It’s been ten years.
When I decided to write something for the tenth anniversary of The Dark Knight, I spent a lot of time thinking about what angle to use. And for ten years, I’ve quietly waited for a villain that would supersede the Joker. It hasn’t happened yet. And I’m not sure it ever will.
The greatness of The Dark Knight as a film is inextricably tied to the greatness of its villain. As many have observed, The Dark Knight isn’t Batman’s movie – it’s the Joker’s. And as they say, a hero is only as good as its villain.
In exploring the greatness of The Dark Knight, I want to explore what makes the Joker perhaps the greatest villain ever written for the screen. And in conclusion, I want to explore a singular, specific shot in the film.
So let’s dive into the very heart of the matter:
What makes The Joker terrifying is not his penchant for dynamite, gunpowder, and gasoline. Nor is it his theatrics, his showmanship, or his boldness. What makes him terrifying is that he plays his game at the deepest of levels.
The opponent: the Batman. The pawns: Rachel Dawes and Jim Gordon. The prime game-piece: Harvey Dent. And the prize?
“You didn’t think I’d risking losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fistfight with you?”
The Joker’s aim is none other than the corruption and destruction of the soul.
He is not content with the soul of a single individual, but the very soul of Gotham as represented by the soul of one man – the best and brightest that city has to offer – Harvey Dent. These are the greatest of stakes. For if he can corrupt the best, then he can by proxy corrupt everyone else. As the Joker himself says, Harvey Dent is his ace in the hole, the most powerful piece on the board. If Harvey falls, if that king is toppled, then the game is lost.
The most convincing villains are the ones whose philosophies are in some way correct. And the frightening truth is that, like all truly great villains, the Joker is right. Anyone can be corrupted.
The soul is the Joker’s battleground, his game board, his plaything. He strips away layer after layer to see what the thing is made of. And he does so not only to Harvey, but to the Batman as well.
As Harvey Dent himself observes, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” We see this on display twice in the film. First with Harvey Dent – the shining paragon of Gotham brought low by Joker’s machinations. And secondly with the Batman. Once seen as a hero, he must become the villain - the object of the collective scorn of Gotham city - in order to maintain the peace.
But let’s take it one step further, and apply that theorem not to Dent or the Batman, but to the Joker himself. The Joker is the villain. But if you rewind that operating principle and consider that on a long enough timeline all heroes turn to villains – we gain some insight into The Joker’s journey, and the terrifying reality becomes clear: that the Joker might once have been a good man.
The film brilliantly leaves the Joker’s backstory ambiguous – we get several different versions from his own mouth, leaving it unclear. But what we can infer is that the world got to him. The thresher of the world stripped him down and corrupted him until all that remained was chaos, leaving him with only the desire to return the favor.
So in a certain light, one could look at Harvey Dent, the Batman, and the Joker as the same character – just at different points on the spectrum of order versus chaos, light versus dark, hero versus villain.
So when we, the audience, first encounter the Joker, he’s barely even human. He’s not so much a person as he is a primal force, like a hurricane or an earthquake. Everything else has been stripped away. He is, as he himself puts it, an agent of chaos. A walking, talking incarnation of chaos itself.
So when the Batman gets drawn into the struggle with him, we see how very futile it is. A man cannot fight a storm. And faced with the schemes of the Joker, Batman’s strength is transformed into a weakness. As the Joker tells him, “You have nothing to threaten me with, nothing to do with all your strength.” Instead of might, there is impotence. Instead of power, there is powerlessness. The Joker has stripped Batman of his greatest weapon – literally his strength – in order to show everyone - including the audience and Batman himself – exactly what he is made of.
Batman must rise to the challenge. Where Harvey Dent allowed himself to be corrupted, Batman must not. Where the Joker embraced chaos, Batman must not. When the villain is as great and as effective as the Joker, it creates an environment that allows the hero to be his most heroic self. It creates a set of conditions that allow for the most triumphant and the most meaningful victory. And the human spirit has told us time and time again that the most meaningful victory, the most heroic act…is self-sacrifice.
As the Joker himself puts it, “This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.” Batman will not budge, and certainly neither will the Joker. They are on a collision course, and the inevitable fallout between these two figures will be catastrophic.
And in the end, Batman and Gordon are left to salvage what victory they can from the wreckage of the chaos the Joker has left in his wake. And that meager victory sees Batman sacrificing the reputation he has built as the protector of Gotham. He must sacrifice his identity as the hero, and live with Gotham viewing him as the villain. In that way, those earlier words become prophecy. Batman lives long enough to see himself become the villain. In that way, the Joker succeeds. In that way, the Joker wins.
I could have included this at the outset, but I wanted to show this organically. But I will include it now, before I conclude. There are really three things that a villain must do in order to be great, in order to stand above the rest.
The villain must be right.
The villain must take the hero’s strength, and make it a weakness.
And the villain must, in some way, succeed.
To further my point, I would like to talk about one particular shot, a shot that is – in my mind – one of the single most significant shots in cinematic history.
And that shot is this:
In this scene, Batman has fought and disarmed the Joker, who is hanging upside down from a high-rise building. It is no accident that this moment in the story is chosen for the philosophical palaver between the two key figures, the crux of the dilemma, in the balance of which hangs the city – and very soul - of Gotham.
Here we see the Joker on full display – he reveals all, holding nothing back. Earlier in the film he claimed he had no plan. However, one must consider who he says this to: Harvey Dent, the very person he is trying to corrupt. It should be abundantly clear to the audience that the Joker not only has a plan, but a masterful one. One might ask that if the Joker is chaos incarnate, how can he have a plan? To which I would answer, chaos is simply a pattern that we cannot yet comprehend.
As the Joker speaks, espousing his philosophy, he is literally speaking from a world turned upside down. He has succeeded. He has won. He has turned the world on its end. Up is down. Light is dark. Heroes are villains. But that’s not all.
Before the very eyes of the audience, the camera shifts, rotating to match the Joker’s orientation, so that even though he is hanging upside down, the audience sees him as right-side up. This simple maneuver of the camera is used as a powerful and devastating storytelling tool, one that hammers home the point that perhaps there is some logic in the Joker’s madness. That maybe – just maybe – in a world as dark as the one he inhabits, his view of things is the correct one. A simple camera move legitimizes everything the Joker is saying, and creates a terrifying moral dilemma for the audience.
For the briefest of moments, we see the world as he sees it.
A simple shift in perspective is enough to make us question our place on the spectrum of order and chaos, of good and evil.
And if that’s not brilliant film-making, if that’s not a brilliant villain, then I don’t know what is.