Earlier today, I was watching YouTuber Just Write’s excellent analysis on how Batman has fit into every traditional character archetype over his many iterations (I encourage you to watch Part 1 and Part 2), and it reminded me of a striking similarity between two of those.
Look familiar? You’re damn right it does…
Christopher Nolan offered this appropriate homage to his predecessor in Batman film lore, Tim Burton, while simultaneously emulating his and all other previous (and successive) versions of the Joker. Yet both versions are worth taking a closer look at as they provide us with a key look into the methods and motivations of each opposing character.
In the 1989 Batman, Jack Nicholson’s ever-smiling and often terrifying Joker stands unwavering in the bullseye of Batman’s crosshairs as the Batman unloads his arsenal. Everything misses, of course, and the Joker shoots Batman out of the sky with a comically oversized pistol. Here, the Joker stands firm at the foiling of his plan to gas Gotham’s residents at the Batwings of Batman. This Batman is down with killing the Joker as it is the only way to ensure his murderous spree against the innocents (and admittedly guilty too) will be stopped. This Joker is just too crazy to keep around. He’s certainly a man with a plan, but his actions are too wild to predict. Joker knows Batman is gunning him down, but his madness proves superior as he is miraculously to centralized for Batman’s big guns to hit. This proves better for us, the viewers, too, as it puts the Joker back in the position of power heading into the climactic final battle between our foes. I wonder who will win?
Flash forward 19 years, and we look at what many – including myself – consider to be the best Batman film, The Dark Knight. A major reason why so many share this opinion is thanks to Heath Ledger’s magnificent performance as the Joker, a performance so transcendent of its source material, that it’s easy to forget how well written this Joker is. Consider this scene: compared to the 1989 version, it bears the similarity of Batman accelerating toward the Joker with deadly potential (or rather kinetic energy, in this instance). However, Nolan’s Batman does not kill – it is his one rule to not take a life – so even with Gotham’s greatest adversary literally standing in the center of his path, daring Batman to hit him, Batman cannot bring himself to do it. In what should be a physical battle that ends in the Joker going kersplat! in big, bold, bright lettering (in both movies), Batman ends up crashing and provides the Joker with a prime opportunity to kick him when he’s down. Thankfully, in The Dark Knight he has help, but this scene takes place only halfway through the story, and only goes to show how dangerous this ever-terrifying and often smiling Joker really is. Here he stands firm, not due to madness, but because he is a man with a plan. In fact, he is a man with a plan for every occasion. He has plans ready for every contigency, but here it comes down to a dichotomy:
- If Batman hits him, then Batman kills him; Batman breaks his one rule and is corrupted as a murderous vigilante – Result: Joker wins
- If Batman misses him, then Batman proves he cannot bring himself to kill; the Joker can play this to Batman’s disadvantage and either uncover and expose his secret identity, or continue to shame Batman in the public eye by terrorizing Gotham and blaming Batman for his continued killings – Result: Joker wins
Of course, neither of these completely comes to fruition, but both kind of do. The Joker is willing to die at Batman’s hands to stain Batman’s heroic persona, but he is also happy to stay alive and tarnish it more cleverly through tarnishing others, especially Harvey Dent, who becomes a true agent of chaos, more akin to the comical, gruesomely giddy Joker in Batman. The true genius of Nolan’s Joker is that in the end he is physically defeated by Batman and detained by the police, but he still wins. Yeah, really! Remember how Batman hops on his bad motor scooter and rides away from the fuzz at the end? That’s because the Joker got what he wanted, and we get more than a glimpse of this form the action-packed street showdown that sends up its serious film origin.
Thanks for reading and watching! As always, feel free to send me feedback and well wishes and whatever else to firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to batarang back here next week for more fun.
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