Causal Realism and Jared Leto’s Joker
Ever since those first stills of his character design, Jared Leto’s Joker has left many of us scratching our heads, trying to figure out why the portrayal seems so wrong. It’s ridiculous and over-the-top, but the Joker is supposed to be that way; writing “damaged” on his forehead is very on-the-nose, but this character was never intended to be subtle. The problem isn’t that his appearance is silly and over-the-top; it’s that his appearance is silly and over-the-top in a way that looks designed. You can imagine the Joker wanting to look that way, but you can’t imagine him actually going to all the work to make it happen.
The Joker might like tattoos, but would he actually sit still through multiple hours-long sessions in order to get them done? The Joker might collect knives, but does he have the patience to line them all up in a neat circle just so he can lie in the middle of it? And would anyone, however damaged, choose to write “damaged” on their forehead? What would be going through their mind?
The overall impression isn’t that this is the Joker, but rather that this is someone dressed up as the Joker. Compare this to Heath Ledger’s Joker, whose clown makeup looks slapdash and several days old. It’s actually possible to imagine him applying it.
The principle here is something I’ll call “causal realism.” Causal realism states that a design in fiction should not only look right for the character and setting, but should also have a plausible explanation for how it came to be. Causal realism is violated when, for instance, a punk street kid wears a leather jacket, fancy piercings, and elaborate hair that would cost hundreds of dollars, or when a nerdy character has a name like Dwight or Eugene, as though his parents knew at birth that he’d grow up to be a nerd.
Causal realism applies to settings, too. Somewhere in the Star Wars universe there’s an architect who keeps designing structures featuring narrow, railless catwalks over enormous drops, despite the lack of purpose for either the drop or the catwalk, and despite repeated fatalities from falls. Science fiction has a real problem with designing sets to look cool rather than to serve any practical function.
Depending on the work, causal realism may not always be an important consideration. Comedies, lighter works, and works for children may lean more heavily on suspension of disbelief. Nobody gets distracted from Harry Potter wondering who named the streets in the wizarding world and what the logic was for picking a bunch of puns.
But most works, especially those in more realistic or “hard” settings, benefit from a close examination of how all the set and character designs came to be in-universe and whether the characters actually had the time, resources, and ability they would have needed to make it happen.
This post is an expanded version of a Twitter thread posted on August 9.