Joker and Thanos highlight Hollywood’s year of the supervillain

Vinayak Chakravorty

Apr 12, 2019 12:56:17 IST

Put on a happy face”, goes the sinister punchline in the recently-released trailer of Joker. The tragi-comic thriller will aim at exploring the torment that triggered trademark manic humour in the Joker, a supervillain who ranks among the most enigmatic in comicbook history.

In the trailer, Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker balances punk relish with a gloomy grin. You realise DC might have a winner here. At a time their superheroes have been struggling to match Marvel’s mojo, the supervillain Joker could give DCEU its much-needed comeback push.

DC kickstart their Joker franchise in October 2019, around six months after Marvel have wrapped up the saga of Thanos’s mighty menace in Avengers: Endgame, opening later in April. It could be a coincidence that two of Hollywood’s most phenomenal villains of all time arrive at the theatres in the same year. It’s no coincidence however that, between them, these two antagonists hailing from rival comicbook camps stand for almost all that redefines the changing face of Hollywood villainy in recent times.

At a time the Night King has been doing brisk business converting mortals and dragons alike into White Walkers on television’s Game Of Thrones, straightforward menace won’t do for big screen’s big baddies anymore. If television has become spectacular in every sense including villainy, cinema itself has also pushed its own envelope. Heath Ledger’s cult version of the Joker in The Dark Knight had already made the art of being wicked a complicated affair way back in 2008. Josh Brolin’s Thanos in the Avengers films subsequently rendered unmatched scale to evil. Hollywood had to look for new spins.

The first obvious step was to flesh out the supervillain. Till a while back the villain’s primary (and ultimately unsuccessful) motive was to kill the hero and/or gun for world domination. That objective still remains but, as new-age screen interpretations of Thanos or Joker underline, there is always an engaging thought process accorded to motive and execution.

Joker and Thanos highlight Hollywood’s year of the supervillain

Joker film still


Both Joker and Thanos, despite their varied universes of existence, trigger off a morality debate. At a time when bad and good have long ceased to be restricted by black-and-white codes, they define impressive socio-political greys.

Consider Thanos first. Ever since Jim Starlin created the mighty monster for Marvel comics in 1973, Thanos’ violence has been guided by his urge to end all that he feels is not right. “The Universe will now be set right. Made over to fit my unique view of what should be. Let Nihilism reign supreme!” Thanos declares in the Marvel comicbook The Infinity Gauntlet # 2: From Bad To Worse, published in August 1991.

In cinema, that notion is used to add a subtext in the final two Avengers movies, in sync with contemporary socio-political sensibilities. With Thanos, the mainstream Hollywood villain is almost justifying evil actions. His obsession to cleanse a world he feels has gone wrong bears the feverish pitch of religious fundamentalism. Thanos, self-proclaimed “Death’s consort”, is driven by the belief that only his destructive streak will pave way for better worlds across the universe.

If Thanos is at the core of Marvel’s discussion of right and wrong through Infinity War and the upcoming Endgame, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is meant to add a new provocative twist to debate over what’s moral and what’s immoral.

It will be interesting to see how director Todd Phillips handles this aspect in his new Joker film. Christopher Nolan’s interpretation for Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight did seem replete all those years ago.

Few comicbook villains have made anarchy seem so glorious since Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson co-created the Joker for the Batman franchise in the 1940s. Nolan and Ledger gave the idea a contemporary dark edge with their 2008 film. As the Joker literally drove Batman to insanity’s edge in The Dark Knight, he also ripped apart civil society’s genteel cloak. “Their morals, their code… it’s a bad joke,” he tells Batman. “They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. When the chips are down these civilised people will eat each other. See, I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve.”

Gotham’s civilised, however, stamped Joker a monster for that credo and, with his October release, director Phillips sets out to dissect how such a monster is born.

Joker and Avengers: Endgame have been pitched as comicbook thrillers that, for a change, use the supervillain — not hero — to understand the moral crises facing the modern world. In times of chaos, humanity perhaps needs an evil context to understand what’s wrong all around.

A fascinating conversation about good and evil, incidentally, happens in DC’s recent release Shazam!, between the superhero’s teen alter ego Billy Batson and his foster brother Freddy. Given the choice between the superpowers of flight and invisibility, Freddy tells Billy, everyone he knows seems to choose flight. That’s probably because heroes fly, Freddy reasons, and villains tend to hide in the shadows.

Billy as Shazam does fly a lot in the film, and also loves preening before TV cameras. On the other hand, Mark Strong’s antagonist Dr Sivana musters his powers from the Seven Deadly Sins who reside within him — particularly Envy, who lurks deep beneath all the other Sins inside Savana, almost invisibly.

There’s more in store in the months ahead. Idris Elba’s genetically-enhanced terrorist of colour in the Fast & Furious spin-off Hobbs & Shaw, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s “relatable villain” Mysterio in Spider-Man: Far From Home seem like other interesting shots at villainy getting a socio-political spin.

This sure looks like the year of living it up as the supervillain.

Updated Date: Apr 12, 2019 12:56:17 IST

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