.

  • Written by Ari Mattes, Lecturer in Media Studies, University of Notre Dame Australia
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (2019): the Joker's humour-filled rebellion has typically contrasted with Batman’s dour moral self-righteousness. Warner Bros

The joker, the trickster, the jester, the provocateur - there is a rich cultural history of these roles going back at least as far as Greek mythology’s Hermes.

One of the most famous jester figures of the modern age is the Joker, who made his debut in the first issue of Batman comics in 1940.

The first comic book appearance of The Joker. Wikipedia

As Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker offers a reprieve from the less interesting narcissistic, angst-ridden histrionics of the hero. The Joker’s punishment of society is often comical, and his relentlessly ironic spirit of rebellion contrasts with Batman’s dour moral self-righteousness.

The Joker is funny, cool, and refreshingly intelligent. He is also back in theatres next month in the aptly named Joker, which this week won Best Film at the Venice Film Festival.

The cultural provocateur

In a deck of cards the joker is (most of the time) formally useless. The two joker cards are omitted from most games, yet the deck is incomplete without them.

The joker is a necessary non-card, the exception that glues together the rest of the pack. A card of shifting rank and use, the joker offers a spark of improvisation within a rigidly hierarchical order.

Culturally, the joker reaffirms the social order through his lampooning of it, turning socially significant places into spaces of carnival and clowning, revealing the comical and absurd cracks in a spirit of anarchic play.

The card offers ‘a spark of improvisation’. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Yet this role has always been intimately tied up with the institutions it appears to subvert. The court jester, for example, functioned in part to legitimise the social order. He maintained a performative relationship with the people, but his acts of subversion of power reaffirmed its very boundaries in the first place.

There are many of these self-styled “maverick” figures in global politics today, who strategically position themselves as somehow outside of the power structures they in fact serve to reproduce.

The words and actions of such provocateurs flirting with the boundaries of social good taste and etiquette should always be taken with a grain of salt. Power can reproduce itself in multiple ways -including through its apparent critique.


Read more: Prime Minister Boris Johnson: the jester has taken the throne


1989: Wackiness with a nasty edge

Within the Batman franchise, the most effective characterisations of the Joker have him tottering dangerously between comedic whimsy and psychopathic sadism – that liminal space in which, arguably, all great comedy occurs.

Perhaps the greatest actor to portray the role is Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). Nicholson’s Joker embraces the wackiness of Cesar Romero’s earlier interpretation in the 1960s TV series but adds a genuinely nasty edge, and this combination of colourful zaniness with lethal brutality makes for a disturbing experience for the viewer.

“I make art until someone dies,” Nicholson’s Joker says to journalist Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) in an art museum after he and his goons have defaced several pieces whilst bopping along to Prince.

“See, I am the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist.”

By the late 1980s, Nicholson, appearing as the perfect sleazeball in films like The Witches of Eastwick (1987), was the man behind some of the most hated characters in cinema. He was, thus, perfectly cast as the Joker – it helps that the Joker’s demonically twisted face isn’t that far from his own.

Nicholson received first billing in Batman and, as Roger Ebert commented, the viewer’s tendency is to root for the Joker over Batman. It is this ambiguity that makes Burton’s film so compelling.

2008: Why so serious?

Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight (2008), for which he received a posthumous Best Suporting Actor Oscar, was virtuosically full-bodied. Ledger is eerily, vitally intense. Yet the famous question he asks in the film – “Why so serious?” – could easily be turned back on Ledger’s own performance.

Ledger endows the role with a psychological realism that, paradoxically, makes for a less interesting (and less complex) experience for the viewer than more ambiguous portrayals.

The uncomfortable mixture of the comical and the sadistic is what makes the character perennially appealing – we never know which Joker we will be getting at any time. Ledger, by making the character “real”, turns him into, merely, a rather humourless creep.

2017: Caught in a bad bromance

The symbiotic nature of the relationship between Batman and the Joker usually remains unexplored. Wonderfully, The Lego Batman Movie (2017) makes this relationship centre stage.

The film follows the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) as he tries to get Batman (Will Arnett) to admit that he needs the Joker as much as the Joker needs him. Batman refuses to acknowledge the bond the two share throughout most of the film; when he finally does, their bromance can fully mature.

The Joker and Batman – the original couple. Warner Bros

2019: A mental deterioration

The latest version of the Joker is played by Joaquin Phoenix, an actor whose career has oscillated between the absurdly intense (Walk the Line) and the disarmingly clownish (I’m Still Here). Todd Phillips’ film promises to revitalise the character in an origin story following down-on-his-luck comedian/clown Arthur Fleck who transforms into the Joker as his mental health deteriorates.

Early reviews have praised the film’s representation of the current political landscape. Time Out calls it a “nightmarish vision of late-era capitalism”, and IndieWire suggests it is “about the dehumanising effects of a capitalistic system that greases the economic ladder”.

In the context of the incel movement - in which men rally around the perception of their own unjust victimhood - a narrative of a violent folk hero forming through the failure of his dreams of celebrity glory seems strikingly poignant.

