The Joker: One of pop culture”s most fascinating, controversial, and mutable villains. He enthralls us and opens the door to, er, passionate debate. If you”ve followed the coverage of David Ayer”s “Suicide Squad” you”ll know that each new peek at The Joker has inspired a maelstrom of heated opinions. The stages of Jared Leto”s transformation alone – as revealed via his Instagram account – were enough to set the Internet on fire. So what is it about The Joker that evokes such obsessive focus?
He isn”t designed to be aspirational. He”s a psychotic killer that takes great pleasure in the pain of others. Some would say that the attention – and frequent affection – that we bestow upon the character is a testament to our cultural decline. We idealize sociopaths, it would seem. Perhaps there”s something to that. My sense is that our interest in The Joker is more complex than latent sadistic and or homicidal drives. Though, those may play a role.
Many of us have likely had this conversation before. Asked ourselves: What does it say about us…about me that I”m so drawn to and intrigued by this creature? That”s likely a multilayered answer, but I think that the undercurrent is a craving for freedom. There is an anarchic quality to The Joker that serves to both attract and repulse. He”s unpredictable, arresting in his presence, and just freaking riveting to watch. Heath Ledger”s now iconic portrayal in Christopher Nolan”s “The Dark Knight” captured the essence of pure chaos, of course, but nearly every iteration of The Joker is built on a categorical rejection of society”s rules. He laughs when we”re meant to scream and cry. He inverts, distorts, and perverts what once was (but arguably no longer is) a symbol of childhood innocence – a clown.
Now, for me, clowns have always been nasty, malevolent beasts (I blame “It,” “Poltergeist” and a WAY too early introduction to John Wayne Gacy's Pogo the Clown). That aside, there was a time when a joker, a comedian, a clown was not immediately associated with either evil or angst. So for The Joker to corrupt that image was an abomination, but also a total refusal to adhere to the status quo.
Harvey Dent/Two-Face is a villain that we can relate to because he”s a person that tried to do good, but was broken and went a very bad way. That could happen to any one of us. The Joker, however, is seemingly entirely unencumbered by the human emotions that weigh us down: guilt, shame, conscience, and even love. It”s good that we feel those things, but they often cause internal discomfort and even pain. What would it be like to be entirely free of them? Liberated from the restrictions that a moral compass demands? That is what The Joker – by his very presence – asks us. Of course no one would really choose that, and our real life compassionless monsters are enough to chill our blood. In the world of fantasy, however, there”s something seductive and captivating about a being who represents the absolute release of all the ties that bind us to our humanity.
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The Joker could literally be anyone or anything. Though there have been several pivotal interpretations, he”s not really tied to one static human identity. Even Alan Moore”s “The Killing Joke,” which provides an origin story for The Joker, also calls it into question. “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another,” he says. “If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” The rules are there are no rules with this villain. As such, we can project our own imaginations onto him. We are free to do that. We can assign a history, backstory, or motivations for his behavior that work within our own personal psychology. In that way our individual relationships with the character become that much more intimate. We feel more ownership, because it”s almost as if our Joker, the one who lives in our minds, is the Joker. That”s likely just one of the reasons that fans tend to feel profoundly attached to each aspect of his depiction – from the look, to the voice, to the behavior.
In a way, he becomes our own invitation to sweet abandon as well as our individual nightmare made manifest. In our minds, he can be as cruel as we make him. His damaged character can be the result of any trauma we can dream up. Or — and this is the one that scares me — he can be the embodiment of that little seed of chaotic malcontent that lives within each of us. Wild, untamable, and entirely unhinged, The Joker issues a siren call to a life liberated from the relentless pressure to be better, do better, and toe the line. He also serves as a warning of what a world without ethics would look like: Up is down, down is up, sweet is sad, death is hilarious – and no one is safe.
Take a look at our “Suicide Squad”: future bomb or blockbuster debate in the video below: