My father can’t watch the movies Seven or The Dark Knight, and yet he never misses an opportunity to ingest every episode of CSI, including that episode where the teenager gets part of her skin chewed off by her friends…Google it. This mystified my mother, my sister, and I when we found this out because often we have to bear the brunt of my dad’s television viewing habits and that often entails hour upon hour of crime shows in which human beings perform murder after murder, rape after rape, torture after torture and by the end the viewer is offered one more closure on the loss of another human being’s life while being interrupted for five minute intervals so that someone can sell them Viagra, Yogurt, A low-Rate Adjustable Reverse Mortgage, and maybe a Snickers Bar. I’m not trying to mock my father, I really do love the old man, I just didn’t appreciate the fact that he said that he didn’t like the movie in a snide, pejorative tone, and then watched half the film with us before leaving during the climax scenes. You’d think a film that involves a man dressed up as a bat ramming straight into a garbage truck would appeal to him, but, alas, such is life.
I can’t say for sure, but I think the reason my dad didn’t enjoy The Dark Knight was for the same reason I love the movie: The Joker.
To be honest, I don’t really give much of a damn about the character of Batman. While I have some friends who worship the character as a god and have every individual issue of the comics memorized, I’ve approached Batman the way I’ve approached Fried Chicken. In small doses, it can exactly the sort of thing I want to ingest, but when consumed in large quantities after a while it can become fattening and give me heartburn. I love the possibilities of the character and the universe the character offers, but too often the culture of Batman, more specifically the fan-boy-gate-keeper culture of Batman can kill my passion before I’m even past the first page.
Fortunately, I discovered the character at the right point of my life: when I was a kid and found my parents VHS copy of Tim Burton’s Batman. Even as a kid I absolutely loved Jack Nicholson’s Joker going to the trouble to memorize every line he had in the movie, and today even without having it playing I can recite entire passages of the film from memory. And, for the record, I’m still the only one who realized that Jack said, “I’m of a mind to make some mooky.” I had no idea what that actually meant, but it was really really fun to say when I was eight.
Along with Tim Burton’s now canonical masterpiece (not to mention one of the last truly great films the man’s directed), I was also brought up on Batman: The Animated Series. While nostalgia has unfortunately dominated society at large, there are times when one can honestly look back at an animated television program and admit that what they spent every Saturday watching was a truly great show and not just an excuse to veg-out on the couch and inhale toy commercials and breakfast cereal. The show was brilliant and beautifully animated, but most importantly it had The Joker played by Luke “Mutherfucking” Skywalker, a.k.a. Mark Hamill. Hamill’s performance is still one of the standards of the Batman universe and it doesn’t hurt that he kept doing the part alongside Kevin Conroy in every subsequent Batman game.
These two experiences of the character seemed to define my idea of what the Joker and could be, and so as the Dark Knight came out, and I like many young fanboys were left mystified that the “gay cowboy actor” could be cast in the role I was terrified about what the new Batman film would do to a character that, at the time, I loved.
Heath Ledger’s Joker changed everything. And that’s not just an empty statement.
Watching The Dark Knight Again I was able to really observe how, in retrospect, the performance was truly paradigm altering in terms of what a villain could be in a film. And I don’t mean to Bally about with hyperbole but I do truly believe that The Joker has permanently altered what a villain can and should be to a post-9/11 audience. One scene, in particular, stands out to me, and it’s the torture recording.
The Joker: [the Joker has Brain Douglas captured and is recording him] Tell them your name.
Brian: Brian… Douglas.
The Joker: Are you the real Batman?
The Joker: No?
The Joker: No? Then why do you dress up like him?
[grabs Brian’s mask and dangles it in front of the camera]
The Joker: whooo-hoo-hoo-hoo!
Brian: Because he’s a symbol that we don’t have to be afraid of scum like you.
The Joker: Oh you do, Brian. You really do. Yeah. Oh shh, shh, shh, shh, shh. So, you think Batman’s made Gotham a better place? Hmm? Look at me. LOOK AT ME!
[turns camera to himself]
The Joker: You see? This is how crazy Batman’s made Gotham! You want order in Gotham? Batman must take off his mask and turn himself in. Oh, and every day he doesn’t, people will die. Starting tonight. I’m a man of my word.
While I’m not a fan of posting videos in my essays, sometimes the delivery is far more important than the actual lines themselves:
The scene is impossible to forget, and I like many people remember it not because the laughter was genuinely disturbing, but because what immediately followed was a long silent shot of Bruce Wayne’s penthouse and the movie theater being completely silent. For once in the history of obnoxious people talking during the movie, nobody had anything to say. It became clear at that moment that Batman movies were no longer about Bat-Shark Repellent and dancing the Bat-Tootsie.
