It’s happened to all of us: we meet that person who’s inexplicably captivating. I admit, I’ve been enamored by people now and then after little more than a brief introduction. But, usually those people are charming, witty, sometimes attractive, seemingly kind, and so forth. Usually such people are not white-faced demons with flaming green hair and a pointed desire to “watch the world burn,” as they say in The Dark Knight. And yet, I know now it’s not impossible to be fascinated by just such a person. Much like psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel, who tragically transforms into Harley Quinn, the villainous Joker who sits opposite to the Batman captivates me, though, unlike Harley Quinn, I am (thankfully) not madly in love with him.
I’ll start at the beginning which, according to Maria in The Sound of Music, is a very good place to start. (Did you ever think you’d get to read about The Joker and The Sound of Music in the same article? No? Well, you’re welcome.) My Batman knowledge was sparse and fragmented before meeting Michael, so the only Joker I’d glimpsed was Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight – and I didn’t watch the whole movie. (I know. What was I doing that was so important that I couldn’t watch the canonical, amazing, genre-defining Dark Knight in its entirety? I don’t know, and I have no legitimate excuse for myself). So I saw Ledger’s Joker again later, and I was mesmerized. Don’t get me wrong; the entire film is excellent. But my interest is unfailingly piqued when Ledger enters the scene with his gnarly hair and awkward court jester makeup. I’ve heard that the potential reason for Ledger’s death was the fact that he delved too deeply into the character, couldn’t sleep because of him, and thus accidentally overdosed on prescription sleep medication, a sad but telling testament to the power of this ever-morphing but consistently malevolent Batman foe.
At the risk of being cliché, I agree with most that no Joker performance can top Ledger’s. But I think it would be remiss to have a narrow view of what a “good” Joker performance looks like just because Ledger did something brilliant that can probably never be topped or replicated. I next saw the animated version of the classic Batman comic book The Killing Joke, where I got to hear Mark Hamill voice the Joker. To me, The Joker is less captivating in animated form, but this is not to say that he’s not still insidious and terrifying. His actions in The Killing Joke, a piece that Michael has written about on this blog, epitomize not just evil, but evil in its most sickeningly twisted form. There is still something tremendously uncomfortable about this character.
Finally, I’ve seen Jared Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad and, today, while glimpsing the Classic Series at our local theater, I saw Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the 1989 Tim Burton Batman. Leto was unquestioningly uncomfortable and creepy as a slender, wide-eyed, metallic toothed Joker. And, though nobody really raves about Nicholson’s performance anymore because Ledger’s has eclipsed every other version of The Joker, I thought Nicholson was disturbing, terrifying and brilliant. I walked into Burton’s Batman with low expectations, because it’s not a movie I hear discussed much, but I was pleasantly surprised – especially with The Joker. The rest of the film was okay, but, true to my tendencies while watching The Dark Knight, my innate interest scanned for scenes showcasing The Joker, and then focused intently.
Which raises the question: why is someone like me, someone with a sometimes tenuous interest in comic book characters, so intrigued by this warped, deluded clown? My horror blog would insinuate that I’m drawn to that which is dark and unnerving, so on the one hand, it makes sense that The Joker – a character made for the horror screen, and the horror blog, even if he is the stuff of comic book lore – is so interesting to me. But there are a lot of evil characters out there – in horror, in the world of comics, and elsewhere – and frankly there are a lot of villains that bore me. There are certainly interesting villains, but some simply are not. And yet, I can’t get enough of the Joker.
Michael has said before that The Joker is the incarnation of evil, and, on a post for his My Comic Relief blog, has cautioned against conflating mental illness with evil, something the Arkham Asylum Batman comic book does with a bit too much brazen irreverence. Let me preface what I’m about to say with the fact that mental illness factored significantly into my Master’s Thesis and I have a vested interest in the fair an accurate depiction of psychiatric disorders: but the Joker’s intrigue happens because he raises a lot of questions, and he may be situated comfortably at the nexus of insanity and evil.
