In my odd little salute to Halloween, I’ve been examining how the Joker scares me personally as well as how the character depicts the many facets of evil. Now we’ve reached my favorite Joker, Heath Ledger’s turn in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 masterpiece The Dark Knight. In October of 2014, Kalie and I had been dating for about a month. She (obviously) wanted to do something scary for Halloween. Having maxed out our haunted house options, we settled on a scary movie double feature. She chose the original Ouija, then fresh in theatres. I chose The Dark Knight. My choice was scariest! No matter how many times I watch it, Heath Ledger’s Joker – a perfect vision of evil incarnate – always haunts me.
However, when I think about the scare potential of this Joker, I don’t think of myself nor my deep fear of clowns. Rather, I think of my friend Ashley. She and I went to see the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight in the summer of 2008 along with my brother David and some of our cousins. As usual, David and I were in line hours before the film began so we would be first inside the theatre. (You need to get those top shelf, center seats!!) Ashley arrived later, having come from work. After the film, unnerved by this murderous clown, Ashley asked if I would be willing to follow her home, staying on the phone with her until she was safely tucked in bed. Of course I would. What are friends for you know?
I pulled into Ashley’s parents’ house behind her and we continued to chat as she went inside. Then, in the middle of a sentence, Ashley let out a blood-curdling scream…and the line went silent. A thousand thoughts went through my head at once. What was I to do?? What was happening?!? Do I call back? Do I attempt to get inside her house and see if she needs help? The latter would require breaking some sort of window…and even then where would she be? Doesn’t the idea of some sort of malevolent force being in her house seem unlikely? But still!!!! Here is one of my oldest, closest, and very best friends asking me to make certain she gets home safe after a movie that freaked her out and now her phone suddenly disconnects after her HUGE scream. I’ve never heard, before or since, someone scream with such abject terror as Ashley did in that moment.
My mind raced frantically over the next few seconds, considering my options when – thank God! – my phone rang again. It was Ashley! She was alive! What had happened was her mom, hearing Ashley come in, came to see who was up/how the movie was. Ashley, not expecting her mom to be in the hallway at 3:00am (and really freaked out from the movie) reacted as though the Joker himself had just jumped out of her bedroom with an army of violent, blood-spewing ghost zombies waiting to dismember her. She screamed, dropped her phone, and it hung up on me.
This is one (admittedly enjoyable) example of how Heath Ledger’s Joker can scare us. But those personal jump scare moments are only scratching the surface of this character. The real terror of this role lies in what his vision of the Joker represents symbolically. More than any other cinematic Joker, it’s Heath Ledger who gives us the Joker at his darkest, most terrifying. This Joker is the clearest illustration of the Joker as evil incarnate. Heath Ledger’s performance is so masterful he disappears completely into the role. I’ve seen The Dark Knight dozens of times and I’ve yet to see Heath Ledger in the film. I find only the Joker.
I make no secret of the fact that I’m a Marvel over DC guy. I also think Batman is pretty overrated. But The Dark Knight is something special. This was a comic book movie that illustrated the genre’s potential to be transcendent art. Christopher Nolan pitted Batman, as a personification of compassionate justice, against the Joker, an image of chaos without conscience or limits, and begged the profoundly important question: Can compassionate justice actually triumph over evil? How we answer this question shapes our morals and helps guide how we live our lives. As a result, the film is as memorable for its philosophy as it is for its superheroics.
This film represents the central question we must wrestle with when we talk of the Kingdom of God or utopia or even just building a better world. Whenever you discuss the potential of a perfect society someone will raise the question, “What do you do with that one person who won’t play along?” Here we see that theme writ large in the conflict between the Batman and the Joker.
So often the Joker is depicted as mad, insane, or psychotic in Batman tales. It’s a troubling issue on its own how often the mentally ill are demonized as visions of evil in horror tales or superhero stories. But I think it’s a particular issue with the Joker as it misses the point. In The Dark Knight we clearly see that everyone, from Batman to Gordon to the mob, think the Joker is psychotic. And, as Travis Langley points out in his essay “Which Batman?” from the book Batman and Psychology it appears the Joker’s been treated as insane before. “He keeps making involuntary, repetitive movements – flicking his tongue, smacking his mouth – which suggest tardive dyskinesia, a condition that arises as a consequence of long-term or high-dosage use of antipsychotic (neuroleptic) medication. Even after discontinuing the drugs’ use, patients may show these tic-like actions for the rest of their lives” (23).
But the Joker, especially here in The Dark Knight, isn’t crazy. He is evil. And that is an important distinction. When the Joker makes his offer to the mob bosses – that he’ll kill the Batman for a fee – we get a glimpse into his psyche and self-image. Gambol tells him, “You’re crazy.” The Joker replies slowly, and with menace, “No I’m…I’m not.” He doesn’t see himself as crazy even as he leaves a playing card behind as the way to get in contact with him. He is not acting as he is because he is unhinged or disturbed or mentally ill. He is acting as he is because he’s evil and he resents any assertions to the contrary. When faced with absolute evil, it is only natural to explain it away as mental illness because we struggle to interpret or understand its true nature.
To help underscore this point, allow me to discuss what disturbed me the most each time I saw the film in theatres. As the Joker crashes the mob’s meeting he performs a deeply disturbing “magic trick.”
