At the end of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s 1988 one-shot Batman: The Killing Joke, the Joker lays out his worldview in plain terms. After testing his theory that “one bad day” could make even the most decent person into a madman like himself, the Joker tells his nemesis, “It’s all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for… it’s all a monstrous, demented gag!”
Even more than the grisly sights of The Killing Joke—in which the Clown Prince of Crime sets out to prove his theory by brutalizing Batgirl Barbara Gordon and tormenting her father Commissioner Gordon—that line has set the course of Joker stories of the past several decades. Fans and creators alike try to push the Joker to edgier extremes, forgetting how Batman answers when his nemesis asks why he isn’t laughing. “Because I’ve heard it before,” he responds. “And it wasn’t funny the first time.”
A rare exception to this rule occurs in the 1993 movie Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, a big-screen extension of the beloved Batman: The Animated Series. By making the Joker a secondary antagonist to the larger battle between the titular characters, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm explores the full potential of his chaotic appeal. He is at last devoid of needing to philosophize or prove an existential point.
The Birth of the Joker
The Joker died as soon as he was born. Inspired by Conrad Veidt’s rictus grin in the 1928 movie The Man Who Laughs, the Joker made his debut in the story “The Joker” from 1940’s Batman #1. Despite his death at the end of that comic, writer Bill Finger, artist Jerry Robinson, and artist Bob Kane brought him back right away, returning just four issues later in the story “The Riddle of the Missing Card” in 1941’s Batman #5.
It’s easy to see the appeal of the Joker in these issues. Even if the Batman of this era wasn’t quite the grim avenger of the night he eventually became, the Joker’s elaborate and colorful nature contrasted well with the Dark Knight. His crimes were jerry-rigged like epic pranks, which played to both the visual dynamics of superhero comics and Batman’s role as a detective. That said, the Joker was hardly the only bright-colored baddie in Batman’s rogues gallery. In fact, by the time Cesar Romero’s Joker pops up in 1966’s Batman: The Movie, he gets overshadowed by equally outsized performances from Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, and Lee Meriwether (stepping in for Julie Newmar from the show) as Catwoman.
In fact, it wasn’t until writer Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams’ groundbreaking run on Batman that the Joker we know today was established. After an absence from the comics for several years, “Joker’s Five-Way Revenge,” which appeared in 1973’s Batman #251, not only brought the Joker back and established him as Batman’s arch-nemesis, but also made him a serial killer, an aspect quickly dropped from his Golden Age appearances.
Like the best of O’Neil and Adams’ run, “Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” played into the high dramatics of the characters, with Adams’ fluid layouts and O’Neil’s bombastic narration raising the affair to an operatic clash of the titans. The story laid the groundwork for the Joker who murdered a Boy Scout troop in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the Joker of The Killing Joke.
The Trouble With the Joker
On the one hand, the continuing influence of “Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” should be cause for celebration, proof that readers recognize the excellent work of two legends in the field. On the other, O’Neil and Adams—along with Miller, Moore, and Bolland, among others—have set a model that lesser artists fail to understand. Too often, Joker’s murders are themselves the veritable Joker in a deck, grisly tableaus set on an assumption that anything which transgresses social norms constitutes cleverness.
Take the most irritating scene in the very irritating movie Joker. After Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) kills his bully Randall (Glenn Fleshler), his co-worker Gary (Leigh Gill) scrambles to open the door and escape. But as a little person, Gary cannot reach the handle. Although the titular Joker himself offers no quips about Gary’s predicament, director Todd Phillips cuts between Arthur resting beside Randall’s body and Gary leaping for the doorknob.
Like most of Joker, the scene invites viewers to embrace the viewpoint slowly dawning upon Arthur. Polite society would tell us that there’s nothing funny about a person’s physical features preventing them from running for their lives. But Joker, and eventually Arthur, thinks it is funny, and is tired of pretending that it’s not.
Even if one puts aside countless internet edgelords or genuinely evil people, such as Roger Stone or the Aurora, Colorado murderer James Holmes, as aberrations who use fictional characters as excuses for their actions, the overuse of the Joker has rendered him boring. Cutting off his face, as he does in the otherwise solid Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo Batman run of comics, or becoming an elemental avatar of chaos, as the misguided Killing Joke riff The Three Jokers attempts, feels like empty provocations. As Batman put it back in 1988, these are tired jokes that weren’t funny the first time.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and the Sinister, Subtler Joker
Most of Mask of the Phantasm deals with a new villain: the Phantasm. The wraith arrives in Gotham and starts offing elderly gangsters. As Batman (voiced, of course, by Kevin Conroy) investigates the killings, he connects them all to Carl Beaumont, a mafioso and father of Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany), whom Bruce Wayne once hoped to marry.
Written by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reeves, and directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm, Mask of the Phantasm features everything that made Batman: The Animated Series so great: it has a brooding and dramatic Batman; an operatic and noirish atmosphere; and it draws its character drama from understandable conflicts, as opposed to simply throwing upsetting things at the screen. Batman’s battle with the Phantasm forces him to rethink the oath he made to his parents, vowing to do everything that he could to prevent the tragedy that befell young Bruce Wayne. “I didn’t count on being happy,” he pleads at his parent’s grave, begging to feel some permission to marry Andrea.
With all of that drama, the Joker seems unnecessary. When Batman realizes that Andrea is, in fact, the Phantasm(!), he also recognizes that her crusade pits her against the Joker—who it turns out served as a footsoldier for the mob before getting his infamous chemical bath makeover. Viewers can almost hear the voice of the studio demanding a more recognizable villain for Mask of the Phantasm’s third act. However, Joker (voiced to disturbing perfection again by Mark Hamill) serves as the perfect example of the incredible stakes involved in the world that Andrea has entered as the Phantasm. It’s also a world that Bruce will never leave.
Whatever the reason for Joker’s inclusion, the creative team works him in perfectly. He exists on the edges of the story, first as a wildcard that mobster Sal Valestra (Abe Vigoda) hires for protection, and then as the final piece in Andrea’s revenge plot in which she dons the Phantasm identity to destroy those who killed her father for embezzling money.
More than a standard bit of shocking set-dressing, the Joker’s hideout in an abandoned World’s Fair exhibit underscores the movie’s central themes. He lives in a grotesque parody of domestic bliss, complete with a robot wife and a rusty robot dog. His quips about “being in the mood” and the wife making meatloaf again only highlight the distinction between actual domesticity and the absurd landscape the Joker occupies. Moreover, the setting mocks the life that Bruce and Andrea could have had together, a dull but stable life as husband and wife instead of battling one another in outrageous get-ups.
This isn’t to say that Mask of the Phantasm keeps the Joker from murdering anyone. He kills Valestra and doses the corrupt Gotham City Councilman Reeves (Hart Bochner of Die Hard fame) with a small amount of Joker venom, leading to a chilling scene in which Reeves cannot stop laughing while describing his suffering. However, the suffering is not the point of the Joker. Instead he stands at the sidelines of Bruce’s bitter reunion with Andrea, at once mocking the life they could have had while demonstrating why the world needs Batman.
That twisted worldview made Joker such a powerful character in the first place, a quality too often lost as creators and fans alike rush to use him as a gateway to the most horrible things they can imagine. Mask of the Phantasm’s Joker may not tell a joke we’ve never heard before, but it is a joke that chills us—a joke we’d love to hear again.
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