Heath Ledger’s Joker was not like anything that had come down the pike of the action movie franchise, let alone the superhero franchises as they existed in the Pre-Marvel blossoming. Superhero movies had to be defined by a charm and feeling of positivity. Even at their darkest, there was an understanding that certain levels of violence or psychosis just weren’t going to be explored. And note, I’m writing principally about movies rather than the comics which always had elements in them that could be severely shocking or depressing or legitimately disturbing. It’s just that the Joker that Heath Ledger was playing didn’t feel like anything I had ever seen before in a major motion picture.
It feels ridiculous now to write this honesty on the internet given the fact that Ledger’s Joker has become a freaking meme and a staple at comic con instead of a legitimately frightening terrorist dressed up as a clown. Time has a tendency to lessen trauma and fear, and looking at the character again the use of the word terrorist doesn’t feel too bold. Apart from the fact that the characters in the film regularly refer to The Joker as such, it’s important to remember that The Dark Knight was riding the wave of the Post-9/11 sentiment that was redefining villainy in art. No longer were characters hyperbolic stand-ins for communists that were larger metaphors for the villainy of foreign nations. The Joker was just nobody.
Mayor: [regarding The Joker that’s sitting a holding cell] What’d we got?
Lt. James Gordon: Nothing. No matches on prints, DNA, dental. Clothing is custom, no labels. Nothing in his pockets but knives and lint. No name, no other alias.
It didn’t seem real in 2008 that some random individual could cause such chaos and misery, but then it was easy to remember that some random individual in the Middle East, as far as the United States was concerned, was able to fund and mastermind the death of close to 3000 people. It’s easy today to understand that any random person could walk into a school and shoot and kill children. It’s easy to recognize that some random person could walk into a church during a bible study and kill people. It’s easy to recognize that a lunatic could walk into a movie theater, call himself the Joker, and shoot the place up. It’s easy to think this because that’s the world we’re living in, and so in many ways, The Dark Knight managed to capture the Zeitgeist before the culture was even aware.
I don’t want my review to be only that The Joker changed things for filmmakers and the landscape of cinema period, because I’m positive that somebody’s probably already written that essay and done a better job than I could have. For me watching The Dark Knight again I was struck by how incredible the film was in terms of its direction, but then also because Heath Ledger’s performance really was incredible and I recognized how much it had mattered to me. I’ve written before about my fascination with anti-heroes when I was young, and I like many young men became obsessed with the Joker when the movie came out because he became, all at once, the defining anti-hero of my generation.
There was powerful darkness to The Joker that just couldn’t be denied and part of that was his now iconic stories about his scars. The first scene remains the most powerful because of a single line:
Gambol’s Bodyguard: Yo, Gambol, there’s somebody here for you. They say they just killed the Joker.
Gambol’s Bodyguard: They brought the body.
[a body bag is brought in and dropped on the table; Gambol unzips it, revealing Joker’s face]
Gambol: So. For dead, that’s 500…
The Joker: [sitting up and sticking a blade in Gambol’s mouth] How ’bout alive?
[Joker’s men hold the bodyguards]
The Joker: You wanna know how I got these scars? My father, was a drinker, and a fiend. And one night, he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn’t like that. Not. One. Bit. So, me watching, he takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it. He turns to me and says, “Why so serious?” Comes at me with the knife. “WHY SO SERIOUS?” He sticks the blade in my mouth… “Let’s put a smile on that face.” And…
[glancing at thug]
The Joker: Why so serious?
This scene was disturbing enough largely because the final action wasn’t actually shown, we only saw a reaction to the violence, but that in itself was effective enough. What became more frightening, as the film went on, is how this changed in a later scene. Rachael Dawes, Bruce Wayne’s former girlfriend, confronts the Joker at a party and he more or less attacks her while repeating the story, yet something’s changed:
The Joker: Well, hello, beautiful. You must be Harvey’s squeeze. And you *are* beautiful.
[he walks around her]
The Joker: Oh, you look nervous. Is it the scars? You want to know how I got ’em?
[He grabs Rachel’s head and positions the knife by her mouth]
The Joker: Come here. Hey! Look at me. So I had a wife. She was beautiful, like you. Who tells me I worry too much. Who tells me I ought to smile more. Who gambles and gets in deep with the sharks. One day, they carve her face. And we have no money for surgeries. She can’t take it. I just want to see her smile again. I just want her to know that I don’t care about the scars. So… I stick a razor in my mouth and do this…
[the Joker mimics slicing his mouth open with his tongue]
The Joker: …to myself. And you know what? She can’t stand the sight of me! She leaves. Now I see the funny side. Now I’m always smiling!
