I didn’t get the significance at first, but a few months after seeing the new Joker film I’ve come to realize why it matters. This is coming from a person who is a big fan of the Batman series. The characters have evolved from Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, with significant contributions made by writer/illustrator Frank Miller in the 80s. Tim Burton introduced Batman to the big screen with Michael Keaton along with Joker played by Jack Nicholson. The animated series added flourishes. And Christopher Nolan’s trilogy is a cinematic masterpiece. Heath Ledger’s performance made Joker the new Hamlet.
With that all said, Joker isn’t a character that needs his own movie. He’s largely considered one of the greatest fictional villains, so it’s no surprise that Warner Bros. and DC Comics opted to keep the Batman franchise going by shining the spotlight on him. As you’ll recall fellow beloved baddie Darth Vader was given the backstory treatment to mixed results. I’m not saying plots that reveal why a villain becomes a villain is inherently a bad idea. I’m sure it can be done well. Perhaps Lolita’s predatory paramour Humbert Humber could serve as an example, crafted by a literary spell caster. However, I will say that a significant aspect to what makes a villain beguiling is their mystery. If you’ve won over readers and audiences for being dark and mysterious chances are your opaqueness is part of what makes you compelling.
So why a Joker film? Because of the buckets of money to be made? Yes, of course. Because it was destined to slate Joaquin Phoenix for an oscar nomination? For sure. Is it an enjoyable movie to watch? Not unless you go to movies to assess actor’s performances or have an eye for cinematography. To be fair, as prequels go the writers wove the narrative into the larger fabric masterfully. Here’s the point that struck me; the reason Joker matters to us, that is to say, years from now when there’s that perspective that comes with time, what Easy Rider was to Baby Boomers or Harry Potter to millennials, Joker speaks to America’s sense of itself right now. We are in a woke time. We are in a time when a lying dirtbag conned his way into the highest office in the land, with no regard for human rights or basic decency. I think we are wrestling with the idea that we might actually be the villains. Our country was ruthlessly taken from the people who lived here long before English refugees arrived. Our economy was built on the backs of slave labor, which still hasn’t been apologized for. Right now we’re in the process of having a wall built to keep people out who are running for their lives. So yeah, we can watch a movie about an ill man who goes dangerously mad and feel like this is a story that speaks to us. I’m not implying that as individuals we are connecting with him personally. Not that. I’m speaking sociologically. As Jung said “the psyche is not only a personal but a world problem.”
As a country we’ve caused a lot of harm to get where we are. Our president just last week bombed Iran to switch the news cycle off of his impeachment. We’re a divided country wresting with our fractured identity. To continue using the language of DC Comics; once upon a time an outsider with a pure of heart inside a barrel-chest known as Superman embodied the American way of life. It’s been a number of years since the Man of Steel has felt relevant to audiences here. These days we’re looking in the mirror and seeing a lethal schizophrenic in smudged clown makeup.