The Joker – Why So Serious? (pt.1)

The Joker, A New Illustration From LenseBender Studios

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The list of complaints about last years’ ‘Suicide Squad’ is a long one. The machined-gunned roll-call character introductions, the underdeveloped personalities, the ethnic stereotypes, and the ‘walk like an Egyptian’ Enchantress – and this is just to scratch the surface – earned across-the-board negative reviews and a deeply conflicted audience.

One of the biggest complaints I’ve been hearing? The prison-tatted goth-juggalo Joker. And while this version of The Joker has earned such disdain, Jered Leto’s performance has simultaneously garnered some of the film’s highest praise. In fact, many moviegoers are hopeful for a ‘Joker & Harley’ stand-alone movie(although this is looking less likely with the announcement of ‘Gotham City Sirens‘). Audience responses to both the film and this new iteration of the ‘ganagster’ Joker perfectly illustrates how polarized audiences are.

What many moviegoers aren’t aware of is that The Joker has undergone several transformations over the last seventy-five years. After Batman was given his own stand-alone comic title in 1940, creator Bob Kane needed to introduce a new villain. Interestingly, The Joker was initially supposed to die in the first issue – with a knife through the heart – but the decision was ultimately made to keep The Clown Prince Of Crime on deck as a recurring character.

It’s easy to assume that the earliest depictions of The Joker would more closely resemble the 1960s television series – whimsical and cartoonish, rather than sociopathic and violent. The truth is, in his earliest story arcs, The Joker was a ruthless killer similar to more recent cinematic portrayals. It wasn’t until editor Jack Schiff was hired that The Joker’s persona was softened in order to market the Batman comics to a younger audience. After the establishment of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, The Joker was nothing more than a puckish, thieving trickster.

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Editor Julius Schwartz took the reigns in 1964, leading to the near-abandonment of The Joker character altogether. Evidently, Schwartz wasn’t a fan of the character. If it wasn’t for the 1966 Batman television series, The Joker might have faded into complete obscurity. The show was a hit, however, and actor Cesar Romero provided the first ever live (non-comic-book) performance of the iconic character.
romero-blogAfter the end of the television series – and despite its success – comic sales were flagging. The Joker was reintroduced in 1973, after a four year hiatus and a decision to change formats. Editors wanted to begin telling more mature Batman stories and shed the whimsical camp of the 1960s. This reincarnated Joker was brought back to his original concept: a ruthless serial killer on equal footing with The Caped Crusader. He was also, for the first time ever, depicted as being completely and undeniably insane.
joker-70sIn 1975 The Joker was granted a stand-alone comic series by DC Comics – this would be the first time that a villain would be portrayed as the protagonist in a comic book serial. The series was short-lived, but The Joker’s popularity expanded rapidly. This would culminate in some of the most iconic graphic novels of the 1980s, spawning feature-length animated films, a reinvigoration of comic book culture, and one of the most ambitious films based on a comic book intellectual property, Tim Burton’s 1989 release of ‘Batman.’

(stay tuned for our exploration of The Joker’s depiction in the 1980s though Suicide Squad)
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Watching The World Burn

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Heath Ledger’s performance isn’t anything to be overshadowed by his untimely passing. Comic book film adaptations, even today (in the golden age of comic book feature-length films), have never been taken seriously. They are relegated to “special effects-driven extravaganza” status among Hollywood elites and film critics. Box office numbers are good, but even as revenues climb, most of the world doesn’t take Marvel and DC properties very seriously. They’re just comic books. They’re fun rides. They’re cash in the bank.

Christopher Nolan, while not the lone savior of the comic book film adaptation, certainly spear-headed this new wave. After the monumental failure of “Batman and Robin” and the forgettable bombs of “Daredevil” and “Green Lantern,” even moderately successful comic book properties like “The Crow” and “Blade” couldn’t take the stink out of Hollywood executive’s nostrils. And hell – who could blame them?

Alongside Bryan Singer’s take on the X-Men franchise and Jon Favreau’s infinitely accidental smash-hit success with the first “Iron Man” feature, the age of the Hollywood comic book feature has truly arrived. Part of this has to do with technology – the digital effects that make the extraordinary subjects of these films come to life – and part of this has to do with genuine investment in storytelling and world-building, something that graphic novels have done for decades and Hollywood executives have failed to do for an almost equal number of decades.

Well, the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ has arrived. Actually, it arrived about two months after “Iron Man.” And DC has been struggling to catch up with it’s own cinematic universe ever since, re-booting Superman not once, but twice, in the interim. Most of these stories are old-hat, but known largely to comic book collectors and fan-boys. Most of us, even knowing the stories, don’t decry these film adaptations, but rather look forward to seeing how the material will be interpreted and adapted for the screen.

We’ll be seeing the Caped Crusader (the world’s greatest detective), in not one, but two feature length films in the coming months. The chances are very good that the upcoming iteration of the Batman character will be somewhat different from the Christopher Nolan films that helped breathe life back into the character over the past ten years. If anything, it appears as though the upcoming films will adhere more firmly to the comic book origins of the character, which should make a lot of ‘true believers’ quite happy – but it may alienate fans of the Nolan-verse, who have little or no attachment to the Batman character before “Batman Begins” and it’s two sequels.

The problem with the DC properties is that the focus seems scattered. From the carnival and neon-light camp of “Batman and Robin” to the Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” trilogy, the shift in tone is undeniable. The Marvel camp has found a way to swing from the early expression of Bryan Singer’s “X-Men (2000)” into “Future Past (2014)” and “Apocalypse (2016)” without skipping a beat and without a radical change in tone. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is much more cohesive, while the DC Cinematic Universe is still struggling to find it’s identity.

Only time will tell if DC will be able to compete with the other heavy hitter on the block. For all we know, “Suicide Squad” and “Batman Versus Superman” will be the great wins of the year. Based on what we’ve seen from the two camps, and despite how powerful the characters from them are, my money is still on Marvel.

Excelsior!

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