‘Joker’ Is Getting Serious Buzz. Should You Take It Seriously?

‘Joker’ Is Getting Serious Buzz. Should You Take It Seriously?‘Joker’ Is Getting Serious Buzz. Should You Take It Seriously?

There is an image of Joaquin Phoenix as the title character of Todd Phillips’s Joker voguing against a backdrop of fiery street-level violence that is so fully, luridly beautiful that it feels like a culmination of a fictional life dating back decades: It works because give or take some I-Love-the-’80s art direction, the vision of villainy is archetypal and timeless. Within the Western comic-book/superhero realm, which is filled with retirements, resurrections, and repackagings, the Joker cuts a uniquely enduring figure. Even if you want to argue the relative merits of his various incarnations—to contrast Alex Ross’s on-the-page visions with Brian Bolland’s; to reconcile Cesar Romero’s painted-over-mustache with Heath Ledger’s Jack-o’-lantern rictus—the fact is that he always satisfies. It’s a truism that transcends time, social context, derivative rip-offs, and head-on satire. After seeing Suicide Squad, Comedy Bang! Bang!’s Scott Aukerman unleashed (and later deleted) one of the great deadpan tweets of all time, writing that “there’s almost something chilling about the Joker—someone who finds the thought of crime to be funny.” This parody of prosaic observation has a basic truth embedded in its overstatement; Aukerman mocks the idea of analyzing the character even as he gestures, sarcastically, towards something undeniable. In any era, Joker embodies the carnivalesque; his wide, complicitous grin is our mirror image. In the landmark 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke, Alan Moore went further than any of his predecessors (and set the bar for all followers) by trying ...
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