When I was a kid, my uncle gave me a collection of Joker stories. It was a decent collection of works, starting from his origin as the original Red Hood to a story about the Joker celebrating his birthday. It was a much more compelling collection for my young brain compared to another book which the same uncle gave me a year before, a collection of Ra’s al Ghul stories. It was great that I was getting a bunch of comic books at the time, but I sometimes wonder why I kept getting collected stories of Batman villains. Did my uncle have a thing against the Caped Crusader?
Since I read and re-read that book, along with other Batman comic books, the Joker has always been the most fascinating of the DC villains for me. Marvel has its share of compelling villains, particularly the X-Men and Spider-Man’s roster of foes, but the Joker for many comic book readers is the most beloved villain in the industry. Some might say that it is because despite him being cartoonish, he has a very human quality which keeps him apart from the overly fantastic qualities of the likes of Lex Luther or some purple space tyrant in any book or film. This is true to some degree, but I believe it is something else. The Joker is the revenge fantasy of the miserable.
And really? Who isn’t miserable? Who wasn’t miserable as a teenager? Getting picked on, not having a girlfriend? Who’s not miserable now? Stuck in a dead end job, have a wife/girlfriend who doesn’t care about you, have no woman in your life, no future, etc.
When you’re miserable as a teen and you read comic books, heroes like Batman or the X-Men might inspire you. They have miserable lives as well, but through different means, Bruce Wayne with year of training coupled with immense wealth and the X-Men with their super powers, they manage to make something out of their miserable lives and perhaps make the world a better place. But those characters all have their trump cards, they all have their deus ex machinas which lifts them up from their impossible situations: infinite wealth, super powers. The allure of the Joker is that his super power is that he’s insane… he’s insane, and more importantly, he’s miserable. And that’s an element that everyone in the world has infinite access to. With enough misery, maybe you can become a super villain like the Joker. Maybe life would be more interesting then. You can’t be Batman or Iron Man. You hardly have any money in your bank account. And you certainly don’t want to work out or train or be a real hero like a police officer or something. That takes too much time. Also, it’s much, MUCH easier to terrorize people than to actually save people from criminals or any danger. Where will you find people to save? There are people available to terrorize everywhere. And bonus points, there’s no Caped Crusader to stop you. The Joker is easy access.
Just look at the mass shooters in the news. They are all miserable and most of them have this grand delusion of being famous. Spreading misery around is the shortcut way to infamy, to being bigger than what they are. That’s why a lot of people refrain from publicizing their names too much. That is giving the criminals exactly what they want. And isn’t that the Joker’s modus operandi? Do something horrible, terrorize people, get caught, and yet be satisfied knowing that the terror he caused will forever live on in the hearts of those on the outside.
I think this is why the Jared Leto version of the Joker was so disdained and totally doesn’t work. Most people who loved or at least understood the Joker know that it is a character born out of misery. On paper, Jared Leto has never been “not cool.” He was a teen heart throb, still has lots of adoring fans, and he plays in a band. And his “cool” Joker was not miserable at all. He was ripped. He got a grill. He has tattoos. He was barely hiding the fact that he was Jared Leto, Jared Leto who spent a couple of hundred dollars in a Hot Topic. He was everyone the miserable teen who loved comic books wouldn’t hang out with in school. He was co-opting a truth which he has never realized, a “cool guy” trying to be a juggalo and failing at it.
It is interesting how the character basically started out as a gimmicky thief, then later turned into a maniac often inspired by sociopolitical purposes. It is like the character grew and became disenfranchised with itself and realized that everything around it has gone to hell… and snapped. And again, isn’t that what happens with a lot of these mass shooters in the news? In many ways… that is the fantasy. Life is getting worse, but that’s okay, one day you’ll just snap and not care about anything. Boom. That’s your super power. And by the way, I’m not saying that our collective fascination with the Joker is a bad thing or not, but the character does touch on the nihilistic side of humanity, when everything is so bad that nothing holds meaning anymore, and maybe out of all of that misery, maybe we will come out as bigger, more interesting characters. Forget Bruce Wayne. It’s too late for us to be born rich. But it is never too late to be miserable and crazy.
Looking at this new Joker movie coming up, I could see that the character is again digging deep into the misery in order to transform into the laughing villain we all know. Joaquin Phoenix, is literally morphing his body, looks miserable, and yet totally relatable in his expressions. The Joaquin Phoenix will be the most common costume for men come Halloween 2019. I’m excited for it.