Last week I read the latest in the Opinion Battles hosted by Movie Reviews 101. It was “The Best Batman Villain.” I always read these at Emma’s site emmakwall (explains it all) and after reading the different opinions in the battle as well as the comments left on Emma’s site, I decided to drop my own, a mini-rant on why Joker was the best villain. Emma prompted me to write an entire article on it, so here I am.
My analysis on the Joke isn’t just in terms of films, but also comics, where most of my knowledge of the character comes from.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the Joker is that he’s a force of chaos, that what he does is just random and with the only goal being more chaos, but the reality is different.
Everything the Joker does has a clear goal. Sometimes the goal is just to screw with Batman or try to break his spirit, and others it’s to manipulate people into doing what he wants. In the Killing Joke the entire affair is just to prove a point: that anyone, no matter how noble they are, can turn into the Joker with a sufficiently bad day.
He shoots and paralyses Barbara Gordon—and depending on your source or opinion, he might have also raped her—and he does these cruel and malicious things just to drive the Commissioner to madness, to make him go through such a horrible experience that he has no choice but to leave rationality behind to escape the torment of the world. His now famous “memories” monologue is all about manipulating Gordon into giving into madness, to escape the horrible world:
Memory’s so treacherous. One moment you’re lost in a carnival of delights, with poignant childhood aromas, the flashing neon of puberty, all that sentimental candy-floss…
The next, it leads you somewhere you don’t want to go…somewhere dark and cold filled with the damp, ambiguous shapes of things you’d hoped were forgotten.
Memories can be vile, repulsive little brutes. Like children, I suppose. HAHA.
But can we live without them? Memories are what our reason is based upon. If we can’t face them, we deny reason itself.
Although why not? We aren’t contractually tied down to rationality! There is no sanity clause!
So when you find yourself locked onto an unpleasant train of thought, heading for the places in your past where the screaming is unbearable, remember there’s always madness.
Madness is the emergency exit…
You can just step outside, and close the door on all those dreadful things that happened. You can lock them away…forever.
Then, later on when meeting batman:
I’ve proved my point. I’ve demonstrated there’s no difference between me and everyone else! All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.
You had a bad day once, am I right? I know I am. I can tell. You had a bad day and everything changed. Why else would you dress up as a flying rat? You had a bad day, and it drove you as crazy as everybody else… Only you won’t admit it! You have to keep pretending that life makes sense, that there’s some point to all this struggling!
God you make me want to puke. I mean, what is it with you? What made you what you are? Girlfriend killed by the mob, maybe? Brother carved up by some mugger? Something like that, I bet. Something like that… Something like that happened to me, you know. I… I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice! Ha ha ha!
But my point is… My point is, I went crazy. When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot! I admit it! Why can’t you? I mean, you’re not unintelligent! You must see the reality of the situation. Do you know how many times we’ve come close to world war three over a flock of geese on a computer screen? Do you know what triggered the last world war? An argument over how many telegraph poles Germany owed its war debt creditors! Telegraph poles! Ha ha ha ha HA! It’s all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for… it’s all a monstrous, demented gag! So why can’t you see the funny side? Why aren’t you laughing?
This is not pure chaos, these aren’t random evil acts by a madman, but those of a man with a very clear goal, a plan and strategy. He calculates every move to make sure it has the most profound effect on his victims. Even when he spreads chaos, it’s meticulously controlled and very rarely do details escape him.
Let’s look at another thing, a popular element of his characterisation in the past decade and an important part of the appalling Suicide Squad film: His relationship with Harley Quinn.
His abusive relationship with Harley—and people out there who love to use Harley and Joker for memes and as couple cosplays and more, their relationship is not an example of romance, it’s not a role model, it’s messed up and pathological, so think a little—has a point. During the one-shot that brought Harley into DC Comics for the first time, the Joker tries to kill her, confessing that since she came into his life, he remembered what it was like to care for someone and be in a relationship, to be a couple…and how he hates those feelings for how they upset, confuse and distract him.
To the Joker, the abusive part of their relationship is to keep his edge, to stay the vicious man he thinks he has to be to fulfill his goals.
