The Joker is easily one of the dumbest characters ever created. Everything about him is dated, heavy-handed and unbearably corny — he is a scary clown. For anyone to be genuinely surprised by the idea of a scary clown, they would have to remember regular clowns, which are as much a relic of the 1960s and 1970s as the idea that New York needs a Batman figure to clear street criminals out of Times Square.
Nevertheless, Hollywood insists on bringing him back every few years with a new, comparatively twisted spin; this time, the culprits are Hangover director Todd Phillips and actor Joaquin Phoenix, who have crafted the grittiest reboot yet. The boneheadedness of the Joker character and his obvious unsuitability for serious narratives is why, for those with some discernment, he has come to symbolize things other than being a cool brooding badass — like taking oneself way too seriously and trying too hard to be edgy.
Memes about the Joker have been trending toward ironic and self-referential since approximately 2012. In the years after The Dark Knight resuscitated the character by putting him in a gritty, semi-realistic setting, Joker memes were generally in awe of how cool he was, and how funny it was to say his catchphrase “why so serious?” to people at school. The death of Heath Ledger, which initially bolstered the Joker’s coolness in imbuing him with a tragic and mythic mystique, eventually detracted from it by ensuring the character could not appear in the sequels. Sometime between 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises and 2016’s Suicide Squad, the runup to which saw endless media coverage of Jared Leto’s process of “method acting” to become a clown, the Joker began to exclusively symbolize tryhard edginess. (According to Leto’s costars, he would not stop Jokerly sending used condoms and dead farm animals to the studio.)
The “Gamers rise up” genre of memes, also known as “We live in a society,” has been using the Ledger and Leto Jokers to parody incels, Gamergate, and the terrible memes that came before it since 2017. This ironic use of the Joker, which accepts his essential laughability, has long since overtaken the earnest kind. It seems significant that a character meant to symbolize nihilism and anarchy is only ever referenced with a sneer by what should be his target demographic — nihilistic, irony-poisoned young men.
This leads us to early reviews of the upcoming Joker movie, which have sparked something of a moral panic. The new Joker, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a failed standup comedian who lives with his mother and goes postal, causing some CGI explosions. The apparent sympathy with an antihero led a number of public figures to all but say outright that the movie would inspire another shooting like the 2012 one in Aurora, Colorado, in which gunman James Holmes opened fire during a premiere showing of The Dark Knight Rises, killing 12 and injuring 70. Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery, who is always at the forefront of any specious cultural debate, tweeted that reviews should directly mention Aurora and that it would be dangerous if they did not:
Hard to read reviews of the Joker (and look backs to Heath Ledger’s performance) that make no mention of the Aurora shooting. Seems pertinent. Seems dangerous.— Clara Jeffery (@ClaraJeffery) August 31, 2019
Dark Horse comic artist Ron Chan screenshotted a since-deleted satirical review on Letterboxd using all the “Chad” and “Veronica” lingo from the ironic Gamers Rise Up memes and responded “I am legitimately concerned this fucking Joker movie is going to get people killed.” Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin also wrote that he was worried “someone’s going to get killed.” And comic artist Heather Antos got 16,000 retweets on a viral thread that incorrectly stated that the Aurora shooter “quite literally dressed up as the Joker.”
That Holmes was inspired by the Joker to open fire during a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises is something between an urban legend and a willful misreading. He appeared in court with a shock of orange hair — distinct from the Joker’s canonical green hair — and the media, which had not yet learned how to deal with these things, read too much into it. Despite his striking appearance, he was not outwardly Jokerlike and did not tell police that he was the Joker after the shooting, two assumptions that have since been widely claimed and accepted as lore. It is easy to blame the horrific tragedy on something so obvious and theatrical — orange hair? The Joker made him do it! — rather than considering Holmes’s long history of severe and documented mental illness and the fact that he was legally able to obtain firearms despite his long history of severe and documented mental illness. (Holmes pled not guilty by reason of insanity and was sentenced to 12 consecutive life sentences plus 3,183 years in prison.)
I am legitimately concerned this fucking Joker movie is going to get people killed. pic.twitter.com/v0VZ0QsIf6— Ron Chan | RCCC Booth 801 (@RonDanChan) August 31, 2019
So without any real parallels to draw between a movie that only reviewers have seen and a 2012 tragedy besides Batman is involved, this discourse rests entirely on the assumption that violent media breeds violent behavior. It’s odd to hear this refrain from liberals, given that Donald Trump and the NRA routinely blame video games and violent movies for mass shootings in order to steer the debate away from gun control. But this idea has been a mainstay of both parties for decades; the Parents Media Research Council, which held congressional hearings on hair metal lyrics in the 1980s, was headed by Democrats. The 1993 congressional hearings on Mortal Kombat were led by two Democratic senators, and the hysterical attempt to blame Marilyn Manson and DOOM in the wake of the Columbine shooting was bipartisan.
The only lasting effects of the PMRC, the 1993 video game hearings and the kneejerk response to Columbine were to make things that were deeply uncool briefly cool through reverse psychology. All their targets received an undeserved boost to their credibility. The band Twisted Sister, for example, sucks to a legendary degree, as is evidenced by the above video of Dee Snider singing “We’re Not Gonna Take It” with the Trump family. Without the help of Tipper Gore, zero people, rather than a few dozen, would remember the band W.A.S.P. and their awful song “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast).” Marilyn Manson’s antics were embarrassing at the time, let alone now, and it was unfair to the rest of us for the reigning political class to make him feel like he actually offended people with his terrible music and hackneyed GG Allin mimicry.
My fear, more than that the 100th comic book movie this year to show that remorseless CGI violence will lead to real-world violence, is that all this hand-wringing will make the Joker cool again. It is a foregone conclusion that the Joker movie will do well at the box office, given how easily critics and audiences roll over when an “auteur” like Christopher Nolan or Todd Phillips shits out a color-by-numbers comic book movie, but what “method actors” Jared Leto and Joaquin Phoenix really want is to freak out the squares. It is our duty to keep the squares in line lest they receive any encouragement.