What makes the Joker a popular villain? Digging deeper

Despite all the awards season buzz it received, I still haven’t seen the 2019 “Joker” movie. And I actually don’t ever plan to.

Geek confession time: I really, really don’t like the Joker as a character. I don’t care for any version I’ve seen on screen. That has nothing to do with the actors or the quality of the performances; the Joker has just never appealed to me.

So, you may be wondering why a person who hasn’t seen the latest “Joker” movie and who doesn’t even like the character is writing an article digging deeper into this topic.

Even though the character doesn’t work for me personally, I do think it’s fascinating that he has emerged as the Batman villain with the most enduring popularity over the years. Why does he intrigue people, and what does this character teach us about the world around us?

Who is the Joker?

There are a variety of villain archetypes in fiction, and I tend to prefer the ones who are complex and at least somewhat sympathetic (i.e. Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker, Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, Magneto, Erik Killmonger, etc.). Many times, their actions and their anger are driven by pain from their pasts. This doesn’t excuse their actions, of course, but there are so many layers to these characters that provide plenty of material to dig deeper into.

I’ve never seen the Joker as a particularly deep villain, although maybe that’s just me? To me, he’s really only interesting as a foil to Batman; he’s a dark, twisted crimelord who loves violence and villainy for its own sake. His unpredictable, sadistic nature is what makes him such a terrifying opponent.

I believe this unpredictable nature is also part of why the Joker is so popular as a character; people are intrigued by the fact his main goal is chaos, and it’s hard to guess what he’ll do next. In films like “The Dark Knight,” he pushes Batman to his limits and causes Bruce Wayne to reflect on what it means to be a hero and how far he’s willing to go in order to save Gotham.

The 2019 “Joker” film takes a slightly different approach, introducing us instead to Arthur Fleck, the man who will one day become the Joker. Arthur suffers throughout the movie — he gets beaten up, feels lonely, struggles financially, and is rejected by society.

Yet instead of working through his emotions in a healthy way, Arthur gives in to his violent impulses and goes on a murderous rampage that inspires riots in Gotham.

The gritty, violent film drew lots of Hollywood awards season buzz, including a “Best Actor” Oscar for Joaquin Phoenix…but it also inspired quite a bit of controversy.

What is ‘Joker’ saying about the real world?

Part of the reason why I decided not to see the new “Joker” movie is that I was very skeptical of a story that might be trying to make the Joker character seem too sympathetic. A standalone Joker story of this style is one that must be handled with a LOT of care and nuance. I wasn’t certain the filmmakers would be able to handle heavy themes like mental illness and societal isolation/rejection effectively within this film.

I’ve heard both very positive and very negative feedback about “Joker,” and at the very least, I’m glad it IS inspiring some deeper conversations about responsibility in storytelling.

In her review for Time magazine, film critic Stephanie Zacharek writes that yes, “Joker” may have made its villain too sympathetic: “[The Joker] inspires chaos and anarchy — in addition to being a murderer, plain and simple — but the movie makes it look like he’s starting a revolution, where the rich are taken down, the poor get everything they need and deserve, and the sad guys who can’t get a date become heroes. Is he a villain or a spokesperson for the downtrodden? The movie wants it both ways. Its doublespeak feels dishonest.”

However, other critics have expressed more positive opinions. USA Today entertainment writer Brian Truitt says, “While the audience initially feels for his plight, [the Joker] isn’t seen as a sympathetic figure once he begins making questionable moral decisions. Instead, “Joker” at its core is a cautionary tale about how we treat others and the potentially combustible situation that arises when people are made to feel different rather than welcomed.”

Maybe one day I will change my mind about watching “Joker,” but in the meantime, I hope fans continue to discuss this film, what it’s trying to say about the world, and whether that message is ultimately good or not.

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The Story Geeks blogger Ashley Pauls responds with an additional perspective to the Story Geeks podcast. [Listen Here: AppleStitcherPodbean]