Between Jack Nicholson’s 1989 portrayal of the Joker in “Batman” and Heath Ledger’s 2008 characterization in “The Dark Knight,” something sinister happened to the villain’s iconic makeup. What had been a mask, with the clearly delineated lines of a carnival character, became simply war paint, and not very well applied.
The visual change signaled a change in the Joker’s inner mechanism. Nicholson’s dandified virtuoso of violence was replaced by a darker, more unpredictable and psychotic figure. What had been a caricature became more real and threatening. An urbane mocker of civilized values became simply a deformed product of urban violence.
It is the latter makeup job that has been superimposed over the face of President Obama in an anonymous Los Angeles poster campaign that is now the talk of the blogosphere, the airwaves and the 24/7 hermeneutical speculations of cable television. The image, which appears above the word “socialism,” delights and distresses people roughly on the lines of the usual political cleavage, with wide agreement that the as-yet-unrevealed artist certainly intends it to be disrespectful. But there is little consensus about whether it is effective as political messagemaking.