BUZZ WORDS: The Joker Movies – We need to talk about Mister J

BUZZ WORDS: The Joker Movies – We need to talk about Mister J

0 comments 📅26 August 2017, 00:06

This week DC announced that not one, but two, entirely separate Joker movies are in active development. The first is an origin story, the second is a re-tooled version of Gotham City Sirens. The original idea there was to bring the comic trio of Harley, Poison Ivy and Catwoman to the big screen.

Instead, with the departure of director David Ayer, we’re getting a Harley and Joker movie. Because apparently a movie featuring three female leads is somehow still a dangerous financial prospect for the company that just released Wonder Woman.

Oh and it’ll star the Joker from Suicide Squad.

Now, we’re not bashing Suicide Squad. We own Suicide Squad. The Extended Cut. We’ve watched it voluntarily, more than once. And while the film has countless flaws, Harley isn’t one of them. Margot Robbie is an excellent actress, whose work on movies like Focus is a flat out joy, and she’s one of the four cast members on Suicide Squad that holds the movie together through sheer force of charm.

Jared Leto is another story.

The Suicide Squad version of the Joker is a sticky-looking non-entity, an edge lord with bad teeth and worse tattoos who moves and sounds like a sentient newspaper comments section. Despite the much vaunted hours of footage featuring him and Leto’s method acting, he’s a pantomime villain and he never, once, works, even a little.

But the real problem with this take on the character lies, not with Leto, but with the material he and the writers drew the performance from. The idea that the Joker has to be this sexually charged human alligator of a man dangerously romanticises a character who is, to the core, a monster. This isn’t a sexy bad boy, this isn’t an edgy anti-hero designed to sell T-shirts and fancy dress costumes by the ton. This is a human catastrophe, a dead-eyed, hollow laugh of a man. Fascinating? Absolutely. But because of what isn’t there at least as much as what is.

The Joker has to be defined by his relationship with Batman and by his opposition to the established order of things. The closest he gets to sympathetic is how desperately lonely he clearly is, but that does nothing to excuse his crimes or make him more interesting as a character. He’s a tragedy, a punchline and as a result is narratively flat.

Especially as Harley as a character has become exponentially more interesting the further she’s got from him in the latest comics. Even in Suicide Squad, her growing fondness for her team mates is one of the movie’s best elements. In the comics, she’s set up for herself and has done the one thing he’s never had the courage to do: interact with the world on her own – occasionally twisted, usually violent and frequently very funny. Harley as she is now is an interesting, nuanced and fun character. The ‘Oh Mistah J!’ years now play as dated and unpleasant, and they should.

By contrast, the Joker can’t redeem himself, can’t learn and can’t change. He’s Batman’s nemesis, irredeemable and resolute and trapped. He’s a laugh stretched to a scream, defined and detained by the characters he’s in opposition to. Scott Snyder has even made this overt in his epochal run on Batman, implying heavily that the Joker is an immortal force rather than a single man. Every element of the character, from his ‘multi-choice’ past to the legion of actors to play him has ensured that he’s more of an idea than a character. A smiling face carved into a fictional universe. A Man Who Laughs where there is nothing to laugh at and no man once you look closely enough.

Which makes the other Joker movie to be announced this week even more mystifying. Todd Phillips and Scott Silver, best known for The Hangover and 8 Mile, are penning a script with Phillips on deck to direct and Martin Scorsese executive producing. Set in the early 1980s, it will provide the tragic origin of the Joker. Because apparently we needed that.


It’s not just that we live in a world where The Killing Joke exists. It’s not just that we live in a world where the truly, undeniably awful animated version of The Killing Joke exists. It’s that anyone, at any level, thought that changing the Joker’s past from the cloud of possibilities it currently is to a single, gritty street-level would be a good idea. Let alone one as drenched in period machismo as Scorsese’s body of work.

Could it succeed? Absolutely. Is it called for? Not even a little.

The Joker, especially the screen version we’ve seen in the DCEU, embodies all DC’s darkest and, bluntly, worst impulses. He’s a sociopath devoid of consequence, preening and eternally free to revel in the terrible things he’s done. By putting him front and centre in not one but two movies, DC has effortlessly erased almost all the good will it has fought so hard for up to this point.

Because the message this sends is clear: the villains are the stars. This terrible human monster is someone we want to celebrate. So much so that a film with three iconic DC female characters is being shoved aside in favour of Murder Clown: The Movie.

That would be insulting at any time. In the wake of Wonder Woman it feels deliberate and malicious. A franchise that’s received a massive response for something it’s never tried, opting to fall back on the laziest, easiest to reach tropes and approaches.

Of course, there’s still no certainty either of these movies will see the light of day, or that one or both of them won’t work if they do. But, along with the mixed signals about Ben Affleck’s future as Batman, and the mystifying comments about whether the next Batman movie will be part of the DCEU, they form part of yet another disturbing pattern of choices from DC. It could do better. It should and has done better. But right now, it looks a lot like this joke will, in the end, be on DC.

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