Undead Review: JOKER: stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

This article was originally written for and featured by KungFuMagazine.com on October 4, 2019. It’s still available to be read there. I’ve included it here for archival purposes & added more of my own comic-book geekery.

“It’s quite possible we may actually be looking at some kind of super-sanity here. A brilliant new modification of human perception. More suited to urban life at the end of the twentieth century.”

“Tell that to his victims.”

 Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989)

As though things weren’t bleak enough, D.C. comics is publishing Batman: The Three Jokers written by Geoff Johns with artw by Jason Fabok & Colorist Brad Anderson.

It looks, gruesome. No surprise considering the writer.

In this graphic novel, author Grant Morrison sought to explain the myriad characterizations of the Joker which have amused, shocked or terrified, since his initial appearance in BATMAN Issue 1 (Spring 1940).  Joker was created either by writer Bob Kane and artist Bill Finger or by artist Jerry Robinson or some collaboration between them. True to form, the very character’s origin is contentious and contradictory, with each of the above-mentioned talents offering their own particular take on how the Joker came to be. Seventy-nine years later, JOKER is possessed by a similar spirit, not adapting a specific comic story but drawing recognizable elements from several notable appearances. Along with the above-mentioned graphic novel, readers will recognize scenes from Frank Millar’s The Dark Knight Returns (February – June 1986) and Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke (March 1988).

illustration Dave McKean

Regardless of conflicting origin stories, it’s safe to say that inspiration for the character, beyond the playing card, was born of the silent melodrama THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928). Adapted from French poet Victor Hugo’s novel and directed by the German expressionist Paul Leni, a quick YouTube search will convince anyone that German actor Conrad Veidt might as well have been the first, and most sympathetic Joker to see the screen. Todd Phillips would probably disagree, claiming that appellation for the lead character of his first non-comedic movie JOKER, but there is a fine line between sympathetic and merely pathetic.

Still, the observant will recognize some of the visual flourishes drawn from that silent film if the memory of the first movie is fresh while watching the other. However, with the exception of Gotham high society, this movie is not set in the gilded age. Instead, the audience is treated to – or confronted with – a Gotham city straight out of the New York in the 70’s. For those who weren’t there, that includes plentiful yellow cabs, epic garbage strikes, super rats and Bernhard-Goetz-themed vigilantism. Think Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER (1976) and THE KING OF COMEDY (1982).

JOKER presents itself as an artifact of that era. Everything from typographical design and color pallette to the TV commercials seen in the background all serve to transport the viewer to that dismal age. Unfortunately, this is also true for the movie’s treatment of women and people of color. Of course, there are some Wall Street Chads and millionaire types who also go down, but there are some curious choices being made between visceral depictions of certain violence verses the more expressionist depiction of others. But this is a movie for the Halloween season so it’s not just the acts violence which disturb, but also the veneration of classic villain and socio-economic violence perpetrated on anyone not named Wayne. Was smoking really allowed in hospitals back then?

Curse of the Joker

This will be the fourth time DC comics’ Joker appears on film. Both Cesar Romero’s and Jack Nicolson’s interpretation of the character are well regarded, as is Heath Leger’s Oscar-winning performance. The Australian actor’s untimely death briefly led to online theorizing of a curse vaguely like the urban legend once associated with Superman actors. Such fancies were quickly forgotten once an actor survived the role connected with such a curse. Nicolson is doing fine.  And Jared Leto’s gold-plated toilet of a performance in SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) would only be a curse to audiences if reprised.

There was the tragic 2012 shooting at that midnight showing of THE DARK NIGHT RISES in Aurora Colorado. The complete opposite to some amusing creepypasta, this growing trend for aggrieved men expressing their tenuous grasp on society with gun violence is true horror. Family members of the shooting victims wrote an open letter the Warner Brothers in anticipation of this film, asking the company to do more to prevent gun violence. The company’s reply was to be expected. Todd Phillips’ reaction was not as closely vetted by lawyers thus offering this gem to an interview with the Associated Press “Quite frankly, if you do your own research about Aurora, that gentleman wasn’t even going in as Joker. That was misreported. His hair was dyed red.” In that same interview there was musing as to why JOHN WICK 3 (2019) was held to a different standard; a question answered with the tweet by comic writer Kurt Busiek “Because those fuckers killed his dog”. Hopefully someone that Phillips listen to took him aside and explained how he missed the point.