The frequency with which mass shootings now occur in America (in 2012 James Holmes killed 12 people at a screening of The Dark Night in Aurora, Colorado) has also lead to concerns about how the story will be read. The same Indiewire review criticised the film as “a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels”.

Given the necessity for a law and order stalwart against which the Joker can launch his antics, it is notable that there is no Batman in this film. Will the Joker be able to sustain a feature-length narrative on his own?

Send in the clowns

Clownish figures seem to be becoming the new normal in professional politics. In April, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president of the Ukraine. The UK’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, has been dubbed “Bojo” by the press – and they’re not just alluding to his name.

Much of the popularity of Trump has emerged from his presentation of himself as an outsider to the elite willing to lampoon and ridicule power - never mind that, as a rich New York City businessman, he is power personified.

The broader significance of this phenomenon is a little trickier to diagnose. It makes sense that, in an age when everything is valued in terms of its entertainment function (and when most people are aware of the common sleights of hand of the mainstream media they consume), clownish reality TV stars, provocateur comedians and gregariously sleazy entrepreneurs would amass unprecedented levels of power in the public domain.

Politicians entertain us by donning the outfit of the jester and making fun of politicians.

Perhaps this reflects a more widespread public cynicism regarding professional politics, or perhaps it is simply a reflection of a desire to be perpetually distracted by entertaining clowns.

At any rate, the film should be a hoot to watch.

Joker will be released in Australia October 3.

Ari Mattes does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Authors: Ari Mattes, Lecturer in Media Studies, University of Notre Dame Australia

Read more http://theconversation.com/the-jokers-origin-story-comes-at-a-perfect-moment-clowns-define-our-times-123009

Greens' challenge aptly described by Paddy Manning, but with no solutions in sight

Paddy Manning’s excellent account of the Australian Greens will not be the last word on Australia’s most successful third party, but will doubtless remain important and influential for man...

Marc Hudson, Researcher, University of Manchester - avatar Marc Hudson, Researcher, University of Manchester

Explainer: what happens when magnetic north and true north align?

Very rarely, depending on where you are in the world, your compass can actually point to true north. https://www.shutterstock.comAt some point in recent weeks, a once-in-a-lifetime event happened f...

Paul Wilkes, Senior Research Geophysicist, CSIRO - avatar Paul Wilkes, Senior Research Geophysicist, CSIRO

Politics with Michelle Grattan: Jim Chalmers on the need to change economic course

Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers says it’s time to change Australia’s economic course “in a responsible and affordable way which doesn’t jeopardise the surplus”. Chalmers p...

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra - avatar Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Reality slippages and narcissistic stereotyping - watching Content, a TV show made for smart phones

Lucy spends much of her life living through her phone screen – what happens when we are let into this vantage point? Mia Forrest/ABCLucy (Charlotte Nicado) is a pink-haired millennial having a q...

Emma Maguire, Lecturer in English and Creative Writing, James Cook University - avatar Emma Maguire, Lecturer in English and Creative Writing, James Cook University

You can help track 4 billion bogong moths with your smartphone – and save pygmy possums from extinction

Healesville Sanctuary, Werribee Open Range ZooEach year, from September to mid-October, the tiny and very precious mountain pygmy-possums arise from their months of hibernation under the snow and beg...

Sally Sherwen, Director Wildlife Conservation and Science, Zoos Victoria, University of Melbourne - avatar Sally Sherwen, Director Wildlife Conservation and Science, Zoos Victoria, University of Melbourne

Is vigorous exercise safe during the third trimester of pregnancy?

Vigorous exercise is safe while pregnant, even in the final trimester. But if you don't feel up to it, lighter exercise is beneficial too. From shutterstock.comExpectant mothers receive an avalanche o...

Kassia Beetham, Exercise Physiology Lecturer, Australian Catholic University - avatar Kassia Beetham, Exercise Physiology Lecturer, Australian Catholic University

Climate change is the defining issue of our time – we're giving it the attention it deserves

The Conversation has joined more than 250 news outlets around the world to focus on climate change coverage. We provide 100% evidence-based coverage on climate change. Stay informed BY subscribing to...

Nicole Hasham, Section Editor: Energy + Environment - avatar Nicole Hasham, Section Editor: Energy + Environment

Australia to attend climate summit empty-handed despite UN pleas to ‘come with a plan'

The Port Kembla industrial area in NSW. Industry emissions can be cut by improving efficiency, shifting to electricity and closing old plants. Dean Lewins/AAPThis story is part of Covering Climate Now...

Frank Jotzo, Director, Centre for Climate and Energy Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University - avatar Frank Jotzo, Director, Centre for Climate and Energy Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

'Climigration': when communities must move because of climate change

Flood damage in Bundaberg, Queensland, in 2013. Most communities are at some risk from extreme events, but repeated disasters raise the question of relocation. srv007/Flickr, CC BY-NCThis story is par...

