Few characters have as many alternate versions as the Joker -- which, considering the character's preference to be a multiple-choice force of chaos, makes absolute sense. The Joker is consistently reinvented for each new generation. Every generation has its Joker, be it Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, or Joaquin Phoenix. However, these new interpretations all share two core things in common: an iconic laugh and a clownish appearance.
Other than that, however, the Joker changes for each new generation. Every film's Joker is the Joker that decade needs in order to explore its own societal ills.
Cesar Romero's Joker from the 1960s Batman series and film is undeniably the funniest, silliest Joker of them all. Refusing to even shave off his mustache to play the part, Romero approaches the Joker as a ridiculous cartoon villain, gleefully laughing and chuckling throughout every scene.
The 1960s were, in many ways, a time of great societal upheaval. Adam West's tenure as Batman overlapped with the start of the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the Stonewall Riots and the moon landing. These were times marked by an irreverence towards the laws American society had followed seemingly forever.
Because of this, the Joker became a parody of all rules and structure. This Joker is a goofball who wants to enjoy himself. While the world takes itself so seriously, Romero's Joker does things for a hoot. Dehydrate all the world's leaders? Why not? Surf with Batman? Sure! No crime is too silly or ridiculous for this Joker because the 60s established that there are no real rules or limitations. Anything bad that could happen can happen. Any oppressive rule can be overturned. Even the moon, once thought out of reach, can become a destination.
So why does Romero NEED to shave off his mustache if he can just paint over it, instead? Is it a rule the Joker needs to be clean shaven? Something to ponder.
In the late-80s, corporate greed had become a very real problem for Americans. Businesses had turned most of life into commodities that could be purchased and sold back to consumers. On top of that, real-life crime, especially in New York, was escalating. At the same time, however, audiences were romanticizing the style of old-school mobsters -- even though real old-school mobsters were wholly unlike their screen counterparts.
Enter Jack Nicholson's Joker in Tim Burton's Batman. What Nicholson first brought to the role was the look of a 40s mobster as seen through the lens of a member of an 80s corporate empire. He hangs out in boardrooms, takes bribes from cops, thinks about how he will run the business once he's in charge -- until he becomes the Joker.
Once in command of what he sought before he became the Clown Prince of Crime, the character becomes a force of anarchy, making decisions that will damage his criminal empire. He kills all his henchmen, poisons half of Gotham for the fun of it and then chooses to give away his own money while poisoning everyone.
What Nicholson's Joker does is deconstruct capitalist greed. He has no reverence for art. He even sees himself as an artist when he paints over and destroys classic paintings. He uses the Gotham populace's greed to lure them into a death trap. Oh, and he regularly fights a hugely successful businessman who made his money doing...business. Seriously, does Tim Burton's film ever explain how Bruce Wayne made all his money?
Following 9/11, American society feared terrorists. Anyone could strap a bomb to their chest, walk into some honored, sacred place, and blow it up -- all to inspire fear. While many of these terrorists saw themselves fighting an ideological war, the American people saw only forces of unreasonable, impossible chaos. It is hard to capture that fear of unknown, unfathomable evil on screen, but Christopher Nolan found a way.
Nolan's entire Dark Knight trilogy deals with fear, corruption and the meaning of power. The Dark Knight's Joker, played by Heath Ledger, in many ways is a perfect foil for Nolan's other adversaries. They are either shaped by fear or utilize fear as a weapon. On the other hand, the Joker has a very particular motivation: to show the world that there are no rules. The Joker wants to deconstruct society in order to prove, to the world and perhaps to himself, that anyone can become like him.
However, much like the terrorists from this era, the Joker comes in, does his thing and then disappears. No one knows why or how until too many people are gone, and even then, we're not entirely sure we understand him at all. We don't know where he came from, but we feel the impact of every one of his attacks.
In a way that's actually quite fitting, Ledger's Joker is the most horrific Joker. His actions are intense and violent in ways that leave us wondering "Why is he doing this?" But in many respects, that's entirely the point. Why, indeed?
Jared Leto in Suicide Squad is the worst Joker. Of all the cinematic interpretations, it is the one most people can point to as the weak link. Of course, with Heath Ledger's Joker performance becoming immediately iconic, Leto had a hard act to follow. So, rather than imitate Ledger or Nicholson, Leto attempted to subvert expectations.
In many ways, that's the most logical step he could have taken. The mid-2010s were all about subverting expectations, both in reality and fiction. For example, Captain America: The Winter Soldier asked "What if SHIELD, the good government agency that aided Marvel's heroes, was secretly evil all along?" Indeed, during this time, Americans learned that defeating terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda created an environment where even worse organizations could rise up and spread destruction.
But even though Leto's Joker subverted all expectations, he was also defined by the post-Twilight and YA craze that filmmakers exploited to turn bad boys into heartthrobs. The problem was many film studios didn't really understand the appeal of the books they were adapting, and created movies that failed to impress fans.
Case in point? Joker. Suicide Squad turned him into a Hot Topic, wish-fulfillment boyfriend, gave him tattoos and made him edgy and cool. Yet, in doing so, the movie failed to make him a compelling, interesting character.
It might be too soon after the release of Todd Phillip's Joker to really break down the character in a meaningful capacity. However, in many respects, Phoenix's Joker represents a far more intimate reality than the greater trends in society: us.
What Phoenix captures is the essence of a man, Arthur Fleck, who has been consistently put down by society and pushed further and further until he snaps. But rather than accept his personal failings, he lashes out against the world and attacks society for failing him. In a lot of ways, the character reflects the way many people in today's society feel.
Though Joker doesn't really indicate Fleck is an incel, the parallels between Fleck and the Red Pill community are pretty obvious. These isolated individuals, broken by the world, lash out against it. Real life murderers, most famously Elliot Rodger, have justified their actions by claiming that the society that created them deserves to be ruined.
In this sense, Phoenix's portrayal reflects the disenchanted youth, dialed up to 11. He is not just disappointed by society, but like many of these real life killers, goes out of his way to attack a world he blames for his own problems. The result is a far more personal, far more disturbing portrait of chaos.
Directed by Todd Philips, Joker Stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Marc Maron, Josh Pais and Shea Whigham. The film is now in theaters.