MADISON – The film “Joker” is based on a comic book, but its themes are serious and disturbing.
Batman first appeared in comic books in 1939. The Joker debuted in 1940 and quickly became the Caped Crusader’s archenemy. Cesar Romero played him for laughs in the 1960s live-action Batman television show and movie.
Since Warner Bros. started making Batman movies in 1989, the Joker has returned to his comic book roots as a psychopathic killer. Interestingly, all four of the actors who have played the Joker most recently are considered method actors. The method uses training and rehearsal techniques to produce a “sincere” performance. Subtlety is clearly not one of the techniques used to play a super villain.
-- Jack Nicholson played the Joker in “Batman” and earned a lot of laughs because he had most of the best lines and got to dance to some catchy Prince songs. Nicholson earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination and an estimated $100 million for his efforts.
-- The late Heath Ledger played a scary Joker in 2008’s “The Dark Knight.” Ledger died of a drug overdose six months before the movie’s premiere. Ledger won a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but he didn’t have to return for sequels.
-- Jared Leto was the Joker in “Suicide Squad” (2016) for about 10 minutes. Most of his scenes were cut. Leto won a Best Actor Oscar, but that was for “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013), not for being a comic book super villain. Leto is one of those method actors who insist on remaining in character while making a film, even if the cameras aren’t rolling. This mainly antagonized the other people working on the movie. Co-star Will Smith even said he had never met Leto.
-- Joaquin Phoenix plays the title role in “Joker,” which was released Oct. 4. Unlike the other films, this is a Batman movie where we never see Batman. Instead it’s an origin story for the Joker, but it’s not the same Joker we’ve seen before
In 1981, Arthur Fleck is a chain-smoking party clown and wannabe stand-up comedian living in chaotic, crime-ridden and crumbling Gotham City. He goes to a city mental hospital to obtain the medication he needs to treat his mental illnesses.
A friend who is a mental health professional says “Joker” presents a realistic picture of the causes and effects of mental illness. It also offers a depressingly accurate glimpse of what can happen when public money for treating the mentally ill is cut.
At the top of the heap in decaying Gotham City is Thomas Wayne, a Trunpesque billionaire who wants to become mayor. He describes people like Fleck who can’t envy the successful as “clowns.” At least he doesn’t call them “deplorables.”
As the city beats him down more every day, Arthur wearily returns to the deteriorating apartment he shares with his mother, a former Wayne employee. The highlight of their day is watching a TV talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro). Murray is Arthur’s idol but he contributes to the descent of Arthur – and Gotham City – into madness.
“Joker” serves as homage to two of DeNiro’s best films, “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “The King of Comedy” (1983). In all of these films, the viewer can’t always be sure whether what’s happening is real or one of the main character’s delusions.
Before “Joker” was released, Phoenix and director/co-writer Todd Phillips said the film was intended as a one shot and no sequels were planned. Then Phoenix became an early contender for the Best Actor Oscar.
More importantly, “Joker,” which was made for about $70 million – cheap for a comic book movie -- earned $750 million at the worldwide box office.
Who says crime doesn’t pay?
Charles Corder has been a writer and editor for more than 40 years. Contact him at email@example.com