From Farce to Tragedy:
The re-invention of ‘Joker’, compared to other ‘Sympathetic Villains’ in epic and drama.
The 2019 film entitled Joker, is a re-invention of Bob Kane’s character of that name (the arch-enemy of Kane’s hero, the Batman), and purports to be an origin-story of that character, with some effort to ‘explain’ his conversion from the civilian state to that of master-criminal.
‘Sympathetic’ villains, of course, are nothing new. The monstrous ‘King Rávan’ of the Indian epic Rámayán (in most ways, the archetype of Paris/Alexandros of the Iliad), is such a figure: a middle-aged world-conqueror, whose ill-advised kidnapping of Princess Sita (the archetype of Helen) serves as the swan-song of his diminishing youth. There are grounds for ‘sympathy’ in Shakespeare’s villain ‘Richard III’, in the eponymous play, whose plots for power are explained, in the very first scene, as reactions to his own uselessness in times of peace. Again, in ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’, the eponymous villain is originally a good man, led astray by an impatient wife, and only afterward becomes evil on his own responsibility, in the effort to secure his ill-gotten power. Later, we find Caliban, in Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’: a misfit, and resentful of it, and all the more so, because he is a native of the island in which the play is set, and (as emphasized by Cesaire, in his own version of the play) only made a misfit by foreign conquerors. In modern times, we have Shelley’s figure of Frankenstein’s Monster, and Wright’s of the latter-day tragic hero, Bigger Thomas: sympathetic villains both, in much the same fashion as Richard III, insofar as each finds himself prevented by society, on grounds of some imagined deformity of appearance, from demonstrating the innate goodness of his character, and therefore turns to evil, because this alone remains to him.
In the 2019 film, the character of the Joker develops along the same lines as Richard III, Frankenstein’s monster, and Bigger Thomas; and it is therefore disingenuous to ask, as many critics do, Where precisely his madness lies? The answer is, His madness lies nowhere: he is not mad, nor sick, nor insane, nor delusive, nor even egotistic, but driven to violence and destruction, because he is denied all else.