As far as villains go, the Joker is probably amongst my favourite, although of course I cannot really pick ‘favourites’ in that area as I am fascinated by almost all villains, provided they do not fall in my ‘repulsive’ spectrum. (And ironically, I wrote a thesis about those as well. Go figure.) Of course, originating as a comic book character, there are many different versions of the Joker and it’s hard to pin-point a specific one – an issue that I may address in my PhD if my proposal ever gets accepted, so fingers crossed. My favourite Joker, though, is the one portrayed by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008), who in my opinion embodies his essence extremely well. (Another great portrayal is in the graphic novel Joker.)
Joker’s role in The Dark Knight is incredibly active, incredibly chaotic and yet incredibly plotted – and that’s what he is all about in a nutshell. He has no respect for the lives of other people, plays his own minions (sadly, not Despicable Me minions, but it would be a fun version of the film, wouldn’t it?) against each other, deceives them – yes, not even his allies are safe from his chaotic, ruthless behaviour. He tends to hurt people for no apparent reason whatsoever other than a whim. The perfect manifestation of that is his little ‘magic trick’, where he makes a pencil disappear – by inserting it into a person; definitely a creative kind of guy. But despite all this chaotic behaviour, he plans his actions meticulously, thoroughly, and in expressive detail. Considering that even something like an arrest of himself may be part of his plan, there really is no telling what he comes up with next.
And the visuals of course show off his personality perfectly. His white face is a result of rather messily maintained make-up and he sports a creepy Glasgow smile. Many shots focus on his face precisely to achieve this uncomfortable, disturbing effect. Heath Ledger also does an excellent job in portraying his instability through erratic behaviour and tics, and generally giving off the impression that he may just snap and rip out your throat any second now. Given what he actually does in the film, not an unlikely event.
Joker is entirely inaccessible, and in that he is very complex all the same. Why is he doing any of what he’s doing? We don’t know, and we won’t any time soon either. There is only one piece of background information that we could make use of – if, once again, he wasn’t so terribly inconsistent in providing that information:
“Wanna know how I got those scars?”
Yes, maybe we do, but not while you’re holding that knife there, thank you very much, and put the pencil away. But any desire to understand him better is not fulfilled in those scenes either; neither on character nor spectator level. There are several versions of his scar story, so how are we supposed to know what made him that way – an abusive father, his own insanity, his wife? Eventually we need to accept his incredibility and the fact that he deliberately makes himself inaccessible. He just is what he is – just like Hannibal Lecter the way I analysed him in my previous post. Although, of course, there are some interesting theories out there that add a real nice layer to him too.
There is one main motive, though, that Joker carries throughout the whole film: the need to spread chaos and defy order. This motive, and his unstable conflicting personality, is what makes him most intriguing in my opinion. Although he certainly belongs to the category of ‘core villain,’ he is also, and even more, of what I classify as ‘philosophical villain’, giving valuable insights into human nature. He sees chaos, instead of order, as ‘fair’ and promotes this constantly by placing such a strong focus on chance – whether it is his experiment with Harvey and Rachel, or, on a much larger scale, his ferry experiment. Both serve the purpose of introducing an element of chance, of chaos, but also of showing everyone that evil and chaos are an inherent part of human nature. Dent, transformed from the knight in shining armour into the villain Two-Face, embodies this philosophy; from a ‘hero with a face’ to a ‘villain with two faces.’
Again, the viewer is confronted with a disturbing choice: accepting or questioning Joker’s statements and, thereby, coming to terms with one’s own world view. Seeing through the eyes of the Joker (quite literally even moving with his perspective in one particular scene) can be a chilling experience, but one that might reinforce our sense of reality, society, and human nature. But as his experiments show, he seems to have some point at least – and that is something that may linger with you until well after the film is over…
* This post is part of the project ‘Imperial March’. You can read more about the project and its genesis here. This post is also in parts a summarised/simplified version of my ‘Joker’ chapter in my academic work ‘Reading Over to the Dark Side: The Complexity of the Male Villain in Film and Literature’, which you can find here.