0.101 – Character Integrity: When the Joke(r) Stops Being Funny

August 10, 2016

(Note: Some spoilers for Suicide Squad)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

A non-descript geek type walks into a movie theater to watch the latest iteration or debut appearance of their favorite character from another form of media on the big screen. It could be from comic books, animation, video games, or what have you. Doesn’t matter for this scenario.

This person has tried their best to avoid being spoiled by stray social media posts or have their expectations influenced by critical reception of the piece before going to see it.

They’re going in armed only with their fondness for the character, a modest history which defines the character for them, and excitement to see them in a new adventure rocking a fresh aesthetic upgrade thanks to a little Hollywood magic.

After sitting in the dark for a couple of hours with a room full of hopefully like-minded fans, this person walks out of the theater feeling more confused than when they walked in.

The experience itself may have been an enjoyable one, as the thrill of a big hollywood blockbuster usually is based on the visceral impact of the presentation regardless of its intellectual capacity. We call these “popcorn movies”.

However, something doesn’t feel right. It’s something slightly abstract that they can’t quite articulate, but it’s prevalent enough to prevent them from digesting the movie comfortably.

The following day, given time to contemplate the lack of enthusiasm this person has for the show, they’re faced with the inevitable query from their peers about whether or not the film was good.

As much as the person wants to give a simple up-or-down vote on the film overall, such an expectation can’t be met because there was an important aspect of the film that was not presented as advertised.

The big hole sucking all of the fun out of the popcorn movie experience ends up being the specific character they were excited to see. This character may have been familiar in name and appearance to the one this person loved enough to fork over $20+ for ticket and snacks to see. However, the person can’t justify the experience as a wholly positive one because the “character” they expected to see ended up being an entirely different “character” altogether.

This joke isn’t funny at all.

We’ve heard this complaint a lot in geek circles. “That’s not my Batman.” “That’s not how Darth Vader should behave.” “Optimus Prime isn’t supposed to be a sociopath.”

It’s a phenomenon that occurs so frequently that a lot of us have marginalized the complaint wholesale to protect our own ability to enjoy modern media. I’ve even written about it before because it’s a necessary defense these days should we ever want to enjoy going to the movies at all anymore.

The problem is that this isn’t an unjust complaint and our feeling of confusion in these instances is perfectly valid. The makeup of a “character” is a tangible element and can easily be undermined when fundamental changes occur. Try as we might to accept the inevitability of change, there’s a point where change goes beyond creative license and into the realm of legitimate misrepresentation.

Do a quick google search for a “character diagram” and you’ll find plenty of examples of how thorough these character definitions are. Fiction writers certainly aren’t unfamiliar with this process, and it’s not unlike the attributes D&D players roll before embarking on their latest campaign.

The question being begged here is where the line should be drawn designating where a character that has a defined history is opened up to free-interpretation by the Hollywood machine becomes a different character entirely.

Maybe the bigger question is how much value character integrity has for us at all anymore.

I would define “character integrity”, were it something that could be measured, as the totality of a character’s attributes that are maintained with each new creative instance.

To put it less academically, let’s say it’s how much a character remains the same each time they’re written.

It’s a significant aspect of fiction that I feel is being neglected in modern media, especially in this period where studios are racing to cash in on the familiarity of super heroes and other fantastic properties.

It’s what Marvel is getting right and DC is getting wrong in their respected cinematic universes, and it’s exactly why I left Suicide Squad wondering whether or not The Joker is still the character I know him to be.

There’s a distinction to be made about a character evolving and when a character is outright misinterpreted.

For example, in the current IDW Transformers continuity, the evil Megatron is now a heroic Autobot (i.e. “the good guys”). This isn’t a change that happened overnight in the fiction.

The character was originally presented as an antagonist, and over several years of storyline evolved into the anti-hero we know him to be now.