Tony Matthews, Senior Lecturer in Urban and Environmental Planning, Griffith University - avatar Tony Matthews, Senior Lecturer in Urban and Environmental Planning, Griffith University

As Scott Morrison heads to Washington, the US-Australia alliance is unlikely to change

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-NDPrime Minister Scott Morrison’s official visit to Washington this week carries some prestige. It is just the second “official visit” (includin...

David Smith, Senior Lecturer in American Politics and Foreign Policy, Academic Director of the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney - avatar David Smith, Senior Lecturer in American Politics and Foreign Policy, Academic Director of the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney

Apple's iPhone 11 Pro wants to take your laptop's job (and price tag)

What a week it has been in the Apple core. In recent days the tech giant has released a litany of products, including new phones, watches, tablets, and more. The big-ticket items are clearly the new ...

Andrew Maxwell, Senior Lecturer, University of Southern Queensland - avatar Andrew Maxwell, Senior Lecturer, University of Southern Queensland

A loaf of bread and a packet of pills: how supermarket pharmacies could change the way we shop

Supermarket pharmacies have been around in the US, UK and mainland Europe for years. But will Australia follow? from www.shutterstock.comOn the way home, you wander into the supermarket for a loaf of ...

Gary Mortimer, Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour, Queensland University of Technology - avatar Gary Mortimer, Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour, Queensland University of Technology

Bushwalking and bowls in schools: we need to teach kids activities they'll go on to enjoy

Schools could use bushwalking as an activity and link it to lessons in other subjects such as geography and science. Shutterstock/Monkey Business ImagesPhysical education is one of the most popular su...

Vaughan Cruickshank, Program Director – Health and Physical Education, Maths/Science, Faculty of Education, University of Tasmania - avatar Vaughan Cruickshank, Program Director – Health and Physical Education, Maths/Science, Faculty of Education, University of Tasmania

Picking The Right Crystal Yoni Egg: Tips And Instructions

When you are ready to pick your own crystal yoni egg, you need to decide what you will use it for, how big it should be, and how many you need. Some people who would like to use the egg because they...

News Company - avatar News Company

View from The Hill: Morrison's right hand man dispenses with niceties in lecturing big business

The Morrison government appears to be seething with anger at big business. At least, that’s the impression you get from a lecturing, hectoring speech delivered this week by Ben Morton, who&rsquo...

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra - avatar Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

New musical has enough warmth, witty lines and catchy tunes to win its own fangirls

Sharon Millerchip, Ayesha Madon, James Majoos, Chika Ikogwe, and Kimberley Hodgson in Fangirls at the Brisbane Festival. Photo: Stephen HenryComedy often succeeds where tragedy fails. Fangirls, the...

Alastair Blanshard, Paul Eliadis Chair of Classics and Ancient History Deputy Head of School, The University of Queensland - avatar Alastair Blanshard, Paul Eliadis Chair of Classics and Ancient History Deputy Head of School, The University of Queensland

Polycystic kidney disease, the most common genetic kidney disorder you've probably never heard of

If one parent has ADPKD, their child has a one in two chance of getting it. From shutterstock.comAutosomal-dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD) is the most common genetic kidney disorder, and th...

Karen Dwyer, Deputy Head, School of Medicine, Deakin University - avatar Karen Dwyer, Deputy Head, School of Medicine, Deakin University

VIDEO: Michelle Grattan on Gladys Liu and the government's plan to drug-test welfare recipients

Liberal MP Gladys Liu has beeb the centre of much heated debate in federal politics this week. AAP/Lukas CochMichelle Grattan speaks with University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor and President Professo...

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra - avatar Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Bupa's nursing home scandal is more evidence of a deep crisis in regulation

Australia's Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission found 45 of Bupa's 72 nursing homes failed health and safety standards. In 22 homes the health and safety of residents was deemed at 'serious risk...

Benedict Sheehy, Associate professor, University of Canberra - avatar Benedict Sheehy, Associate professor, University of Canberra

Sick and Tired of Your Dead End Job? Try Teaching!

Tired of the same old grind at the office? Want an opportunity to impact lives both in your community and around the world? Do you love to travel and have new experiences? Teaching English is the perfect job for you! All you need is a willingness to ...

News Company - avatar News Company

The Impact of an Aging Population in Australia

There’s an issue on the horizon that Australia needs to prepare for. The portion of elderly citizens that make up the country’s overall population is increasing, and we might not have the infrastructure in place to support this. Australians h...

News Company - avatar News Company

LifeStyle

Picking The Right Crystal Yoni Egg: Tips And Instructions

When you are ready to pick your own crystal yoni egg, you need to decide what you will use it for...

Top 5 Tips for Paddleboarding In Whitewater

Paddleboarding can be relaxing as well as intense. If you occasionally want to do something differen...

3 Most Promising Career Occupations for Graduates in 2019

Studying in college is a great adventure which opens up lots of career opportunities. Yet, at times...

SCARmed Silicone Gel

AUSTRALIA LEADS WAY WITH ALL-NEW RAPID-DRYING SILICONE GEL WORKING WONDERS IN SCAR REDUCTION   ...