If you’re not familiar with the Three Joker Theory (which isn’t really a “theory” in the comics anymore), the videos above and below will get you up to speed.
Apparently, the three Jokers the comics are actually the first (sadistic master criminal) Joker and two versions of the third (“psychopath”) Joker, the one from The Killing Joke and the New52 Joker (the one who cut his own face off).
Of course the Silver Age “prankster” “Clown Prince of Crime” Joker is missing. He’s not grimdark enough for DC.
But that’s not really my complaint. Here are my complaints:
1) Offensive, shallow, juvenile portrayal of mental illness
For 40 years, the comics have been “exploring the psychology” of this “mentally ill killer” with little or no understanding of actual mental illness.
Hey, let’s have the joker cut his own face off! That’s crazy!
And don’t talk to me about “super sanity.” Mental illness isn’t just some random shock value plot device that can mean whatever the author wants it to.
Constant portrayal of people with mental illness as violent, unpredictable killers adds to the considerable stigma they already gave and makes it harder for them to get help and function in society.
2) This Joker is no match for Batman without constant help from the writers
As we see both The Dark Knight and The Killing Joke, “crazy” Joker isn’t really a match for Batman on his own terms, but rather requires the writers to make the various Bats indecisive and ineffective in order to succeed.
In The Dark Knight, Batman is almost totally reactive and never drives the narrative. It’s the Joker’s story.
In The Killing Joke, Batgirl answers the door and just stand there in shock while the Joker guns her down. Batgirl. Not some random civilian.
Sure, it’s not always this way, but it’s this way a lot, as best as I can tell. The Modern Joker’s superpower is being the writer’s power fantasy stand in, or mouthpiece to rant about everything they think is wrong with the world.
Batman doesn’t need the Mobius Chair. I can tell him the Joker’s real name: Gary Stu.
3) The Modern Joker is no fun
In addition to being peurile and offensive, the modern Joker is no fun.
Did anybody watching The Dark Knight feel like the joker was having fun? Was that movie fun at all? I would answer both questions with a “No.”
Heath Ledger gave a great performance, like a virtuoso tenor singing an unnerving, discordant song with lyrics we’d heard 10,000 times, lyrics that spread misinformation that actually makes life harder for people suffering from mental illness. But hey, what a voice.
I’m not saying we need to go back to the Silver Age prankster, at least not totally.
40 years of expectations make that untenable in anything but the most self-consciously retro context (like the upcoming Adam West/Burt Ward/Julie Newman animated movie).
To be recognized and accepted as the Joker, a Joker has to be deadly these days. For better or for worse, that’s the case.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a scary, deadly Joker who doesn’t spread harmful misinformation about people with mental illnesses, who is a match for “Batman at his best,” and who is still fun.
You just have to go back to the first Joker, and maybe bring in some elements from the second.
Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the 1989 Batman movie was clearly an updated first Joker: a savvy career criminal before he ever became the Joker, his “chemical bath” mostly just took away his fear and inhibitions, making him more dangerous and murderous without sapping his wits.
It took everything Batman had mentally to crack that Joker’s scheme. Even then, defeating him wasn’t easy. But at no point did it feel like the writers had to cheat in the Joker’s favor.
Nicholson looked like he was having fun playing the Joker, and I certainly had fun watching him. His soundtrack was by Prince, for pete’s sake!
Both Batman: the Animated Series and The Batman kept their Jokers fun while keeping a surprising amount of menace for a kid’s cartoon. B:TAS even explored deeply dysfunctional and abusive relationships via the new character, Harley Quinn.
So it certainly is possible. I just don’t think anyone at DC is interested in anything but pop psychology grimdark at this point.
Come on, guys: Why so serious?