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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How Long Was ‘Batman v Superman’ In The Works?

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From the ‘Wilhelm Scream’ to things like Hitchcock’s cameos – often little inside jokes between Hollywood director friends and family – so-called “Easter Eggs” have always been a part of cinematic storytelling. In the age of the internet and the renaissance of the film trailer, super-fans and comic-conventioneers now fill YouTube with theories, frame-by-frame analyses, and share the fun details they’ve uncovered in highly anticipated IP’s. In many ways, fandom has exploded, and audiences are enjoying greater inclusivity in the cinematic worlds they love.

Before this practice really took off, though, audiences really had to look. Sometimes clues were right out in the open, and sometimes they were menacingly hard to identify. But you can rest assured that the comic book fan – not unlike science fiction fanatics – are the ones who search the longest and the hardest. Consider “I Am Legend,” a film that was released in 2007, almost ten years before “Batman V Superman” hit the silver screen. It’s in an establishing shot in the early minutes of the film, as Robert Neville (portrayed by Will Smith) walks through the post-apocalyptic ruins of Times Square.

As clear as day, what do we see at the top of the frame? A “Batman V Superman” billboard.

I discovered that a few people, obviously, have already noticed this and it’s been making the rounds on social media, but this sure was news to me. According to the sources that I trust (namely comicbook.com and collider.com), ‘I Am Legend” screenwriter Akiva Goldsman wrote an early draft “Batman V Superman,” although that draft was later rejected. This Easter Egg was an early concept of what Goldsman and director Francis Lawrence thought a “Batman V Superman” promo piece ought to look like.

It’s always fun to be a fan.

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Harleen Quinzel – Suicide Squad

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Get ready for Halloween – we’re going to be seeing a lot of Harley Quinn costumes.

There’s nothing wrong with that. This is one of the most unique characters in the DC world, a precocious student of psychology who falls victim to The Joker’s manipulations. In many ways, her story arc is a parable that mirrors abusive relationships; she relentlessly pursues acceptance from an abusive partner in a way that many real-world victims of emotional abuse seek acceptance from their abuser.

Harleen Quintzel, on the surface, seems like little more than a pornographic film star – hypersexualized and weak. That’s how she was initially written – the hapless victim of a masterful psychological tormentor. I think one of the reasons this character has captured the imagination of so many fans recently, however, is because, beneath the sexual facade, she possesses genuine agency. As penned by co-creator Paul Dini, she is a preternaturally brilliant psychologist who falls under the spell of The Joker. She isn’t a mutant or a meta-human. Her superpower isn’t superhuman strength or extraordinary skill with any kind of weapon; her talent lies in identifying and capitalizing on emotional weakness.

Not easy to portray on the silver screen, unfortunately.

But the relationship between Harley Quinn and The Joker was, undeniably, one of the most enjoyable elements of David Ayer’s ‘Suicide Squad,’ and rumor has it that a stand-alone feature-length film is in the works. Hopefully we’ll see more from Dini’s original story, a comic book titled ‘Mad Love,’ as the flagging Warner Brothers Studios continue to struggle to catch up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Harley isn’t just a hot chick in revealing clothing – she’s a viper, whose superpower is her devotion to a madman.

I hope that you, like me, are looking forward to seeing this character evolve in the burgeoning DC Cinematic Universe. Yes, there have been plenty of misfires, and I think that ‘Suicide Squad’ was a big swing and a miss. I’m a little gun-shy, too, after ‘Man of Steel’ and ‘Batman V Superman.’ But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of material to work with. And the new Robin – ahem, sorry, I mean Joker – is going to be a fun new character to follow.

You fan-boys know what I’m talking about.

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The New Joker – Scarface Juggalo

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It will be impossible for fans of Batman not to compare Jaret Leto’s version of The Joker to the monumental performance by Heath Ledger. What a lot of people don’t realize, of course, is that Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger concocted their anarchic Joker out of thin air; their interpretation was deeply expressive in that cinematic context, but wasn’t necessarily wedded to any of the comic book versions of the character.

Neo-goth gangster – that’s what we’re seeing with this new Joker. A hybridized malcontent, a Marilyn Manson/Bugsy Siegel Frankenstein monster. In the three days that ‘Suicide Squad’ has been out, there has already been a tremendous amount of backlash. Rather than make unfair comparisons, I’m inclined to embrace this new interpretation. Low ratings and abysmal Rotten Tomato scores, these DC movies are still huge moneymakers. It’s easy to be gun-shy with these last two efforts – but when the meager ten minutes of screen-time (approximately) allotted to Jared Leto’s Joker are widely considered the best part of ‘Suicide Squad,’ I think it’s a safe bet that we’ll be seeing more from the criminally insane harlequin.

And pay attention to the fan theories. I think there might be quite a bit more to this Joker than we realize.

