It’s 2021. Why are people threatening to become the Joker?

The Joker is a destructive, attention-seeking, self-obsessed edgelord like the ones that have made using certain parts the internet an absolute hell. He’s bad for the sake of being bad. A comically evil villain who is also damaged. So why are so many people online now threatening to become the Joker?

Well, obviously for the memes. Also, the character will not go away. He’s in another damn movie, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, because of course he is. That rant comes later. But the important takeaway is we are all being forced to think about the Joker again. Naturally, memes happened.

If you’re unfamiliar, it usually goes something like this:

If people don’t start tagging spoilers, I’m going to become the Joker.

It’s a simple template to work with, and unlike a lot of memes, there is no visual component. All you need is something that annoys you. The more trivial the better. Then you just rely on whatever associative images of the Joker your reader has in mind.

I see the Joker in the mirror

The meme works so well because almost no one likes the Joker as he exists today. That hasn’t always been the case. About a decade ago, people had sympathy for him and some even looked up to him. That was back in the late 2000s, when Heath Ledger portrayed the Joker in The Dark Knight.

Ledger emphasized the twisted side of the murderous clown. Prior to that, most popular depictions were of a goofy jackass rather than some nihilistic supervillain bent on demonstrating the meaninglessness of life through violent antics. His performance redefined the Joker in the popular consciousness. And it casts a heavy shadow on all subsequent interpretations, of which there are many.

On top of that, we were all feeling pretty twisted in the late 2000s. This movie came out amid a major recession. Nothing gets you questioning the merits of our society like daily headlines about another factory closure. Life in 2008 was waking up for school and hearing the radio announcer talk of more layoffs destroying your already-in-decline community. Those layoffs were unrelenting, and they affected everyone in town.

Okay, maybe it was just those of us who were teenagers in a rapidly declining post-industrial part of North America who saw Ledger’s Joker and thought, “yeah, that guy gets it.”

Then again, maybe not. It was way cooler to be edgy then than it is now. And the amount of Joker merchandise available at the time suggests this might have been bigger. I was seeing people wearing T-shirts with an oversized, slightly faded print of the Joker’s face for years afterward. People kept posting cringe memes, quoting The Dark Knight, and busting out the green hair dye at Halloween too. You can still find evidence of this behaviour if you creep the right people on Facebook.

What changed?

Most grew out of the whole Joker thing and moved on. Not the movie industry. They are perhaps the most twisted of all. The phrase “Academy Award-winning ‘damaged’ forehead tattoo” is a one I never wanted to hear, but it has haunted me since 2017 thanks to Jared Leto’s Joker’s forehead tattoo from Suicide Squad and the sickos who vote for the Academy Awards.

The tattoo – which as you might imagine reads, “damaged” – is emblematic of latter-day representations of the Joker. Ledger played an irredeemable villain, but one with charisma and depth. Leto’s portrayal became better known for his off-set “method-acting” antics, in which he is said to have sent a dead pig to his co-stars. This behaviour flies in Hollywood though, and Leto is reprising his role in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a four-hour supercut of another film that flopped apparently because it was a normal length and didn’t include the Joker.

I brought up the recession earlier because I think it explains why Ledger’s Joker was a hit and why these later two, for me, were misses. Ledger’s Joker spoke to the nihilism we were feeling in the late aughts. Seeing a guy who did not give a damn was cathartic. And edgy was in back then.

By 2016, edginess was out of vogue. Leto’s self-obsessed and nonsensical antics became the story, rather than his portrayal of the character. And this happened against a backdrop in which another self-obsessed goon was rising to prominence on the back of his own edgy, self-obsessed nonsense. Maybe the “look at me, I’m so damaged” act would have been received differently had Donald Trump not been ascendant. Or if Suicide Squad had been a good film.

Meanwhile, Joaquim Phoenix’s interpretation in Joker was better received. The movie is highly regarded by both critics and fans, although it has been criticized for its portrayal of mental-health issues and the stereotypes it perpetuates. With this Joker, it was more a question of why now. Did we really need a third one in a little over a decade? People are interested in stories about mental health, but perhaps a costumed cartoon character brought to life is not the best hero for such tales.

And now people want to become the Joker?

That brings us to the present, when an annoying event is enough to make memesters want to don the white face paint. We return to the original question: why are your friends threatening to become the Joker?

This meme is a subtle masterpiece. It is essentially an amped up version of the phrase “you’re driving me crazy” but with a loaded pop-culture reference. That’s why I went on the historical detour above. The reference is doing a lot of work. It’s not just any villain we’re talking about here: This is a damaged guy.

Another important piece of context is the fact the Joker will not go away. Becoming the Joker is something no one wants to do, nor is it something we want to see others do. There are already far too many Jokers. It’s why we threaten to do it. The idea alone should be enough to get fools to stop their foolishness. Except Zack Snyder apparently.

I love exaggeration, and this meme does it incredibly. Not only is this mildly annoying thing you’re doing affecting my mood, it’s turning me into a shitty stereotype. I’m going to draw tattoos on myself and then start destroying everything, including you, if you don’t stop. My hair will turn green from my rage. I will become the Joker.

And in the mind of your reader, you conjure images of a rich man sending dead animals to his also-rich colleagues because he thinks it will help him play pretend more effectively. A violent criminal in face paint walking away from an explosion. Movie executives milking a clown repeatedly for profit. Angry teens from 2008 posting pop punk lyrics on Facebook while wearing a shirt with an oversized image of a clown’s face upon it. Those same teens replying “it’s song lyrics grandma luv u too” when grandma expresses concern at the post’s dark content. And, of course, the word damaged.

You’re not pointing to any particular portrayal. You’re pointing to the cultural myth of the character, established by three prominent recent interpretations, with an unnecessary fourth on the horizon. Since when do memes go this hard?

This meme analysis is probably driving you to become the Joker

I’m not well familiar with comic book portrayals of the Joker, and I assume that’s true of most people. So before you ask, that’s why I didn’t bring any up. Hell, I’m not really all that familiar with the movie portrayals either. But the meme works so well because you don’t need to have seen the three movies I reference here to understand it. Everyone knows the Joker is a villain and kind of messed up. If you’re looking to become that guy, clearly the thing you’re talking about must suck. Everyone also knows that we have long ago reached peak Joker saturation and that no more portrayals are necessary. Except, again, Zack Snyder and I guess Jared Leto.

But simply killing the Batman isn’t the solution to all of life’s problems. One problem I’m facing is the very real possibility that no one will still be making this joke by the time my post is up. Another problem was how hard it was to find a way to watch Joker (2019) on streaming services. Indeed, I threatened to become the Joker at many points during the creation of this article over the mild inconveniences I faced.

Do you sometimes get so mad about inane stuff that you put on clown face paint and start breaking stuff? Let me know in the comments!

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