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Where did all the bad guys go?


Pity the poor Joker. It’s not his fault.

That’s the inescapable message of Joker, the dreary new movie that I had the misfortune of seeing last weekend. Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker belongs to a category I generally detest: the “backstory” movie, in which we’re dragged through the history of how a character we already know from another movie got to be who he is. But Joker is even worse. It falls in that subcategory of backstory movies that take a villain and explain away all his or her villainy.

The worst of such stories is, of course, the trio of Star Wars prequels, which urge us to understand the disappointments that made Darth Vader into an evil Sith lord. Their effect is to defang what had been one of the all-time great, menacing movie villains, rendering him merely pathetic. Thanks, Mr. Lucas.

Joker proposes to show us all of the suffering that leads to psychopathic violence. Over the course of the movie, a harmless clown, played by Joaquin Phoenix, gets beaten up by some punks, learns that his mother is deranged, loses his clown job for carrying a gun to work, is insulted and humiliated by the rich man whom he believes to be his father, loses his psychiatric medicine and counseling thanks to budget cuts, and has his stand-up routine cruelly mocked by a late night comedian. His turn to murder is, as the philosophers might say, overdetermined.

I prefer the giddy villainy of Cesar Romero, who played the Joker on the 1960s Batman TV show. He was bad not because he had suffered but because he enjoyed being bad. His is a joie de thievery, robbing banks dressed in a magenta velvet jacket and matching green hair and silk shirt.

Romero’s Joker comes close, but no one can match The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West when it comes to movie malevolence. Doused by Dorothy, the witch uses her last breaths to lament that she’s melting, melting — and to affirm that she’s unapologetically evil: “Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?”

That was in 1939, when you had to be blind not to recognize that there is unrepentant evil in the world. Our own age, by contrast, has given us the boffo Broadway hit Wicked, which tells the witch’s backstory to explain that she’s the real victim.

The great bad guys of stage and screen don’t try to boo-hoo us. Can you imagine Barbara Stanwyck’s lethal femme fatale from 1944’s Double Indemnity pausing for some sob sister stuff? No, as she comes to the end of the line, she simply admits she’s rotten, which in its honesty provides a sort of redemption.

I don’t mean that great meanies shouldn’t have motivations. My complaint is that modern villains are rarely motivated by anything other than fashionable social concerns. But who needs an unhappy childhood when you’ve got pride, envy, ambition, greed, and lust? In Hamlet, Claudius kills his brother, the king of Denmark, not because of some salad-day trauma but because he wanted to sit on his brother’s throne and sleep with his brother’s wife. He tries to repent, but his prayers won’t go to heaven because he’s unwilling to give up the objects of his covetous desire. How pathetic a modern retelling of Hamlet would be. We’d learn that Claudius murdered his brother because he stopped taking his medicine. Something rotten indeed.

The closest Shakespeare comes to the pitiable anti-hero is Richard III, what with the poor fellow’s disfigurement. The king even offers up a rather modern explanation for his behavior: “Since I cannot prove a lover,” Richard says, “I am determined to prove a villain.” But note that Richard retains a sense of agency. He isn’t helpless to be a baddie, he chooses it. And Shakespeare makes him so ruthless that we aren’t inclined to shed any tears when he’s killed, his unhappy childhood notwithstanding.

Give me not the villain who is born bad or who has badness thrust upon him. Give me the villain who is worthy of instilling fear — the one who chooses badness.

Eric Felten is the James Beard Award-winning author of How’s Your Drink?