms the man into the sinister clown that everyone knows. In the end, no matter what an author comes up with, the Joker will never have one true background. In the graphic novel, Joker states,"If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice" (Moore 39). His origin is an "a", "b", and "c" scenario where one must choose what they think could plausibly be true. There is no other antagonist that has as many renditions of their past and leaves an audience clueless as to how they got to be the villain they are than the Joker.
One feature that the Joker has that others do not is his chaotic mentality. Batman himself has explained that no other villain is on par with the Joker. In the story The Man Who Laughs, Batman says, "I never prepared for this. I planned for the killers, the muggers, the rapists. Desperate people doing desperate things. But I never imagined something like the Joker" (Brubaker 53). The Joker has caused incredible chaos to the city of Gotham and the world. In the elseworlds (non-canon) story Injustice, the Joker kidnapped Lois Lane and gave Superman a dose of red kryptonite. This blinded the Man of Steel into believing Doomsday (one of Superman's arch nemeses) was there to attack him, but it was actually Lois. Superman killed his wife and unborn child. To make matters even worse, the Joker planted a detonator in Lois, so when she died a nuclear bomb would destroy Metropolis. Another example of the Joker's chaos comes from the graphic novel Joker by Brian Azzarello. In the story, the Joker is reclaiming his throne in the criminal underworld, and he skins one of his former club owners alive just to assert his dominance. Even though villains such as Thanos have eliminated half the universe with a single snap, Thanos' motives could be sympathized with because his goal was to insure that the galaxy had enough resources to survive. The Joker, however, will receive no sympathy by the end of a story.
Although the Joker should receive no sympathy, his character can fool audiences. In the movie Joker, the viewers may have a sense of empathy for Arthur, but by the finale there will be little to no compassion; Arthur hints to the audience that the film they just witnessed could have been concocted by himself, giving the moviegoers a feeling of rage and annoyance. According to Travis Langley, Ph.D., in an article he wrote for Psychology Today, "His [Joker] behaviour does not neatly fit into any condition. The Joker is clearly a psychopath. He has no conscience. He has no empathy for anybody. He's this agent of chaos and you're just not sure, does he really know what he's doing or not?" The Joker is so psychotic that he may not know whether he is performing these heinous acts or that he is simply developing a story. This adds greater mystery to the character because the audience may never know if the narrative is real or fake until it is too late.
More uniqueness to the Joker's mysterious nature hails from the fact that the Joker is a direct opposite of his protagonist; Batman is a symbol for justice, but the Joker is a symbol for chaos. This means that the Joker will directly affect the hero, which is what a true villain should do. The Joker has damaged Batman in many different ways: in the story "A Death in the Family", the Joker killed the second Robin: Jason Todd. Then, in the graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, the clown shot and paralyzed Barbara Gordon in order to drive Commissioner Gordon mad (which he knew would directly affect Batman). There are also innumerable times the Joker has inflicted physical damage and torture to Batman. Yet, the Joker does not want to kill Batman because he knows their game of cat and mouse must always go on in order for Batman to be the hero he is. In The Dark Knight, the Joker states, "You just couldn't let me go could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible aren't you? You won't kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness, and I won't kill you, because you're just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever." The Joker realizes the relationship the pair has, which makes him unlike any other villain in pop culture. Other villains, such as Sauron from The Lord of the Rings series, will want the hero to fail in order for their evil plan to be unleashed. Not the Joker, though; he has a certain desire to disrupt Batman's life. Another example of the Joker needing his hero comes from the story "Going Sane". The four part series (issues sixty five through sixty eight of Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight) told a tale of the Joker going sane. When the Joker believed he had killed Batman his mind broke, and he became sensible. He even acquired a good job and loving wife. However, Batman returned, which made Joe Kerr (his new name) transform back into the deadly clown everyone knows. This begs the question, which is the Joker's true identity? The answer is that Joker's real side is his insane side. He always appears in his happiest and most rambunctious state whenever he is against his foe; it is almost like he is living in a fantasy. Some may argue that the Joker just wants to inflict chaos forever, and if he does not kill Batman then the chaos will continue. Another possibility is that the Joker wants Batman to realize they are both psychotic individuals. A reasonable conclusion, but time may never tell. These deductions make the Joker even more unpredictable and unique. The world may never understand his motives.
