Not since the Anthony Hopkins’ brutally cultured Hannibal Lecter has a screen villain so frightened, enthralled, and twistedly delighted audiences. Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight will go down in history as a film-stealing antagonist, but perhaps for all the wrong reasons.
In my previous columns on Superman and Batman, I looked at how the themes of a hero’s tale translated from comics onto the screen. This time, apropos of the Joker’s anarchic nature, we will reverse the paradigm, examining how the cinematic Joker impacted comic books and popular culture more broadly.
Like Shakespeare’s Richard III or Iago, The Dark Knight’s Joker —with his plans-within-plans and his scary, scar-y smile—is a villain so vile and yet so compelling he can warp the audience’s interpretation of the story he inhabits. When we factor in the morbid mystique of Heath Ledger’s untimely death, perhaps it is no surprise the film Joker has developed a wildly off-base cult following.
On the most sensationalist level, the Joker became a totemic symbol of anarchy to a disturbed murderer. To be clear, the tragedy in Aurora occurred because of an individual’s depraved choices. On the other hand, it’s not implausible to see Ledger’s Joker as tapping into a deep vein of nihilism in contemporary culture, personifying all our darkest and most chaotic urges.
With tone-deaf enthusiasm, DC comics has embraced this Joker in their recently rebooted comics universe, upping the ultraviolence by having the Joker’s face cut off by another villain—only for the Joker to re-emerge with his face strapped on with a belt. Simultaneously with this (admittedly sophomoric) exercise in gore, DC has gone ahead and slapped the Joker’s image on every product it can think of. Even children’s shoes. There must be a joke somewhere in this thoroughgoing commoditization of nihilism, but only the Joker could find it.
Obviously, glorification of the Joker misses the film’s import. Ledger’s Joker is a man without hope. Whatever trauma occurred in his unreliably narrated past, it has left him convinced that he is the punchline to some cruel cosmic joke; his mission is to prove to Gotham’s citizens that, on the inside, they are just as hopelessly twisted as he.
But the Joker is wrong. In fact, with the hopeful ending given Batman in his latest film, one could argue that the ultimate theme of the Dark Knight Trilogy is proving Joker wrong. In his climactic plan, the Joker wants to make the passengers on two boats, one full of criminals, the other full of ordinary citizens, blow each other up in a scramble to save their own skin. Instead, both boats hold off, thanks to the moral courage that appears in the most unexpected people and places.
This relates to a tension that follows Batman through all media, the tension between perpetuating and transcending violence. Ledger’s Joker tells Batman, “I think you and I are destined to do this forever,” crystallizing a Manichean concept of their rivalry as one of never-ending escalation—one that Batman doesn’t seem to buy. Disturbingly, though, this cyclical violence trope is becoming more and more the norm for hero-villain rivalries. It’s a boring paradigm, because it reduces the conflict between hero and villain to myopic mutual obsession, thereby making them no more different from each other than so many feuding Montagues and Capulets. The smart and well-acted BBC show Sherlock fell prey to this in its second season with the conflict between Holmes and Moriarty. Perhaps such recriminatory infatuation is in-character for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, a self-described “high-functioning sociopath”, but revenge and one-upmanship cannot become the default motivation for our heroes. This is why I laid such stress on Batman’s compassionate side in last week’s article, highlighting both his adoption of Robin in the comics and his empathy towards Gotham citizens in the Nolan films. Compassion, indeed, is what defeats the Joker in The Dark Knight, showing him that, contrary to his cynical mania, not everyone is just a freak like him.
Staring into the abyss may be occasionally fascinating and even instructive, but the danger of becoming the monsters one fights is very real. With this in mind, next week we will return to more virtuous and heroic fare, albeit in a different universe, that of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man!
Alexi Sargeant is an aspiring playwright and director studying at Yale University. His lifelong obsessions include Shakespeare, mythology, and superheroes. His writing has been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Yale Daily News, Yale Herald, and Imagine magazine.