Readers Write In #102: The Inside Shift: From Super-heroes to super-human

Posted on October 5, 2019

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(by Adhithya K R)

“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that treats him like trash?” You get a Joker backstory. I couldn’t help but marvel at how Joaquin Phoenix took one of the most love-to-hate, disturbing supervillains of all time and turned him into such a human character, one that you could almost root for as he went around killing people. You see that he was lonely, friendless, out of a job and handed a bad card at every turn. You feel the weight on his shoulders when you look at the looming staircase he climbs every day. Through his eyes you begin to despise the one track mind of Gotham’s elite. Maybe even get annoyed at Batman for going after the symptoms of crime, and not the cause. When did the Joker become so human?

Though Heath Ledger’s terrifying portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight extended the character we were used to seeing in cartoons and comic books, there have been other stories about the villain that were equally iconic. Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke”, for example, pit the Batman and Joker against each other, mingled with the sad story about how the Joker was a struggling stand-up comic in his past life and he was driven to insanity one day. “One bad day is all it takes to drive you crazy,” he tells Batman whose “insanity” was also motivated by the day in which his parents were killed in front of him. The last few panels paint a surprisingly sympathetic picture of the Joker, with the Batman laughing at one of his jokes.

Maybe these back-stories were too complicated to show on screen earlier, but there seems to be an increasing number of movies that try to get inside the mind and the motivations of villains (and heroes) in superhero movies, in varying degrees. The avengers movies tried to show Tony get guilty about the destruction he’s causing or Thanos discourse about the menace of overpopulation. Yet, the superhero life is still too ‘cinematic’ in these movies, with choreographed fight sequences and characters dropping wisecracks to the beat. It’s missing the grit and despair that goes hand in hand with a life of killing. You never see Iron Man in therapy because the only “people” he killed were terrorists or aliens without haemoglobin.

Logan, which came out a couple of years back, took apart the trope of the vigilante superhero with just its opening scene where Wolverine rips a bunch of carjackers into shreds. By showing the devastation and bloodshed that follows him everywhere he goes, the glamour is taken out of the superhero’s job. He is alone and friendless in a world where all the other mutants are gone and the memories of his crimes don’t let him sleep at night. His only living friend is collapsing into seizures that are killing hundreds of people and the families that help him end up dying.

Though the earlier movie Watchmen (again based on Alan Moore’s comic) had gone into the loneliness of being a superhero (especially with the character of Dr. Manhattan who was immortal and knew everything that could ever happen), Logan took things up a notch. This was because of the legacy of X-Men that it built on. The beloved superheroes who were like the pop music of the superhero scene turned into death metal with Logan, with its dark tone and bleak take on the life of men in battle. It pretty much did to superhero movies what Saving Private Ryan did to war movies.

Coming back to Joker, this movie went much deeper into the mind of a disturbed individual than try to depict him as evil and malicious. Joaquin laughs when his eyes are crying and it’s heartbreaking to watch. His confusion about his parentage is our confusion. His uncertainty about what he’ll do onstage is our uncertainty. There’s a split second on the subway after he shoots two strangers and he points the gun to his own head, but then turns it away. Small moments like that add up to the explosive ending where the Tarantino-level gore disturbs you but you still feel sorry for the man on screen.

Heath Ledger was puzzling, an enigma, a man unlike anything you had seen. You couldn’t understand why a man would just want to watch the world burn. Joaquin Phoenix is the man on the street though, the one who’s trying to get by, trying to deal with his problems without getting in your way but the world just won’t let him. You can relate to him sometimes. Maybe that’s even scarier. There’s a part of you that understands him and all it needs to change is one bad day.