The world may not understand the Joker's motives, but it is shouting his name. The Joker's impact on society has been bewildering. Fans from all over crave for more of the clown; people wear shirts that have his name printed across, or they will wear his outfit for Halloween. It is mystifying as to why humanity would support such a cruel character, but the most reasonable solution is that the Joker is a straight reflection of society. In places such as Chile, China, Lebanon, and Iraq, the Joker has been seen everywhere. Citizens of these countries use the Joker as ammunition for their protests. Lebanese street artist Mohamed Kabbani told CNN, "The Joker is us... Beirut is the new Gotham City." After the craze of the 2019 film, these citizens have felt that the Joker represents each of them. The Joker appeals to these people because he is a symbol for their defiance. Some of the actions the protesters have done include spray painting the phrase "We are all clowns" (which is from the film) onto street buildings, and citizens from China have been dressing up as the Joker to combat the recent ban on masks in public places. There is no other villain in pop culture that has had such an impact on the real world than the Joker.
The movie Joker was not the only time the character had a political/social impact. Christopher Nolan's version of the Joker in his film The Dark Knight had many political roots along with its cinematic uniqueness. When the movie came out it was taken as an allegory for the Bush presidency and the war on terror, but now it has been seen as a spotlight for certain individuals: trolls. Trolls laugh at the expense of others, which is similar to the Joker in the film. According to The Washington Post, "'U mad bro'- a favorite tease of early trolls- has the same rhetorical bite as the Joker's 'Why so serious?' Like the best movie villains, there is some truth to the Joker's worldview- that one bad weekend is all we need for society to collapse- and modern trolls share that yearning to push spaces (online and in real life) toward destruction." The Joker represents a modern day troll. He scoffs at the world around him and embraces chaos: a very unique attribute for a plausibly real life villain.
Although no other villain has had as strong of an impact on real life, there are still people who do not understand that the Joker is the superior antagonist. According to a poll by Empire Magazine, Darth Vader has been hailed as the greatest villain of all time, and it also concluded that the Joker was runner up. Although this is a reasonable claim, there is one large question that must be answered: was Darth Vader truly a villain? According to an article by Michael Rothman for ABC News, Darth Vader was not a true villain. It is factual that Darth Vader had killed his fair share of rebels, but his final moments were heroic and legendary. At the end of Return of the Jedi, Vader defeated the evil Emperor Palpatine. In so doing, Darth Vader fulfilled the prophecy of a powerful Jedi bringing balance to the force. In the end, he saved millions by helping crumble the Empire. Another villain that is a contender for the best is none other than Moriarty. Moriarty is Sherlock Holmes' greatest antagonist. Many may argue that Moriarty directly affects Sherlock Holmes as much as the Joker affects Batman, but Moriarty fails on other criteria. For one, Moriarty is not as unique as the Joker. Actors do not have to bring as much individualism to the character of Moriarty like one would for the Joker (Jack Nicholson's mobster, Heath Ledger's anarchist, et cetera). Also, Moriarty is not as widely known as the Joker; this indicates that Moriarty is not as impactful on society today. There are many other villains in pop culture, but these contenders are the greatest opposition to the Joker.
The many villains in pop culture must kneel before the one true king: the Joker. The extremely dangerous nature and real world impact propell the Jester of Genocide to the top spot of history's greatest foes. Whether he is plotting to rob a bank or murder thousands, the Joker's ultimate goal is to break the Dark Knight and show him they are one in the same. This brings forth the ultimate question: does the Joker represent the darkness of humanity? There are many who do not recognize his potential and decisiveness, but they will realize his power when they look at themselves in the mirror.
Brubaker, Ed, et al. Batman: The Man Who Laughs. DC Comics, 2012.
Kaur, Harmeet. "In Protests around the World, One Image Stands out: The Joker." CNN, 3 Nov. 2019, www.cnn.com/2019/11/03/world/joker-global-protests-trnd/index.html.
Langley, Travis. "'Another Dastardly Scheme' or Is the Media 'the Real Joker'?" Psychology Today, 29 Sept. 2019, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beyond-heroes-and-villains/201909/another-dastardly-scheme-or-is-the-media-the-real-joker.
Moore, Alan. Batman: The Killing Joke: The Deluxe Edition. New York, DC Comics, 1996.
Nolan, Christopher, director. The Dark Knight. Warner Brothers Studios, 2008.
Phillips, Ian. "Here's a peek at the incredibly detailed diary Heath Ledger kept to play the Joker in 'The Dark Knight'." Business Insider, 11 Aug. 2015, www.businessinsider.com/heath-ledger-diary-kept-to-play-the-joker-in-the-dark-knight-2015-8.
Rothman, Michael. "'Star Wars': Why Darth Vader Wasn't Truly a Villain." ABC News, 25 May 2017, abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/star-wars-darth-vader-villain/story?id=47638128.
Zilberman, Alan. "'The Dark Knight' and Heath Ledger's Joker were a prophecy of our troll culture." The Washington Post, 13 July 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/the-dark-knight-and-heath-ledgers-joker-were-a-prescient-example-of-troll-culture/2018/07/12/405c4694-8393-11e8-9e80-403a221946a7_story.html.