Is the Clown Prince of Crime anything special without his heroic nemesis?
No. It’s exciting to see the Joker onscreen because of the problems he creates for Batman. How will Batman escape this death trap, or foil this scheme, or inspire the citizens of Gotham to rise above the fear and cruelty that the Joker would reduce them to? Without the Caped Crusader to combat him, the Joker is just another violent man who finds himself funnier than anyone else does. Don’t we have enough of those? (Of course, since evil is but a privation of goodness, Batman is less dependent on the Joker. He has a whole rogues gallery of foils, plus his sidekicks and fellow crimefighters. The Joker may need Batman, but only in the Joker’s head is the reverse also true.)
The mystique of the Joker, as a character, is his refusal to be explained. It’s not, as is sometimes stated, that he has no origin. Heath Ledger’s version of the character recounts multiple origin stories, and perhaps one is true. The comic book Joker has the serviceable origin of falling into a vat of chemicals. The thing is, of course, that none of these “bad days” are enough to make it reasonable for someone to dress up as a clown and commit high-concept acts of art terrorism. The incommensurate nature of his evil isn’t a shortcoming in psychological realism, it’s a choice to make him an archetype of disorder. Making a film about the Joker’s life as a humiliated and downtrodden everyman is a little like writing a prequel to Othello where Iago’s malignancy is explained by his life as a sad-sack foot soldier. It misses the point.
Hollywood needs to learn a lesson, and it won’t learn it if films like Joker rake in profits. The lesson is that evil is not all that interesting. Far more heat than light is generated by films about serial killers, child molesters, and assorted doers of monstrous evil. Controversy may create cash, but the artistic dividends are negligible. People who do evil are often unhappy and unfulfilled in other areas of life. But that doesn’t explain their evil (plenty of people are sad, lonely, or downtrodden without becoming spree killers!) and it quite obviously doesn’t excuse their evil. All it does is offer the ugly little fantasy that maybe doing something really terrible is the way to put your name on the map.
Read the whole piece at First Things here.