I in no way mean to make excuses for or justify that practice of depicting the mentally ill as evil. (This is something that I’ve taken quite seriously on this blog before, in a post about Psycho and another about The Visit). And yet, the Joker seems like a new and different version of “mentally ill” to me. Let me just depict a perhaps slightly rosy picture of our society: some components of pop culture seem to perceive mental illness in two ways – there are, first, the “normal” mentally ill (who are sometimes depicted as living, breathing, feeling, ordinary human beings), and there are your garden variety “lunatics” who have a tendency to go awry and manifest evil behavior (i.e. Dracula’s Renfield). There is nothing okay about depicting mentally ill people as evil, but I think we have a cultural fascination with how mental illness and evil combine, and certainly it is not wholly inaccurate to say that one can be mentally ill and evil. Some people, as Michael so eloquently explains in the Arkham Asylum post I linked to above, conflate the two states of being to explain otherwise inexplicable evil. Is the Joker, then, the net result of two such states of being – an amalgamation of mental illness and evil?
And that is another question The Joker raises that interests me quite a bit. In one of the college classes I taught, we watched Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary on gun violence, Bowling for Columbine, and discussed the troubling phenomena of mass public shootings in America. I had one student say – and I can’t wholly agree or disagree – that anyone who committed such an atrocity had to be mentally ill, because no one in his or her right mind would do such a thing. This comment has stuck with me for some time, because it raises all sorts of questions about things I’m quite interested in: namely, what it means to be mentally ill, what it means to be evil, and how to distinguish between these two otherwise vastly different concepts when we witness malicious and socially deviant acts. Women have killed their children because “God told them to,” and one semi-recent mass shooter was schizophrenic (I think, oddly, he opened fire while The Dark Knight was debuting). We tread on dangerous ground here – a scintilla of mentally ill persons commit any sort of crime – but in these instances, is it legitimate to plead insanity? Is one mentally ill, evil, or both, when committing such heinous acts?
And more interestingly, still, is the Joker, at all, mentally ill? Some define mental illness as losing touch with reality. In diseases like Bi-Polar disorder and Schizophrenia, this can take the forms of hallucinations and delusions. Arguably, someone with severe depression has an unrealistically grim perspective on the world as a result of the chemical imbalance that stifles them. The Joker certainly has a grim view of humanity; he believes that people, to the extent that they’re not evil, are at least corrupt and selfish. And in The Dark Knight he asserts that he’s certainly not insane, but instead “ahead of the curve.” Conversely, people who are in the cusp of severe, untreated mental illness don’t usually recognize their illness. Insanity at its most extreme point on the psychiatric spectrum is the insanity that doesn’t recognize itself as insane. Is that where The Joker rests? Is he an evil madman who thinks he’s sane? Is his uncharacteristically bleak perspective on human nature akin to being out of touch with reality? At the very least, contemporary psychiatry would categorize him as sociopathic. But the category “sociopath” assumes that most anti-social (anti-person, often evil) behavior can be classified as mental illness. Does such classification leave room for the possibility of being completely deviant and completely sane? Is it inherently mentally ill to be against your fellow man? Then how do we explain killing civilians in war?
And if the interior mind of the evil villain is interesting, his or her exterior is equally intriguing. Body alteration and malformation are often a sign of evil. Just look at the (ultimately redeemed) Darth Vader in the Star Wars trilogy, who, as the fallen Anakin, loses his arms, legs, and the structure of his face in a fight with Obi-Wan Kenobi, then reigns over the Empire as a Dark Lord of the Sith who cloaks his robotic appendages. The Joker, who falls into a vat of chemicals that turn his normal, beige skin into an unnatural powder-white color, faces a similar fate. In Tim Burton’s rendition of Batman, the nerves in the Joker’s face are altered during his fall and his mouth is fixated in a permanent, extended, sinister smile, an uncomfortably paradoxical bodily marker that indicates the Joker’s interior evil. In Burton’s Batman, the evil is always present, but magnifies upon the bodily transformation, so that The Joker is frequently and manically committing atrocities. He seems to wreak havoc with no end in mind, which is precisely, I believe, what interests me. The Joker seems indifferent to power, that which most villains seek. He simply wants to commit evil acts.
In the end, it seems that one need not be evil to commit an evil act, but one is not evil until one has committed an evil act. And the Joker, who commits frequent, spurious, senseless evil acts, is, as Michael has argued, evil incarnate. I think a thesis could be written on famous villains and the purported sanity of each villain. In Burton’s Batman, Jack Nicholson often acts like the so-called mad-man, but in The Dark Knight, as stated, Ledger’s character asserts his level head. Indeed, the Joker’s sanity is probably contingent upon the definition of sanity – or insanity – provided before the debate. Suffice it to say, this malicious and nonsensical killer has captivated me since I watched him in The Dark Knight, and has continuously intrigued me as I’ve watched the Batman-Joker interaction in different formations. He is a horror lover’s dream, in that he’s truly a monster worth examining.