The Renewed Clown Prince of Crime
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In this bachelor thesis, I research the ways in which JOKER creates moral ambiguity in a traditionally ‘villainous’ character. Though the superhero’s roots can be traced back to mythologic characters, folkloric stories and pre-superhero literary genres, the superhero archetype was created with the first appearance of Superman in a 1938 comic book and the default storyline of a superhero story had now become that of a hero protecting its society from evil villains. With multiple blockbusters released every year, the superhero universe continues its popularity and success as a film genre within popular culture. 2019’s JOKER travels back to a time before Batman exists and removes any sign of the existence of superheroes from Gotham. Instead, JOKER shows a superheroless, decaying Gotham in which Arthur Fleck, a self-proclaimed “mentally ill loner” is mistreated by life and the city to such an extent that he finally lashes out and commits his first crimes by murdering three men who beat him relentlessly. Though JOKER tells the origin story of DC Comic’s famous Joker character, it credits the character with morally ambiguity instead of making him a clear-cut villain. Because the film left its audience, including myself, and critics puzzled about whether or not Arthur is the villain or the hero of this JOKER’s story, I researched the ways in which JOKER creates moral ambiguity in a character that has traditionally been labeled as a ‘villain’ by playing with the superhero and the villain’s archetypal character traits within its narrative and cinematography. By first discussing the scholarly field occupied with the superhero and villain archetypes, I conclude which traits the archetypes consist of, how moral ambiguity can be recognized in these archetypes, which character traits are shared by these two extremes, creating a morally ambiguous middle ground, and how labeling a character as either of these two extremes can be problematic. I then analyze JOKER through the method of a close reading, which is divided into two analyses. In the first part of my analysis, I analyze JOKER’s opening scene using the device of ‘overspecificity,’ a concept used to describe the way in which a film’s opening scene presents information in order to establish an overview or a tone that will be continued throughout the duration of the film, by taking into account the sound narrator and the image narrator according to aspects of the mise-en-scène. The second part of my analysis, I analyze how JOKER creates moral ambiguity within its main character Arthur Fleck, by analyzing the textual narrative and cinematographic elements (mise-en-scène). I conclude my research by discussing the ways in which JOKER plays with both the superhero and villain archetypes within its narrative and cinematography and how this results in a morally ambiguous Joker.