Is The Joker the New Hamlet?

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of living in a society

Welcome back to Going Downs, a newsletter about the intersection of celebrity and politics.

Hey everyone, it’s Claire’s husband, Brenden. Welcome to another mid-week Going Downs. Today, we are going to talk to you about becoming the damn Joker.

In his stunningly prescient post 9/11 essay, Hunter S. Thompson predicted, “ We are At War now -- with somebody -- and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives.”

Today, I want to make a similarly bold prediction. “We are all the Joker now. And we will always have a new Joker for the rest of our lives.”

At this moment in show business history, IP (existing intellectual property)  is king. As the streaming wars produce a glut of television and film, the likes of which Hollywood has never seen, the prevailing opinion is that the only way to cut through the noise is with existing IP. 

Disney owns most of the “good” IP, along with about half of Hollywood. At the same time, other companies must suffer as they try to make movies out of forgotten board games and pretend that some shitty sitcom from the 80s is actually a beloved institution worthy of a reboot.

The one-piece of desirable IP that Disney does not own is DC comics. The most attractive IP in the DC universe is Batman, and the most popular character in that world is the damn Joker. In the character’s current forms, The Joker is either an amalgamation of t-shirts at Hot Topic and emo culture (Jared Leto) or a failed comedian with a personality disorder who evokes Incel motifs (Joaquin Phoenix).

This morning Disney confirmed what we had suspected since we started hearing murmurs about the upcoming Cruella DeVil origin story starring Emma Stone: Cruella is a damn FEMALE Joker!

Disney is so keen to have their own Joker that you could probably chop up the trailers of Suicide Squad, Joker, and Birds of Prey and come up with 90% of the shots and lines in the Cruella trailer. The preview ends with the most Jokerfied moment possible:  a building burns, a tune by Lana Del Rey swells, and Emma Stone whispers coldly, “I am Cruella.” 

In the middle of the trailer, Stone says, “I was born brilliant. I was born bad. And a little bit mad.”

Ever ruthlessly brilliant, Disney has created a situation where they can repurpose as many of their villain characters with Jokerfied origin stories as the box office can handle. Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) in Maleficent was the first, but she was not “twisted” enough to be compared to the Joker.  Cruella is the dawn of a new era, and I believe we will get Ursula before it is all said and done, and it is a safe bet that there is more where that came from. 

Of course, Cruella is not the first female version of the Joker. Margot Robbie has taken the minor character of The Joker’s girlfriend, Harley Quinn, and transformed her into the feminized counterpart of America’s favorite crazy clown.

If we count Cruella, the tally stands at two female Jokers and six live-action male Jokers. Whether we like it or not, The Joker has become a role that announces an actor as serious enough for awards contention but marketable enough for blockbuster stardom. Because the character is so appealing to actors and audiences, I suspect we will be getting new versions of The Joker for the rest of our lives. 

This is not a new idea. Jared Leto, one of the actors currently wearing Joker make-up, has said as much. On multiple occasions, Leto has argued that playing The Joker is the modern version of playing a famous Shakespearean character. Though he hasn’t been specific, I think he is talking about Hamlet in particular.

“The opportunity to take on this nearly Shakespearean character -- that's what graphic novels and comic books are becoming, right?" Leto says. "[He's] this beautiful disaster of a character -- what a big challenge."

Even if this is an extremely annoying thing to say, Leto is not wrong. Both Hollywood and audiences want more people to play The Joker or something like him, and actors want the accolades that come with the role. Those are the circumstances that led Hamlet to dominate the world stage for centuries.

There is probably a great sociological analysis to be made of The Joker’s rise in this age of austerity and alienation where everyone works for an app and lives on the Internet. But, I am not the person to do that for you. As a recovering college theatre major, I will say that there is a key difference between a character like Hamlet or King Lear and The Joker. Shakespeare’s great characters speak to a universal experience; The Joker doesn’t. 

Joker is the perfect character for teenagers because he speaks to a very teenage problem. Every version of The Joker tells the story of a person who feels the world has been unfair to them and so has decided to visit suffering on others. A fully developed adult understands that life is cruel and unfair and that the best we can do is do our part to lessen others’ suffering. As a real hero, Jean Valjean sings in the musical Les Miserables’ finale, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

Even when Shakespeare wrote young characters, he endowed them with complex adult problems and perspectives. For Romeo and Juliet,it is “How much will you sacrifice for true love?” For King Lear, it is “How do I wish to be remembered when I die, and does it matter?” And for the most Jokerfied of Shakespeare’s characters, Hamlet, it is, “How do I do the things I need to do when life is so painful and unfair?”

Ah, you might be thinking, that is similar to The Joker. It is, and it isn’t. True, Hamlet broods and plays pranks and fucks over his girlfriend in a very twisted and Jokerfied way. But,  he ultimately recognizes that duty, honor, society’s expectation, and human decency require him to get revenge on behalf of his father, even if it means death.

Joker never learns this lesson. It is inherent in his character. While it is meant to be profound when it is said that he “just wants to watch the world burn,” that is not much different than saying, “The Joker wants to take his ball and go home.”

The Joker doesn’t want anything because he finds the world so unfair that nothing is worth enjoying. As a result, he is impossible to play using Stanislavski’s acting foundations (What does your character want and how do they get it?). Thus, every version of The Joker will be somewhat immature and ridiculous. The character requires so much prancing and scenery-chewing because The Joker is not really a character.

Though Heath Ledger gave an outstanding performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight, somehow finding depth in shallow water, for me, Joaquin Phoenix gave the only exciting performance as the killer clown. The reason is that I think Todd Phillips has great contempt for The Joker. His Joker is like all the frustrated comedians/fans that harass Phillips in real life on the street. They toss out Hangover quotes, only to get angry if Phillips doesn’t give him the time of day. Phillips’ Joker wasn’t really a supervillain: he was a childish jerkoff who decided that rather than perfecting his craft, he would burn down the comedy show’s set.

If Hamlet avoided action until he had no choice but to act, Phoenix’s Joker acted until he felt he had no choice but to give up.

It is, however, Joker’s limitations that make him so hypnotic to audiences. Even if we understand that life comes with responsibilities and duties, we can’t just say “Fuck it” and burn it all down. Still,  part of us wishes we could. So, just as there is always a new crop of teenagers ready to relate to The Joker earnestly, there are also many adults who can watch The Joker and fantasize about being a little less decent, a little less intelligent, and a little less responsible.

Though it pains me to say it, Jared Leto is right. The Joker is our modern, emotionally stunted Hamlet. They are a symbol of everyday frustrations, perpetual arrested development, and a desire to watch the world burn.

Most of all, The Joker symbolizes the impotent rage we feel when we recognize that our potential to change the world is pretty much limited to being nice to the people around us… and, of course, picking our favorite version of The Joker.

Unfortunately, modern society is such that it is easier to imagine ourselves as someone who doesn’t want to play than to imagine ourselves as someone who actually wins.

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