He’s still Megatron in name, appearance, and backstory. He was introduced as the evil despot he’s generally accepted to be across all Transformers fiction. However, in the IDW continuity, his character has evolved within that universe and now wears the insignia of his former enemies.

It’s a fundamental change of character, but we experienced the change take place rather than being presented with a different character from the start. This being the case, the general understanding of Megatron as a character isn’t disrupted should he show up in another “universe”, where the expectation of the audience is the evil Megatron we know and love.

This is different from Jared Leto’s interpretation of The Joker in DC’s expanded cinematic universe that showed up for the first time in Suicide Squad. It wasn’t something that “ruined the movie” for me, because I honestly felt like the film was fun despite it’s mechanical flaws. It was the unease about the direction of the character that upset me enough to make the experience a bit of a bummer.

My problems with this version of The Joker were rudimentary. It feels like they were so caught up in making the Joker “crazy” that they forgot to make him “funny”.

This element of the Joker character is crucial. It’s the inappropriate sense of humor that makes him creepy, not the other way around. It completely alters the basic motivation of the character.

Of course he’s insane and you can show me that in the Joker’s way, even if it’s by simply laughing at his own corny jokes.

This Joker didn’t smile. Sure, there was some smiling, but not enough to make it a distinguishing characteristic. For the most part, Leto’s Joker face was cold and morose.

Remember, this a character born out of a visual medium, so as much value us as we want to put on the sound of his laughter (for example), it’s his wacky mug that defines him.

Even The Joker’s weapons traditionally gave other people that creepy smile. It’s important. The tattoo on Leto’s hand was a nice touch, but it isn’t a viable substitute for the permanent over-grin traditionally donned by the Clown Prince of Crime.

Heath Ledger’s Joker, which was also a dramatic departure from the “traditional” Joker, worked because he used the smile as a means of demonstrating how he’s crazy. The fact that he gave multiple reasons for how the “scars” got there demonstrated that he found them (both the scars and the stories of how they got there) humorous.

Lest we forget the Joker’s quote from Batman:The Killing Joke: If I have to have a backstory, I prefer it to be multiple choice. Yes, the scars were a departure, but they have basis in the history of the character.

So at what point does Leto’s Joker warrant consideration for being a different character altogether?

In essence, Harley Quinn was more accurate to the Joker character than the actual Joker. She was quick with the quips. She was silly when the moment was clearly serious. She SMILED the entire time.

Yet, she was still violent, crass, and clearly sociopathic. Maybe this is what made her the runaway star of the film in spite of the over-sexualization and bizarre domestic aspirations.

The lingering unanswered question in all of this is how much any of this character discussion even matters. It clearly doesn’t to the marketing department and box office bottom-line set.

The history of these characters feels integral to those of us that bring it into the theater with us, but does the average movie-goer really need the same level of definition?

Further, those that are introduced to this character via this type of misinterpretation will consider this to be their version, rendering our prior interpretation inert.

It feels like a bait-and-switch for those of us that go in expecting one thing and leave with another, but maybe the joke’s on us for continuing to fall for it. Perhaps the spirit of the Joker will eventually just take the shape of Harley Quinn altogether, and that’s how the “character” survives.

You can’t deny the humor in a new punchline for a joke we’ve already heard.


Versus The New Half-life is a satirical feature series documenting the experience of modern geek life beyond the 18-34 demographic. Are we simply nostalgia driven super-consumers refusing to embrace adulthood by indulging childhood fantasy or have the expectations of being an adult changed? Writer J. Aaron Poole over-analyzes various geek fandoms to explore common themes and appropriate behavior from limbo as an indubitable grown-up under the age of 40.

J. Aaron Poole is a 21st century writer, musician, and geek culture advocate. He is a member of the American Sociological Association with an academic interest in the relationship between media, technology, and modern culture. Currently residing in Atlanta, Georgia, Aaron can be found making absurd comments on Twitter, PSN, and other social media platforms as @JAaronPoole.

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