The latest iteration of DC supervillain the Joker struts into cinemas this week, with Oscar-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix bringing a grounded and more realistic feel to the erstwhile clown prince of crime. We’ve already had Jack Nicholson’s ‘Looney Toons’ take, Heath Ledger’s terrifying clown show and, most recently, Jared Leto’s pimp-like crime boss, but Phoenix’s Joker – or ‘Joaquer’, if you will – starts life as an ordinary guy who is ground down by society until he decides to embrace a life of madness.
Perhaps the scariest thing about Phoenix’s insanity-tinged performance is that he doesn’t inhabit a world of caped heroes and superpowers, but one that feels like our own. We decided to take that concept a little further, and imagine what six iconic supervillains would be like if they belonged to the real world and not the pages of outlandish comic-books.
What would drive a man to dress up in a clown costume and take to the streets to freak out the general public? We don’t have to look too hard for a real-world example of this behaviour – remember the unexplained creepy clown phenomenon in 2016? There were hundreds of reports of men in “evil clown” costumes in the United States and Canada whose sole aim appeared to be lurking in the shadows and intimidating random people.
The most likely explanation for the killer clown sightings is that they were done for the lols: it is not uncommon for groups of internet users on boards like 4chan to troll strangers for no reason other than online kudos. Take this to its logical conclusion, then, and you can imagine one such ‘hero’ emerging as the face of an internet movement – a misogynist incel troll writ large, encouraged to perform bad deeds by legions of online followers, who covers his face in clown make-up to lash out at an uncaring world he deems to have let him down.
It wouldn’t take much for things to get violent; in fact, several recent killers have admitted to using sites like 4chan and Reddit to conspire with other users to kill innocent people. Just last week, 26-year-old Alek Minassian, who stands accused of murdering 10 people in Toronto, claimed he hoped his callous act would lead to more innocent deaths: “I was thinking that I would inspire future masses to join me in my uprising,” he said, chillingly. So, if a Joker-esque figure ever emerges in the real world, you won’t have to wonder how he got his scars – he’s probably already written extensively about it online.
Given that he has no superpowers and no distinguishing features other than being very, very rich and very, very evil, it’s probable that there are quite a few corporate CEOs out there that could already give Lex Luthor a run for his money. Do you have more cash in your bank account than the GDP of a small nation? Are you primarily driven by a burning desire to turn that money into more money, no matter the cost in human lives? Congratulations, you are one persistent Kryptonian nemesis away from being an actual real-life supervillain.
There is one real-life candidate who some might suggest has been following the Lex Luthor playbook. Step 1: Get rich. Step 2: Become famous for being rich. Step 3: Use your fame and money to obtain a position of power. Step 4: Use your influence to commit a whole bunch of crimes out in the open, and distract and deflect from your evil deeds by decrying the news media’s attempts to hold you to account. Step 5: Profit!
If you need further clues, much like the comic-book version, our real-life Lex Luthor could be said to be surrounded by incompetent goons and doing an unconvincing job of covering his obvious baldness with a hairpiece. It’s really not much of a stretch to imagine a Luthor-esque crook running a con on a whole country…
“Mark my words: artificial intelligence is far more dangerous than nukes.” Not the words of Tony Stark, but of tech whiz Elon Musk, our very own genius billionaire playboy philanthropist. Nothing causes more panic in the tech sector than the rapid advancement of AI – we might still be some way from killer robots, but if the uprising is going to take root anywhere, Silicon Valley will be the first to burn.
Just recently, Google engineer Laura Nolan quit her post working on Project Maven, a US military project designed to give AI machines like surveillance drones more autonomy in deciding the difference between humans and inanimate objects – or, in other words, the right to kill.
Nolan claimed that such machines were heading down a path where they were being given autonomy to do “calamitous things that they were not originally programmed for” and that large-scale civilian deaths could be caused by software errors: “What you are looking at are possible atrocities and unlawful killings even under laws of warfare, especially if hundreds or thousands of these machines are deployed.” Nolan has since joined the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which is not especially comforting.
