It’s no secret that I love Batman. I mean, of course I do, who doesn’t? Batman v Superman is my favourite movie ever made. Batman: The Animated Series is one of my favourite cartoons. And Gotham is absolutely delightful in its over the top black comedy brilliance. Where I differ from many Batman fans, and it seems DC itself, is that I don’t give a damn about the Joker.
It’s not about him being abusive to Harley or killing a lot of people or anything like that, because there’s a difference between being a bad person and being a bad character. The Joker is a bad person, which would be fine, except I just don’t find him interesting. In a world with criminals like the Riddler, Two Face, and Mr. Freeze, I find his “crazy” schtick played out and tiresome (Not to mention ableist in a way that the other villains simply aren’t).
In the last episode of Gotham, once the villains broke out of Arkham, Jim said that something “this big, this insane” had to be the work of Jerome Valeska, and I don’t get that at all. It seems to me like a sign of DC buying into their own idea that the Joker is the scariest Batman villain and not going to the effort to actually show us how that’s true. The evidence doesn’t support it, because their versions of Penguin, Professor Pyg, the Riddler, and Mad Hatter have all had many more moments of being absolutely terrifying than Jerome h as. With Jerome, it feels like they’re doing something you can’t often accuse Gotham of doing, and that’s relying on the comics to make us care.
What’s the worst thing Jerome has done? Shot up a few places? Killed someone with a bomb? Sure, whatever. That would be scary in our world, but this is Gotham City! That’s what they call Tuesday! He’s been defeated by a teenage Bruce, and the only reason he didn’t die again is that Bruce stopped two people from killing him – three if we count Bruce himself. He once came back to life and stapled his face back on, which was both a mythology gag and gruesome, but even that pales in comparison to what other characters have done. And yet he’s still pushed as soooooo scary, as if Penguin hasn’t spent four seasons doing way worse things.
Fish Mooney has gouged out her own eye out of sheer spite. The Riddler dismembered his girlfriend’s corpse and hid the parts all over the police station. Penguin’s revenge scheme culminated in him freezing Nygma, putting him on display, and claiming that he was doing it because his dear friend had a deadly disease and he’d unfreeze him once there was a cure. Jervis hypnotizes people into killing themselves. If I was a Gothamite, I’d rather not meet Jerome, but if I had a choice between him and just about any other villain in the city? I’d take my chances with him, because most of what he has going for him is hype and informed scariness.
Arrow writers have complained about Green Arrow’s lack of iconic villains. Their solution to that wasn’t to work really hard to make new or existing villains interesting and intimidating, it was to instead use other characters’ enemies. Deathstroke, traditionally a Nightwing villain. Ra’s al Ghul, traditionally a Batman villain, coupled with the storyline that’s traditionally Batman’s. Gotham has demonstrated that they don’t need that, and not just because Batman’s Rogues Gallery is iconic. Some of their best work occurs when they take a comic villain – one that’s easy to laugh at when in print – and make them much, much scarier. Mad Hatter isn’t intimidating or iconic in the comics, but in the show? He’s downright terrifying.
I, like a lot of people, was skeptical in the early days of the show because I didn’t know how they were going to handle the villains. Season one was a pretty straightforward mob drama/police procedural with a lot of call forwards. But season two turned up the intensity on everything – more subplots, more camp, characters going full on themed supervillain – and demonstrated that this is basically an Elseworlds tale with its own continuity where they’ll do whatever they feel like doing, proving that, for all the show is absurd and filled with characters that have weird gimmicks, the show itself doesn’t rely upon the gimmick of being “Gotham before Batman” with constant winks and nudges to where the characters will be in fifteen years.
But when it comes to Jerome, what they do is similar to what Arrow does: take a character from elsewhere in DC and rely upon the source material. It’s less blatant with Gotham because the Joker belongs to the Batman universe and the actor does a good job with what he’s given, but so far, we’ve mostly been told why we should be scared of him while every other villain has shown us. It’s a similar issue to Barbara – he’s the centre of a lot of storylines, and he’s entertaining enough to watch, but there’s not much substance in those stories and they’re only there because the writers are attached to him.
This extends far beyond Gotham. I’ve seen a lot of people say that the Joker should have been the main villain in Suicide Squad, and I’m pretty sure I remember David Ayer agreeing. I disagree completely. Enchantress wasn’t a great villain, and there would have been ways to make her better, but the Joker wasn’t the answer. An expanded role to aid in Harley’s development? Sure, I’d have been here for that. But I think the reason why the character works in relation to Batman is that he is representative of what Batman’s no-kill rule really means. It’s not because he’s interesting on his own, it’s because of how he impacts Bruce. Bruce can justify his vigilantism to himself and see it as morally right if he doesn’t kill. He can’t appoint himself judge, jury, and executioner – he’s supposed to stop crime, not mete out punishment. And that means the Joker will continue to do bad things, because he can’t kill him for what he did to Jason or to Barbara or to any number of civilians.
None of that applies to the squad, because they’re all killers. None of them would have any qualms about (or any difficulty) killing the Joker, save for El Diablo, so he wouldn’t have made a good antagonist. Not unless the entire concept of the movie was changed from a Suicide Squad action film to a character piece centred around the members of the squad while they’re not going on a mission that Waller doesn’t want to risk other people on.
The Joker is a fine character. But I don’t think he’s as versatile as a lot of others. He has a specific purpose, and trying to make him fit in other stories is more likely to fail than it is to succeed.