When the topic of great characters came up, I really didn’t have to think very long to figure out who I wanted to write about. I love villains, and one of my favorites is the Joker.
Of course, when talking about the Joker, some narrowing down should be done. After all, he’s been with us just as long as his arch nemesis, Batman. His first appearnce was in Batman #1 in 1940. That’s over 75 years of insane villainy, and as one would expect with a comic book character t
hat old, he’s gone though a number o iterations. Add in television and film adaptations, and you’ve got every kind of interpretation you can imagine, from the downright psychotic to the ridiculously silly.
Since I’m not writing a book here, I’ll keep it simple and stick with my personal favorite, and probably one of the currently more well-known renditions — Heath Ledger’s depiction in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It’s an obvious choice, I know, but completely ignoring the fact that Ledger’s work was so good that he won a posthumous Oscar for playing a supervillain, I’ve come to think of this character as one of my all time favorites because, unlike so many great villains, he is pretty close to an perfectly unbeatable bad guy.
The reason I say this is because of the character’s motivations. In the film, we’re given any number of ideas for what the Joker’s end game is. He wants to bring down the city by destroying it’s favorite son, Harvey Dent. He wants to destroy Batman. He wants to show the world that everyone is, in the end, just like him. He’s a gun for hire working for the criminals of Gotham. He wants to show the world that no one has control over their own lives. He just wants to watch the world burn.
Most of these explanations are given to him by the other characters. Nolan nicely shows us each of these as the story progresses. He turns Harvey Dent into Harvey Two-Face, but while he sends Dent out with a gun, he doesn’t seem to pay much attention to what happens after. He kidnaps people to force Batman out into the open, but then sends the whole city after the guy who comes forward to give up Batman’s identity. He sets up two ferries to kill each other to show that people are crappy when the chips are down, but while he seems disappointed when they don’t he doesn’t seem all that put out by it and proceeds to try and blow them up himself. He goes through the whole rigamarole with Gotham’s criminal underworld so he can get half their money, but then burns it all.
While that last one might support the whole watching the world burn hypothesis, the Joker never really commits to any of the ideas tossed around throughout the film, even the ones he gives himself.
In short, no one really knows what he truly wants except him, and he’s repeatedly shown to be a liar. He gives us multiple different stories on how he got his trademark smile. After the explosion that takes half of Harvey Dent’s face, he tells Dent that he’s doesn’t have a plan, he just likes creating chaos. But really, only an idiot could possibly believe the things he does are all spur of the moment actions. This man has a plan, probably many plans. We’re just not let in on any of them, and this is a huge strength.
One of the biggest blunders people can do with a villain is explain. We get origin stories, detailed psychologies, megalomaniacal monologues, and sympathetic backgrounds.
I don’t want to sympathize with a great villain. I don’t want excuses as to why they are what they are. I want to be afraid of the villain. I want to be seduced into thinking the villain will somehow come out on top. I want a villain that will make the hero work for every inch. And honestly, I so would not want to meet the Joker in a dark alley. Would you?
To get this reaction from the audience unpredictability is a major asset, and the Joker is unpredictability in all it’s face painted glory. He has no boundaries, is completely psychotic, hyper-intelligent, and most frighteningly of all, creative. And all the while, he’s having entirely too much fun.
To bring us back to why I think he’s a perfectly unbeatable bad guy is this — it doesn’t really matter why he’s doing what he’s doing. One of the things I love about many of Nolan’s films is his conscious decision to leave some of the story up to the audience. He did it with that contentious ending to the film Inception (is it a dream or not and does it matter?). He does the same thing with the Joker. He leaves the motivations up to other people, which is a fabulous choice, and one I’d like to see more often. I tend to go toward the trickster-ish agent of chaos turning everyone’s plans on their heads just to see what they do, but that’s just me. What could be worse that a character who doesn’t want to establish a new world, but rather simply wants the upsetting of the current one. Someone who wants to poke the hornet’s nest for the sheer joy of seeing the resultant chaos and watching how people react to it.
Can you really beat a character like? The idea intrigues me, and is one I very much want to explore.
So, anyone else got a favorite Joker or another fabulously unpredictable bad guy? Leave a comment and tell us why.