I Regret to Inform You That the Joker Is Once Again Problematic, and This Time It’s Karl Marx’s Fault – Opinion

BatmanThe latest film about the Caped Crusader has received mostly positive reviews from critics. The film, by Matt Reeves, presents a different view of the Dark Knight on screen than we’re used to, and offers new takes on villains like The Riddler.

Featured in the movie, however, is a cameo by Barry Keoghan playing The Joker, one of the most infamous villains in Batman’s rogue’s gallery and the most depicted in media today. Unsettling, he has a dark smile, white skin and is without any moral guidance. In modern portrayals, he is essentially pure evil. He is an unredeemable horror character.

I have to say, however, that he has been very problematic for me once more.

“You wanna know how I got these scars?” So goes one of the most memorable lines in the history of Batman, expertly delivered by Heath Ledger’s Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight. In 2022’s Batman, Joker similarly makes an appearance at the end of the narrative and in a deleted scene. Meant to add to the terrifying nature of the character, the design brings up a massive issue that permeates media: the so-called “Evil Cripple” trope.

Coming out of disability theory, the “Evil Cripple” trope essentially mandates that a person who is evil must, in some way, be a person with a disability. Whether this is the case of Long John Silver’s wooden leg or James Bond’s Safin, villains tend to have a disability or be visibly scarred, especially on their faces. The Joker is yet another example, even though they have the same success as the non-scarred version. It is possible to more effectively notice the harmful effects of characters and educate oneself on these issues by being aware.

What’s worse, the problem with Joker is that he is emblematic of the exact type of power struggle as described by noted reliever of conflicts, Karl Marx.

Beginning with Marx’s writings in the mid-1800s, literary critics began to work with narratives from the perspective of a power imbalance. In essence, power tends to be concentrated in one group and not the other. Marx kept this concept for money. However, other scholars began to apply the idea to policy and social power as it relates to various aspects of society. These could be feminist theory, critical racism theory, or most importantly, disability theory. The theory states that persons with disabilities are treated less favorably by society, especially when their disability is obvious.

The “Evil Cripple” trope is most easily seen in a character like It’s A Wonderful Life‘s Mr. Potter, who spends the entire movie in a wheelchair, yet serves as a major antagonist throughout the entire film because he longed for ever-increasing money and power. A little less extreme is (in certain ways). Peter Pan‘s Captain Hook, who sports a limb difference not only visually but also by his very name. Another variation is the scarred villain, which is the most common in movies.

Yes, it is true that there are some tropes in television and movie that suggest that the disfigured, scarred and maimed are more likely than others to be evil or to be suspects of being so. However, for this sub-genre to be a field of Marxist Theory research, I think that is quite a stretch. And, it may shock some people to know that you don’t have to find some political or social theory that explains every villain or motivation behind that villain (or behind the creation of the villain).

The problem with the Joker, though, isn’t his scarring. That’s not what makes him unsettling. You can find him here. The Dark Knight, it’s the fact that he tells multiple stories about them while he’s threatening to disfigure people himself. You are not. Batman, it’s how the scars obfuscate who he is. His face is cut and then fought for in comics. All of this is unsettling, but it’s not the reason the Joker is the villain. Scarring and disfigurement is just one of his scare tactics.

Pictures by AP – Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.

What makes the Joker a perfect villain isn’t the fact that there scarring. It isn’t the insanity. It’s the fact that he is evil. There is no redirecting him back onto a “right” path. He deeply disturbs us because of his insistence that we’re all just a bad day away from being like him – and we fear he’s absolutely right about that.

Evil can be far more terrifying than a person who is just bad. Bad motivations are not the only thing that makes someone a bad person. They are easy to comprehend and can be accepted as the result of a bad decision. When there’s just evil, however, we seek to understand the reasoning behind it. We try to find the reasons behind the evil acts a truly bad person commits, and when that person is just evil we can’t find any reasons behind it. That’s what evil is. It exists for the purpose of existing and that’s it.

The subway shooting was yesterday in New York. The logic is what we are looking for. Social media is a great place to look. We search for people’s ideological or political leanings and then we try to understand them. What makes someone open a smoke bomb and shoot people? It’s absurd. Everything is logical. It’s the absence of all that, and the chaos and fear in a small, tight space like a subway car makes it all that much worse for the victims.

The Joker’s scars are not what makes him a villain any more than the suspect in the subway shooting opening a smoke canister does. It’s the acts they commit. You can’t explain it all away with some theory on social injustices. Evil is evil. There’s no way to explain it.

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