Hell, if you want proof of why the Joker is not random just read the amazing storyline No Man’s Land, which ends with Joker kidnapping newborn children all across the broken Gotham and uses them as shields against Commissioner Gordon’s wife before killing her. If not for Batman stopping him and talking him down, Gordon would’ve killed the Joker and not shattered ruined his life and career, but also broken the fragile morale of the recovering Gotham city, which is what the Clown Prince wanted. Even in his losing moment, in pain over Gordon kneecapping him, he still laughs. Because of this injury he might never walk again, which makes him laugh at the realisation that he’d done the same thing to Barbara Gordon years before.
What the Joker is though, is evil. The Joker is malicious and given the choice, he’ll do appalling things to get what he wants, even if there is a reasonable approach where he doesn’t need to so. Because it’s all about proving points, a recurring one being that what Batman does is useless, because he’s not willing to end his enemies, and so they’ll always come back to haunt him. Depending on the writer, the Joker’s greatest goal is to perpetuate the game he and Batman have. One thing that is certain is that he doesn’t care about Bruce Wayne, the other identity. To him Batman is Batman with or without the mask, so he doesn’t care about his ‘real’ identity.
When it comes to Joker I don’t just think of the character in written form but also the portrayals on different media, as these have influenced the comics in one way or another, and if not so, then at least the public’s perception of the character.
Cesar Romero was the Joker of the 60s, and much like the comic incarnation, he was campy as hell and his crimes where goofy and even lighthearted, but he was still a cunning adversary for Batman. Most of the comedy in the character comes from this era, which evolved with the times to take on a darker tone as the Joker shifted from clown criminal to vicious psychopath.
The first person to merge these two aspects on-screen was Jack Nicholson, who made The Joker a complete menace and showed just how far he was willing to go for a good giggle or just to advance his plot. He also has hints of the controlled chaos that is inherent to the character. Everything the Joker does in the film is about control and fear. He uses people’s greed against them to gather them in one place and gas them with the Joker venom.
Mark Hamill has played the character the longest and he has shaped the character in and out of the screen. His Joker is cunning and perhaps the most vicious of all beyond the comics. If we look at the Arkham series, we can see this Joker poison Gothamites with his tainted blood just to force Batman to find a cure. Hamill’s Joker is also the first showing of the character to portray the very dark storyline where Joker kills Jason Todd. Sure, in the animated series they handle it differently, but the beats are still there and it is a vicious storyline, delivered masterfully by Hamill (though it’s been pointed to me since the release of this article that John Dimaggio did the crowbar killing in Under the Red Hood, though I’m not familiar with his work or the film).
Then we come Heath Ledger, whose Joker was the embodiment of the character’s Controlled Chaos. Actions seem without a pattern but there is a purpose. The opening heist in The Dark Knight is the perfect proof, a choreographed sequence of almost random events that lead to him escaping with the cash and no loose ends. His intimidation of the mobsters and criminals—and the pencil trick—meant to bring them over to his side so he could use them. Also, this film adapts The Killing Joke’s concept and gives the Joker the victory. He makes Harvey Dent have a really bad day an turns him into Two-Face by making him open the door and step into madness.
If you’re expecting me to talk about Jared Leto, you’ll be disappointed. His Joker is appalling and not in a good way, lacking any substance and the portrayal is, overall, beneath that of the men I mention above. He doesn’t even get the cackle right.
The Joker’s laugh has a deep meaning. It’s a fearsome thing, the cackle itself full of malice and menace. Hearing the Joker’s cackle sends chills down the spines of other characters, as they know that when the Joker is laughing, something bad is coming. But it also shows his capacity for humour, no matter how dark it may be. The Joker will laugh at anything, even his own misfortune, because in his madness, he’s seen the world as one gigantic joke.
When you take that and you bring in Jared Leto’s moans—he’s not really laughing—there is nothing in them, there is no personality, no soul. It’s just a noise without purpose, which can be said about every aspect of his portrayal.
The Joker is most definitely Batman’s greatest villain, but he’s a much more complex character than most people think he is. I hope this little rant of mine proves educational or at least makes you want to read more on the character. If I can get one person to go read No Man’s Land, then I’ll be happy, because it’s my favourite Batman storyline and it does a phenomenal job at showing the different personalities of the Batman villains. As I mentioned, the Joker is fantastic in it, but he’s largely absent for most of the story. You’ll have to read to discover what he’s up to!