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Another ‘Suicide Squad’ Trailer

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For all of the wailing about Batman V Superman, that movie is still a freight train that is on it’s way to hitting the one billion dollar mark. Sure, it was an expensive production and it has proved to be less profitable than Warner Brothers had hoped, but the movie’s still a success. The most vehement critics point to a longer-than-necessary run-time (clocking in at two and a half hours) and a darker-than-necessary tone. These are legitimate criticisms – Superman is supposed to be fun, and this film seemed overly-focused on dragging the Man Of Steel into ‘brooding Batman’ territory, and it simply didn’t work. The film is largely humorless, lacking the kind of heart that audiences had obviously hoped for.

The DC Cinematic Universe is not as well-oiled as Marvel, but the studio still has plenty of opportunity to course correct. The only concern is the very real possibility that they over-correct. For instance, a well-sourced rumor has begun to circulate the Warner is now re-shooting certain scenes from the upcoming Suicide Squad feature to make it more ‘light’ and ‘funny.’ These kinds of last-minutes changes do not augur well for the franchise. They aren’t ‘inspired’ changes. They’re ‘fearful’ changes. Hopefully this won’t spell disaster for what looks to be a pretty exciting ride.

The newest trailer dropped yesterday, and it’s fun as hell. Check it out HERE.

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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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A Word About Dr. Quinzel

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Any comic book aficionado or perennial nerd – every video-game, graphic-novel, pop-culture freak – can tell you what they think about this character and why. Most of us can tell you which version of the character we were first introduced to, and which iteration we prefer, from the after school cartoon to the decidedly more gritty and demented video game character from the award-winning “Arkham” series of Batman video games.

The more recent comic book and video game depictions of the character aren’t just grittier, but also much more sexualized, and this appears to have informed the direction of the character for the new “Suicide Squad” film. This makes sense for a film targeting a teenage and adult male audience. The character is perfectly tailored to play the seductive role while maintaining her dignity; complete insanity can be fun that way. What’s interesting and attractive about the character goes beyond sex appeal, though, which is probably one of the main reasons why so many people are interested in her. She isn’t a two-dimensional comic foil in a tight outfit. Or, I should say, she isn’t just a comic foil in a tight outfit. Her character is fully formed, she has agency and motivation, and this elevates her from many of the cinematic adaptations of female super-heroes and super-villains. There aren’t any one-liners to pigeonhole this one.

What we might also consider is that Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel isn’t a throwback to the 1950s, or any other earlier era of antiquated Americana. Many comic book stories from the early days of Marvel and DC weren’t very kind to women and their portrayal in popular media. This one is very original. Harley Quinn – a pretty ‘on-the-nose’ pun on the word ‘harlequin’ – was created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm back in 1991. Her first appearance was in an episode of “Batman: The Animated Series” in September of 1992.

The animated series was undeniably for kids, but it adopted a wonderfully dark tone and took it’s subject matter seriously. The show was illustrated in muted tones and was heavily influenced by art-deco design. The stories were also genre-defining, presenting conflicted characters, gothic atmosphere, and emotionally intelligent plots. The production team respected its audience even though most of them were children; this might explain why the series is still considered relevant today. It’s one of those timeless classics that’ll likely extend much further than it’s original run. Heck, it already has.

In the animated series, Harley Quinn isn’t given an origin story. She just appears as an obvious, humorous female sidekick to The Joker, who disregards her extreme admiration and devotion to him. With a thick Jersey accent and an almost innocent, bubbly desire to please the man of her dreams, much of the humor comes from her obliviousness. She scarcely seems to recognize how psychotic the object of her affection is. This worked well in the cartoon format, with a characterization that remained consistent, more or less, throughout the series.

The origin story didn’t appear until the 1994 graphic novel in the “Batman Adventures” series, titled “Mad Love.” We learn that the good Dr. Quinzel began as an ambitious and uniquely brilliant young psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum. Through a drawn-out attempt to psychoanalyze The Joker, she is eventually manipulated by the madman into setting him free. It’s a Stockholm-Syndrome-esque turn-of-events, and the doctor is subsequently twisted into one of The Joker’s puppets. The narrative is under-girded by Harley’s intellectual gifts and her emotional frailty, conflicting characteristics that make her a fascinating victim  – she’s both dangerous and vulnerable. The story was widely praised and won the Eisner and Harvey Awards for Best Single Issue Comic of the Year.

From the look of things, this origin story will not be a part of the new “Suicide Squad” film. The origin story may be hinted at, but it won’t be a focus of the film’s narrative. Not enough is revealed by the movie trailers alone to cast judgement, but commentators and fans appear to be split regarding this new incarnation of Harley Quinn. Some say the look is perfect, others wish there would be a more true-to-comic presence. Others are concerned that she doesn’t have that thick Jersey accent that helped define her cartoon countenance (an understandable critique when we watch the trailer and hear the classic ‘joker laugh’ from actor Jared Leto, a clear homage to Mark Hamill’s voice acting in the animated series).

The only way to know if the new Harley is worth a damn, of course, is to buy the ticket, take the ride, and see if works. I, for one, am optimistic that this is going to be a fun ride.

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