Sunday Morning at the Movies: The Joker

In 1989, the superhero movie was still a minority genre and so Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman needed no modifiers to distinguish it from other superhero movies. Like the playful romp Superman from a decade earlier, it was unadulterated action entertainment with bright lines separating the good guys from the bad guys.

The 1989 Batman needed a villain, which it had in the form of Jack Nicolson’s Joker who was delightfully smarmy and whose motivations can be summed up in his evil catch phrase, “Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” This Joker had a painted on smile, but he seemed to actually delight in his evil, which is a world away from the 2019 film The Joker. In Todd Phillip’s recent incarnation of the character, laughter is hard to distinguish from crying and is a manifestation of mental illness. The weird forced laughter of Arthur Fleck, the man who becomes the Joker, is present throughout the 2019 film.

In both the 1989 and 2019 films, there is a character named Bruce Wayne, and as a child, he witnesses the murder of his parents on a Gotham sidewalk. His dad, Thomas Wayne, falls first. Next, his mother is robbed of her pearl necklace, and then, though she is not resisting, is gunned down as well. 

It is here, in the two identical depictions of the same cold-blooded murder of Thomas Wayne and his wife that one can see the evolution of political thought about public behavior in the United States. In 1989, Thomas Wayne was an innocent man murdered by common criminals; in 2019 Thomas Wayne is a rich asshole who deserves to die.

The differences in this two depictions of the same act reflect the cultural change in the United States in those intervening 30 years.

In 1989, the United State had just completed one of the great transformations common in US history; we had shrugged of the malaise of the 1970s and emerged a confident growth-oriented nation again. Batman opened on June 23 of 1989 and the Berlin Wall fell on November 9th of the same year.

And yet, New York was still in the darkest days of crime and violence during that period. It was not until a decade later that the city simply ceased tolerating anti-social behavior and crime began to fall. The theory of ‘broken windows policing’ is widely credited with saving the city, and it is based on the idea that if you don’t enforce codes of behavior for small legal infractions, and you don’t enforce minor symbols of order, the forces of disorder are emboldened. The result is the outright murder of the law abiding by the criminal element that was always latent.

The Joker is set in 1981, and Gotham is still a cesspool of criminality.

In a sense, Gotham has been synonymous with New York City, but not the New York of a Disney themed Times Square or a falling crime rate. Gotham is an American city full of criminality. It represents the phenomenon of human squalor in a gritty urban setting with a distinctly American flavor. In this setting there are the citizens who are living and working normal lives, and they vary greatly. Some are young, some are old, some are rich, and some are poor. What they have in common is that they are not criminals.

Thomas Wayne and his son Bruce represent the successful urban dweller; wealthy, well dressed, patrons of the arts, family people, youngish, married, and involved in the leadership of the city. They participate in the activities particular to Gotham, which often means theater. A night out on the town is a celebration of the wonders of modernity. In both films, when Thomas Wayne is murdered, it is as he is celebrating the success of the city. He is off hours and enjoying an evening with his family.

So, even though Gotham was still a predator’s ball in the 1980s, it is inconceivable that a film about a mentally ill man who morphed into a superhero killer would have been made in 1989. Eighties movies where about showing America and Americans as heroic. The movie industry showed an America dedicated to individualistic hero types; various tough guys, detectives, hard working blue collar workers, cowboys and others who had to deliver justice with force because it simply had to be done in order to keep chaos at bay. That is true about Batman, but it’s also true about Die Hard, the 1988 film starring Bruce Willis as John McClane.

But that was then, and this is now. In our times, the heroes are the weak, even if they are murderously insane.

The casting choices are illustrative of the tenor of the times as well. The character of Batman was played by Michael Keaton, who since has gone on to play many dramatic roles in award winning films including Birdman and Spotlight. In 1989, Michael Keaton was essentially a comedic actor known for roles in films like Night Shift and Beetlejuice. He brought a real sense of levity and comic timing to the role of Bruce Wayne and he was a charming leading man who realistically could have been attractive to Vicki Vail, the ingénue female played by Kim Basinger.

Absolutely none of the casting of Michael Keaton in Batman holds true for Joachim Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in The Joker. Arthur Fleck is patently not funny, has a laugh that is indistinguishable from weeping, is a complete miss with the ladies who are repelled by him. Super weirdo Joachim Phoenix brings zero levity to the situation. Arthur is earnestly mentally ill, and very aware of it. He allows his mental illness to define and consume him. He is a man in perfect sync with the tenor of our times where weakness is highlighted. To be weak is to be full of innocence and virtue and the opposite is true as well; to be strong is to be morally bankrupt and guilty.

Speaking of Vicki Vail, in both the early Superman film and the 1989 Batman, the hero had a woman who loved him and whom he loved. Superman had Lois Lane and Batman had Vicki. Both women were strong, self-directed ladies and incidentally were journalists who were trying to discover the true identity of their respective heroes. Behind the hero was, of course, flawed men who rose above their flaws to reach for greatness. Women were attracted to this.

In contrast, The Joker has no female romantic interests other than an odd relationship Fleck has to his mother. There is an early odd scene where he is bathing her. He is seen with an attractive lady throughout the film, but it is revealed that any romance was all a fantasy. He creeps out the object of his desire in the same way he creeps out nearly everyone else in his life.

Finally, we reach the real variance in the times when it comes to the death of Thomas Wayne. In 1989, it was believed that criminals had agency and they chose their actions for their own selfish benefit. The more successful flaunted their successful criminality and spoke laughingly about their evil; “Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”

In the 1970s and in now in our times, criminal behavior is seen as a logical reaction to the situation. In our currently held view, the rich and successful are the criminals who bring their doom upon themselves. They get what they deserved. The lower classes can’t improve themselves so they consequently can’t be held responsible for their behavior.

The great irony is, for all the asshole behavior that is written into the character of Thomas Wayne in The Joker, the movie’s primary story driver is Arthur’s manifestly obvious mental illness. Arthur is a hate filled and profoundly sad killer who murders strangers, his mother, a co-worker, and the one celebrity figure he admires. He is fully criminal, but also blameless. So, if one concludes that the leftist haters have a point, one must bear in mind also that they are insane. Even they know it, and they will bring their illness upon anyone who refused to resist them. The 1989 Batman would have dispatch Arthur Fleck without thought, but we bow to mental illness now, and refuse to celebrate our own sobriety.

Thomas Wayne murdered in 1989
Thomas Wayne murdered in 2019
Joaquin Phoenix as The Joker