In the Joker’s long career, he has strayed far from his origins as a criminal mastermind. Oh, he commits a lot of crimes in modern interpretations, but from the anarchist with a cause to the deranged loner to the wisecracking psychopath, people have been less interested in seeing how the man interacts with the criminal underworld, and why he might choose to do so. Alek Gearhart’s Joker duology, consisting of Joker Rising and The Clown Prince, take the character’s assault on established order to new lows, solving the problem of a low budget by contextualizing the Joker’s journey through the lens of sleazy crime dramas. Less Dark Knight and more Goodfellas, his films present a lower powered vision of Gotham, where human lives make human hands unclean, and the madness of the Joker is on full display in a world where everything is up for reinterpretation. The Joker series may be mashing Batman and crime thrillers together, but the strength of those influences forms a strong through-line for both movies.
The breadth of concepts and meaning surprise even their author, who admits that he keeps digging up meaning in the Clown Prince he didn’t realize he had injected into it. A filmmaker since the age of 10, Alek Gearhart joined the military and returned to work for the United States Forest Service. When he encountered the fierce acting talent of Manuel Ramirez, he recognized it. Manuel deserves special mention. Not only are his performances as Killer Croc, Jim Gordon, and the lead in Gearhart’s cartel thriller Santa Muerte superb, he also served as a major force in getting these films made.
Working in three months from script to completion, the team released Joker Rising. It got well-earned attention for itself, spurring interest in the eventual sequel. Both were made guerilla style, with clever (and fast) use of public space. The Batman suit came from Grayson: Earth One, another fan series that will have you weeping from the lost potential of its first two episodes; the rest of the series is unlikely to see completion, but the material already out is a monumental achievement for fan films. For movies put together on a budget of next to nothing, I am beyond impressed by the pathos and entertainment value the Joker Series, Where Birds Don’t Fly, and Santa Muerte have brought me. If you have any interest, they are all available for free.
Joker Rising is an origin story, revolving around the descent of one of Cobblepot’s musclemen into a force for aimless destruction. The tone is upbeat and comedic, but only due to the feckless gallows humor he and Killer Croc display as they make their way lower into Gotham’s underbelly. Much like Gearhart’s serial killer drama Where Birds Don’t Fly, the film examines the psychological effect of violence on those it touches. Cyrus and Croc are as much victims as perpetrators, and their place in an ever-devolving cycle only turns them and those like them into unabashed monsters. This idea culminates with Cyrus’ final evolution, a man already broken who takes on and then becomes a tantrum of projected strength.
Some of these films’ themes have been addressed in other Batman films, but never with the same enthusiasm. 2019’s Joker was grim and psychological, and The Dark Knight interrogated the Joker’s abandonment of typical power structures. Gearhart’s films succeed by leaving the character with a spark of humanity that reminds you that the Joker is, after all, a man in clown makeup.
The Clown Prince is the true jewel of this set, with Gotham ablaze in the war for power set off by a newly minted Joker. This Joker makes his mark with infinite cynicism, seizing on dissent in Gotham to bring the city down. His exposure of the tenuous grip the police and organized crime have on the city pulls in followers. These people are seeking, just as fruitlessly as he is, to forge an identity out of the hopelessness of their lives.
Dylan Hobb’s Joker is a predator, weaving destruction in the lives of the vulnerable and spending as much effort as possible to avoid facing his own issues. The Joker persona distracts him and his audience of followers from examining who they are and how broken they have become. Their entire philosophy is fraudulent, and the cheap mask they put on to hide from it only makes clear how little remains underneath. The film does not directly comment on the Joker’s psychology, but its visuals and themes give you deep insight into how he is operating.
None of these interrogations come at the expense of the Batman mythos. While there is fun in the crime drama of Black Mask’s and Two Face’s appearances, Gearhart’s Gotham is beset by the uneasy paranoia of early gangster films. You always know something terrible lurks around the corner, and you’re not sure how to feel about it. The films work within their admittedly threadbare budget to strengthen their themes. When the Joker’s makeup begins to run under hot lighting, I don’t see it as a flub. Rather, it highlights how well he has cast a spell upon his flock. They don’t see what’s standing right in front of them, a man sweating under heat lamps. They don’t want to. They see only the Joker, the icon forged from a lie that he tries to tell himself. The extras who don’t look like typical actors are exactly the type of people who would be driven to join him.
Alek’s first three films are available on Youtube, and Santa Muerte recently dropped on Tubi. You can find Manuel in American Rust, Queen of the South, and a other series coming up in the next few months.