[Rachel knees the Joker in the groin; he merely laughs it off]
The Joker: A little fight in you. I like that.
As usual, my mother summed up what was scary about the Joker so beautifully the first time I showed it to her. After the film had ended and we talked about it for close to an hour or more, she seemed to summarize the entire film when she observed, “Whatever has happened to The Joker is so horrible to even he can’t clearly remember what it was.” It was a beautiful thought and I really, REALLY wish I had been the one to have it.
This observation though is probably what appealed to me about the Joker. Watching the movie over and over again I would memorize his lines because there was something about that darkness that appealed to me. I was young, depressed, not sure of who I was, frustrated by my seemingly perpetual virginity, and so looking at this character who just seemed so himself, there was some darkness of willpower that I either admired or else was simply fascinated by.
And perhaps one exchange in the film between Bruce Wayne and Alfred offers the clearest sentiment, which itself has become something of a cultural meme. After the party, Bruce and Alfred are attempting to determine the identity of the Joker and while they are discussing his motivations Alfred offers Bruce, and the audience, a lesson about humanity at large:
Bruce Wayne: [while in the underground bat cave] Targeting me won’t get their money back. I knew the mob wouldn’t go down without a fight, but this is different. They crossed the line.
Alfred Pennyworth: You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.
Bruce Wayne: Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. Just have to figure out what he’s after.
Alfred Pennyworth: With respect Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man that *you* don’t fully understand, either. A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So, we went looking for the stones. But in six months, we never met anybody who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.
Bruce Wayne: So why steal them?
Alfred Pennyworth: Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
This final line, much like the “Why so Serious,” is one that has entered the larger culture and can at times seem kitsch or cliche, but as I’m fond of writing cliches are cliches for a reason. The Joker is a character defined simply by his desire for chaos and anarchy, and his sheer force of will. Rather than try to contribute to society and make his life something that contributes positively to his community and culture, he finds far more amusement in breaking it all down.
One of the more annoying aspects of youth is its frustration with its own inexperience, and I’m not trying to talk down to teenagers, I’m trying to talk down to my former self. But only slightly. Being a young man I resented adults who seemed stable and comfortable and it didn’t make any sense that they seemed to have all the answers and all the power with what to do with my life, and so I, like many young men, gravitated to anti-hero because they provided me with some form of agency. The only difference between me and the rest of my friends was that, while they bought rap CDs and played sports, I listened to heavy metal and bought a “Why So Serious Poster.” The Joker became an icon to me not because I thought he was cool, but because he seemed to embody this idea of anti-authority which was exactly what I needed at that point in my life.
And watching the movie again I still absolutely loved The Joker, but not for the same reasons. I loved him, this time around, because I realized how much he defined the villain of my culture and society. No matter how many obnoxious libertarians, conservatives, and liberals turned The Joker into a meme about whatever-the-fuck-wh-the-fuck-cares, watching him getting beat up by Batman and still cackling was still legitimately frightening. Watching him throw a lit cigar on a giant pile of money and kill Lau (Yeah don’t forget that shit, there was a living dude on that giant pile of money), and watching him kill a man with a pencil was still a reminder that this character had not only played a major impact on my life, but upon the lives of movie-goers the world over.
The Dark Knight is arguably one of the finest films made in the last two decades, not solely because of the Joker, but Ledger’s performance did permanently alter the zeitgeist in ways that are still apparent. The Joker became part of the wider conversation about what is evil in our society and how can we recognize it?
The figure and face of atrocity is no longer a great body of a nation threatening nuclear war against one nation or another. In our Information Age evil is a single man walking into a classroom and brandishing an automatic rifle. It’s not a threat that is clean, or one that follows a real guiding philosophy or methodology and so fighting such an evil implies new moral questions about what can be done to stop such monsters.
It doesn’t seem like it should, but The Dark Knight is a film which always entertains and always leaves me wanting for more. It explored and introduced me to a character that altered my perception of what true wickedness and evil could be, but it also gave me a chance to be yet another in a long line of douchebags at the party who only thinks he can do a great Heath Ledger impression. And in the end, does that not somehow make me even more of the monster?
While looking for a few reviews and examinations of The Dark Knight, I stumbled upon this video which I think is pretty great analysis of the character and his effect not only upon the other characters of the film, but also how this could impact the viewer as well. Please enjoy.