Every single time I saw this movie in the theatre the crowd would erupt in uproarious laughter when the Joker would drive the pencil into that man’s brain. To repeat, the crowd would laugh when the Joker killed a man by driving a pencil into his brain through his eye. What??? How is this funny??? We aren’t supposed to empathize with the Joker! We aren’t supposed to relate to him! I think (or rather, I hope) the laughter was a sort of distancing technique. Just as we hope to explain unadulterated evil away as mental illness, so too do we prefer to laugh at unthinkable horror. It’s easier than wrestling with the reality that this sort of darkness can truly exist in our world.
What makes this even more difficult to consider is Nolan’s brilliant point that the Joker is perhaps not as distant a monstrosity as we wish him to be. As the Joker is held in MCU lock-up we learn that he lacks identification of any kind. He has no ID, no matches on finger prints, and no labels of any kind on his custom clothing. There is nothing to give a hint towards who he is. The symbolism here is important. Without an identity, without an other to place the blame for this evil on, we’re forced to see how the Joker can be – or can be born in – anyone. That is a terrifying thought.
As viewers, when he shares his back-story with Gambol we begin to sympathize with him. There’s a reason for his violence! His father “was a drunkard and a fiend” and as such the violence and abuse he endured as a child was responsible for setting him on the road he’s traveled. But as the Joker starts telling the story of how he got his scars the second time we begin to realize just how truly sinister he is. It’s a completely different story!!! This time he speaks of his wife, gambling troubles, and a broken marriage! He is underscoring that there is no reason for his actions outside of doing evil for the sake of evil. He just is.
This brings us back to the central question of the film – How do we defeat this sort of absolute evil? This is a frustratingly complex problem to face. At his breaking point, Bruce admits as much to Rachel. When Bruce plans on turning himself in she asks, “You honestly think that’s going to keep the Joker from killing people?” Bruce replies, “Maybe not. But I have enough blood on my hands. And I’ve seen now what I would have to become to stop a man like him.” Bruce feels he can’t defeat the Joker without becoming a monster himself. Again, this is the key question. Is he right? Must we embrace the darkness to expel it? Must we fight fire with fire? Must we, as singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn suggests, “kick the darkness until it bleeds daylight?”
Twistedly, that approach is exactly what the Joker is counting on. In the hospital, the Joker tells Harvey, “Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! You know I just do things.” He asserts, again and again, that he has no plan. He goes on to assure Harvey, “I’m an agent of chaos.” Evil works in this way, often pretending to be something other than what it is. Chaos is scary in its own right…but thinking there’s no plan keeps us from looking for the plan. But the Joker knows exactly what he’s doing. He has a plan and a goal.
The Joker wants to prove that he is humanity’s ultimate end. He represents what we are all born to be. He is our true nature. To illustrate this, he targets both Batman and Harvey Dent. He wants to compromise them and, in making these heroes fall, prove he’s right. In their battle on the street the Joker wants Batman to shoot/run over/kill him. If this happens then the Joker has won. He’s beaten Batman by making Batman sacrifice who he is. In taking a life all of Batman’s morals are rejected and invalidated. This is what’s most important to the Joker. The Joker doesn’t care about his life as anything more than a means to an end. He wants the Batman to fall.
For me, the most important scene in the film is when Batman confronts the Joker in the interrogation room at MCU. All of the film’s most important themes play out here.
Here the Joker underscores his vision of humanity as well as a vitally important point in our attempts to counter and defeat evil both in our personal lives as well as on a local/national/global scale. Batman can’t punch the Joker into submission. He can’t threaten him or physically defeat him. This brilliant scene both illustrates the fallacy of thinking we can ever use violence to truly fix our problems as well as shows how evil can’t be defeated through brute force or violence. It can’t be dominated in that way. But once again we’ve reached the central question of the film – How then do we defeat evil like this?
After their confrontation at the climax of the film, Batman tosses the Joker from the building they’re on. The Joker laughs gleefully all the way down until Batman catches him and pulls him back up. Again, the Joker wants Batman to kill him. Remember, in countering evil with evil methods, we fall ourselves. That’s why the Joker needs Batman to kill him. He wins that way. As Batman pulls him back up the Joker observes, “Ah, ah, ah, you. You just couldn’t let me go could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible. Aren’t you? Huh? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.” Here it is, Nolan’s answer to the question.
Can compassionate justice defeat evil without conscience or limits? He leaves it unanswered. Is the Joker right? Will this go on forever? Or can the Batman win? The film brilliantly ends on a question mark!!! As a result, it forces us to try and figure it out ourselves and leaves us grappling with some very big questions. Whose vision of humanity is accurate? Can compassionate justice triumph over evil? Should Batman kill the Joker? Can you save the city (the world, humanity) with the Joker still in it? Batman and the Joker are battling for the soul of Gotham, the soul of humanity.
For these reasons and so many more I’ll never tire of watching The Dark Knight. These deep, important, philosophical questions (in addition to the performance of a lifetime!) are also why Heath Ledger’s Joker is my all time favorite portrayal of the character. I love what he brings to the role…and I love what his performance forces me to consider each time I think of it. I find the film as important theologically as it is cinematically.
Now we’ve considered Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson, and Cesar Romero. We only have one Joker left! And next Monday (on All Hallow’s Eve itself!!) we’ll explore Jared Leto’s most recent depiction of the Clown Prince of Crime from this summer’s Suicide Squad! And then I can finally stop thinking about clowns for awhile…