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The Enduring Threat of the Joker

As debate rages over whether Todd Phillips’s upcoming ‘Joker’ valorizes a type of violence that plagues American society, it’s helpful to look back on the character’s origins (or lack thereof) to understand what he represents

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

If you want to know about the Joker before watching Joker, out Friday, there are 80 years of teachable moments to choose from. But a scene in 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm most neatly explains the Joker, as far as you need to understand him.

Just before the third act—which rips—the titular Phantasm stalks into the home of Salvatore Valestra, an old, emphysemic gangster with whom he has a score to settle, only to find Valestra’s hideous, smiling, booby-trapped corpse. On Valestra’s lap is a bomb attached to a remote camera, and behind that camera is Mark Hamill’s voice, which leaps with surprise and grim delight: “Whoops! … Look’s like there’s a new face in Gotham, and soon enough his name is gonna be all over town … to say nothing of his legs and feet and spleen and head!” Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski’s cult classic casts the Joker as mob muscle turned bleached anarchist, but the way he savors that spleen, with whimsy and murderous intent in equal measure, tells you most of what you need to know about the Joker: that he’s totally unmoored and homicidal, but ridiculous and sort of fun, in a way that you should probably discuss with your therapist. That he’s the opposite of Batman, basically.

Since the inception of the character, the Joker’s identity has been inextricably linked to his counterpart. In 1940, when Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger began the character’s first dedicated series, they introduced the Clown Prince as a capital-M Master Foil. He begins Batman No. 1 by hacking a public radio broadcast, then commits a few murders, steals a few priceless artifacts, and even kidnaps Robin before Batman eventually puts him behind bars.

Batman No. 1 (1940)

When the Joker shows up in Batman No. 1, he already has the lair, his agreeable sense of the macabre, and the purple suit. The Joker began as a classic case of darkness rising naturally to challenge the light; there isn’t a definitive, official Joker origin story. 2008’s The Dark Knight pokes fun at this, as the Joker explains twice, through gloriously sloppy exposition, where his scars come from. He got them when he was a kid, after his abusive father took a razor blade to his face in a drunken rage. No, wait, he cut his face as an act of love for his wife, who was given a Chelsea grin over an unpaid gambling debt. There is a third story, but before he can tell it, Batman tosses the Joker off a building and then saves him at the last second, just like in Batman No. 1.

The green hair and chalky white skin, however, were explained in 1951 in Detective Comics No. 168. The comic revealed that the Joker had once been a criminal called the Red Hood, who fell into a vat of acid while trying to escape Batman on foot.

In 1988’s Batman: The Killing Joke—widely accepted as canon, although it’s presented as just a possible backstory—Alan Moore and Brian Bolland expound upon the Joker’s tragic past, which he allows to irrevocably distort his worldview. Moore and Bolland’s Joker left his factory job to get no laughs as a comedian and, after the death of his pregnant wife and a botched robbery that leaves him disfigured, he reasons that it all must be a joke. He then acquires a singular focus in forcing everyone else to laugh. This is, of course, after having a hearty, maniacal laugh himself.

Unfortunately, the Joker—as in, the Joker’s ethos—makes sense to people. Todd Phillips’s Joker marks the first time the character has been explored on screen independent of Batman, making the Clown Prince something like an antihero. Duly, concerns have been raised over whether the time is right for Phillips’s film, which I haven’t seen, but which obviously depicts a white guy violently taking his feelings out on the world. Many have wondered, since there’s a lot of that going around, whether Joker is a glamorization of incel culture or whether it will indeed incite violence. Neither Phillips nor Joaquin Phoenix has seemed all that equipped to address these issues during the film’s press run. In fact, it seems increasingly as if the thought had never crossed either of their minds.

But it isn’t Phillips’s or Phoenix’s fault that a world exists outside of, and relates to, the thing they made, any more than it’s their fault they may be valorizing a bunch of angry young white dudes who probably don’t really understand the source material.

The quote is: “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is away from where I am, just one bad day.” Joker’s (Moore’s) words endure because they capture the crushing despair of invisibility, of feeling deficient in some crucial way, of not being cut out for life’s simplest pleasures. All of this might sound uniquely comforting to people with ideas about sex redistribution and the ways in which woke scolds are ruining comedy. But when you think about it, no one told the Joker to quit his day job to pursue a career in stand-up.