There might be another victim to the curse of the Joker – the Keysi Fighting Method. When Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS (2005) appeared before audiences there was much to be said about its then grounded and gritty approach to combat. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne was given some training montages, a cornerstone to many a martial arts movie, which fused Ninja training with sword work and Shaolin Plum Blossom Poles. In Bales own words “Yeah, we really wanted something that would look as though Bruce-Wayne-as-Batman had created his own style of fighting, something that was unique in style and look.”

Come its sequel, THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) gritty remakes were all over theaters and the Keysi Fighting Method became a hot topic for differentiating the shaky-cam fight scenes from the previous film with this one. Founder and Jeet Kune Do practitioner Justo Dieguez said “It is not meant to be a new style but a new way of thinking, an expression of self-defense where the challenge is to better understand how the mind and body function…” He would on to say “The Keysi Fighting Method is a very intuitive kind of martial art. It’s very effective, looks good, but also very, very brutal,” For a moment, KFM was the new thing, but like Author Fleck in JOKER, it crumbled under the spotlight. In his book, Martial Arts Studies, author Paul Bowman had this to say – “Justo Dieguez and Andy Norman split after The Dark Knight Rises, apparently over issues of marketing and pedagogical approach. Though Keysi propounded itself as “real,” in the wake of its surge in popularity following Keaton’s Batman, it found itself growing increasingly institutionalized in an attempt to capitalize on that opportunity, and soon grew to become a commodity-driven style just like so many styles that it initially opposed. It’s a shame really. Few martial arts styles get the benefit of extensive exposure in the DVD extras of a blockbuster film like Keysi did.”

Joker Qi Chuan

There are few villains more iconic than the Joker. As a fun-house mirror reflection of Batman, they contrast each other in almost every way, from color scheme to character traits they are each Yin to the other’s Yang: muscular verses thin, methodical verses chaotic, rich verses poor (sometimes), deadly verses not so deadly, driven verses driven mad. In some of the best cases, these distinctions are almost interchangeable, but there is one trait that tends to remain constant no matter the version. Batman studies martial arts while the Joker does not…until now.

With no fight coordinator credited, readers might wonder what stunt coordinator G.A. Aguilar brings to this movie outside his work with Daniel Wu on TOMB RAIDER (2018). Perhaps it was assigning Stephen Izzi as stunt double for Joaquin Phoenix. The man has worked on TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (2012), JOHN WICK (2014), JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (2015), DAREDEVIL (TV Series Season 2 – 2017), and SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017). While there’s a shockingly effective use of an improvised weapon, there is minimal in the way of fight scenes. Joker does take on multiple opponents at one point, but he should have read the November+December 2014 issue of KUNG FU TAI CHI for details on how. The fear of getting jumped or running into some bad guys in an alley pervades the movie in a way similar to many online martial arts discussions on practical street applications. Joaquin Phoenix’s character certainly doesn’t possess the situational awareness that typically forms someone’s first layer of defense. Instead the movie proves two important survival techniques good footwear and good cardio. Run like hell, clown shoes or not.

Left to his own devises Phoenix presents a Joker with disturbing physicality. Instead of the chicanery of Romaro’s and Nicolson’s roles or the breathy verbal ticks of Ledger, this Joker is manifest in his emaciated body movements. Legend has it that Taijiquan patriarch Zhang Sanfeng went a little crazy alone on Wudang Mountain perfecting his forms.  Proponents of Qigong will occasionally warn of improper practices leading to QiMadness. It’s doubtful Phoenix is aware of any of this, but in his embodying the character of JOKER and in shooting some meditative scenes you might see a dark reflection of a Tai Chi master in a dingy apartment rather than some picturesque mountain temple. To carry that metaphor one step further, that would make his disciples a mob of copycat killers with incoherent politics. And if that became a generations-long tradition, in theaters, there would be no laughing about it.

JOKER strives to leave you feeling complicit. True to the contradictory nature of the character’s origin and interpretations, this movie vilifies a caricature of modern-day concerns while also exalting the origin of a comic book villain. It’s a new thing for a comic book adaptation to come off as disturbing. To the extent that this was intentional, it’s worth seeing, as long as you’re okay with being up-close to some ugliness.

In the time since the original writing of this piece I think I’ve seen the movie maybe two and a half more times. But like me, you also been first row to the slow motion societal collapse the film-makers might have imagined they were warning us of. So, would we be more sympathetic to clown-mask wearing protesters these days? I dunno
Thankfully, I know of no-one who’s been shot dead while hosting a t.v. show. That’s a small victory, disturbingly specific, but how’s that for Holloween Spirit?

Can I interest you in my new webcomic ZONG Q? it’s a little more upbeat, promise.