The evolution of Joker – from cartoon monster to a killer who elicits sympathy

Todd Phillips’ new film hasn’t even been released yet, and already the internet is awash with conflicting stories about it.

Joker received rave reviews at the Venice Festival, where it won the Golden Lion, but some commentators found disturbing right-wing undercurrents in its storyline, and even accused the film of being an apologia for ‘incels’, self-styled beta males whose petulant demands for female attention have sometimes spilt over into violence.

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Joker draws on such heavyweight films as Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy in creating an origins story for Batman’s most persistent enemy. Joaquin Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, an eccentric loner who lives with his mother, is heavily medicated and carries laminated cards that read “forgive my laughter – I have a condition”.

Arthur dreams of being a stand-up, but falls to pieces whenever he takes the stage. He’s an outcast, but a series of misfortunes convince him to find a new route to fame.

In creating Joker, Phillips and Phoenix have built on the portrayals of him in film by actors like Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, as well as such rich sources as Alan Moore’s brilliant 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke. There have been lots of other colourful supervillains of course, but the Joker remains the most fascinating superhero antagonist of them all, perhaps because he seems so frighteningly real.

Like Batman, the Joker has no superpowers, and must rely on gismos and his ghastly ingenuity to get the attention he craves. Sometimes he has been portrayed as a pantomime villain, but a man who wears a fake flower in his lapel that sprays acid is clearly not playing with a full deck, and Joker’s original creators only expected him to last the length of a dime comic.

There’s a still from a 1928 silent historical drama called The Man Who Laughs showing German actor Conrad Veidt wearing heavy make-up and wildly smiling, his eyes slightly crossed. He looks like the Joker, and it’s not a coincidence, because The Man Who Laughs was one of the primary inspirations used by comic-book makers Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson in creating the villain.

In 1940, Kane’s new comic book Batman was progressing well, but needed an interesting antagonist. His hot-shot teenage illustrator, Robinson, came up with a sketch of a malevolent-looking playing card joker, and the concept of a physically compelling villain who “would be memorable, like the Hunchback of Notre Dame”.

Finger felt that the concept was incomplete, and suggested the still image of Veidt, and the idea of insanity demonstrated by a shocking, involuntary rictus grin. Kane, who was not always generous in this regard, credited both Robinson and Finger for the character’s creation, and Joker made his debut in the 1940 comic Batman #1.

He was particularly nasty: in early comic appearances he killed with sadistic relish and even derailed a passenger train as he battled with Batman for Gotham’s soul. Finger wanted him to be killed off fairly quickly but wiser counsels prevailed.

The Joker was the Caped Crusader’s diametric opposite: where Batman was dour, mirthless and grimly determined to rescue Gotham from its worst excesses, Joker was a jovial anarchist who yearned to unleash the kind of mass chaos that might make him look normal.

He was a genuinely scary creation, but after the Comics Code Authority was established in 1954 to clean up the booming industry, DC’s writers were forced to knock the edges off the Joker.

By the 1960s, he’d become an unthreatening prankster, and this silly tone was deepened when Cesar Romero played the Joker in the 1960s TV serial Batman. The show was hopelessly camp, and in this giddy atmosphere, Romero had no choice but to go big or go home, pulling bouquets from his florid sleeves and sporting a reddish quiff that made him look unsettlingly like Lucille Ball.

All of this was a far cry from the Joker’s psychotic roots, and in the 1970s and ’80s, a new generation of graphic novelists rescued him from this state of jolly impotence and made him once again a villain to be feared. In Grant Morrison’s 1989 graphic novel Arkham Asylum, we were given a stark portrayal of Joker as an anarchic, deluded psychopath, while Moore’s The Killing Joke a year earlier provided a possible explanation for his mental condition.

Arthur Fleck had been a failed and desperate Gotham comedian forced to take part in robberies to look after his pregnant wife. When he fell into a vat of bubbling green chemicals while avoiding Batman, he emerged disfigured, and vengeful.

The Killing Joke as well as Frank Miller’s brilliant mid-80s comic-book miniseries The Dark Knight Returns provided inspiration for Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), a gloriously gothic rendering of Gotham’s heroes and villains starring Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader and Nicholson as the Joker. Opinions differ as to the merits of Nicholson’s performance, which was operatically big. Nicholson’s Joker found everything amusing, especially himself, but always seemed in total control and not the least bit unhinged.

While very funny, his Joker seemed out of kilter with the darkness of Burton’s film: an altogether more unsettling version would appear two decades later, in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. That brilliantly realised epic was part two of a Batman trilogy, and in it Christian Bale’s Batman encountered a new kind of criminal, an unhinged sociopath with absolutely nothing to lose.

Heath Ledger apparently holed up in a hotel room for weeks reading up on serial killers and doing everything he could to worm his way inside the Joker’s twisted mind. In The Dark Knight, his Joker’s eyes flashed brilliantly but seemed dead, and he had clearly totally lost his grip on human reality. For this japester, empathy was impossible, and innocent people were pawns in his grandiose games.

“You complete me,” he tells Batman, implying that without each other, existence is pointless, while Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred (playing with weary grandeur by Michael Caine) suggests that men like the Joker “just want to watch the world burn”.

The graceful brilliance and paradoxical seriousness of Ledger’s characterisation were only heightened by his tragic death, and perhaps Phillips’ Joker has provided the gloomy prequel that performance deserved.

Everyone has his reasons, and if a killer can elicit our sympathy, surely that makes him even more frightening.

‘Joker’ will be in Irish cinemas from October 4

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