The most troubling thing about artificial intelligence is that the more advanced systems are learning beyond the expected rate – some have already taken on traits of aggression and deception to yield better results. All they need is a reason to turn on us, but if you’ve seen any Boston Dynamics videos online – where humanoid helper bots are subjected to kicks and shoves in order to simulate external influence – then you’ll appreciate that it’s only a matter of time before an Ultron-like robot decides enough is enough. We had a good run.
Technology has led to many a medical breakthrough in the last 50 years. Prosthetic limbs can replace lost arms or legs; compact hearing and visual implants can practically reverse deafness and blindness; synthetic hearts can keep the blood pumping long after the real thing has given up. We are living faster, stronger and smarter than ever before, but as long as scientists continue to push at the frontiers of human achievement, it’s surely only a matter of time before one brave pioneer pushes the concept of symbiosis too far.
Let’s take British AI and robotics engineer Kevin Warwick as a case study. Warwick – nicknamed ‘Captain Cyborg’, presumably by himself – is known for his studies on creating interfaces between computer systems and humans. He did this by fitting himself with cybernetic enhancements, including an array that contained 100 electrodes which were plugged directly into his nervous system. This experiment was a success, and Warwick was able to send a signal to a robot arm that mimicked the movement of his own arm. Is your spider-sense tingling yet? The guy is basically one bad haircut away from taking up a life of crime.
Cybernetic enhancements are great for treating illness and disability, but what can be exploited will be exploited – it’s surely not out of the realms of possibility that one day, one bright spark with bad motivations could fit themselves with all manner of robotic extras with the intention of being faster, stronger and smarter than the cops.
The human equivalent of the Kool Aid guy, liable to announce his arrival by smashing through the nearest wall, Juggernaut is exactly as his name suggests: big, hard and unstoppable. In the comics he gains his powers from a crimson ruby, but he’s essentially a wrecking ball with legs, meaning there’s no reason he should necessarily stay confined to print.
Look at guys like Tyson Fury, the 6’9” heavyweight boxer with hands like anvils and a reach of over two meters – he’s one of the most feared fighters in the world. Are you going to push in front of a man like him in the queue at the Post Office? Could that be what pushes a wannabe Juggernaut over the edge? Imagine a hulk of a man who has spent a career being punched repeatedly in the face, snapping and going on a crazed rampage – there’s no tranquilliser dart on the planet that could puncture a neck that thick. If they made suits of armour in XXXXL then he’d be unstoppable.
We’ve seen it countless times before: wrestlers who have snapped after a lifetime of steroid abuse, or boxers who needed a different hit outside of the ring. Where bodies are required to be big and brutal, the brain might not always be able to take the strain and a life of crime can often seem like the only way out. If Juggernaut existed in real life, he’s probably taking out his rage on a poor punchbag right now in your local gym.
In print and on screen, Magneto is the most formidable opponent of the X-Men, with the ability to manipulate metal and bend even the toughest steel to his will. In reality, however, we’re struggling to think how anyone could utilise such powers to a villainous end. If we’re being honest, the closest thing the human race has to a real-life Magneto goes by the name Uri Geller, and he’s mostly known for ruining cutlery.
Let’s say that someone comes along with metal-bending skills that eclipse even that of Uri Geller (which, again, is not exactly a stretch). What would be the natural career path of that person? Helmet-wearing uber-criminal who uses his power to strike fear into the heart of all who oppose him? Or is it much more likely that our Magneto would become a D-list celebrity who uses his novelty metal bending abilities to secure a few prime-time chat show appearances and cheesy commercials? Hey, we didn’t say they’d be successful supervillains.
It’s only a matter of time before America’s Next Top Mutant is discovered and our real-life supervillain-in-waiting decides it makes more financial success to move into children’s entertainment. ‘Hire the amazing Magneto! He can bend any metal object into the shape of an animal of your choice! Magneto will also provide his own lunch, email him for booking details.’
Joker hits screens on October 4.