(You all probably know how Batman goes by now, but just in case: Here be spoilers)
Film is a very personal, subjective thing. A movie can be very popular and be terrible, and a movie can be very unpopular and be a work of art. Occasionally, however, a work comes along that is both popular and a work of art, and for me, an example of that would be Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
Now there are many, many reasons that this movie is so brilliant, but probably the first thing that comes to mind is the film’s masterful interpretation of the Joker. For those who don’t read comics (me included) there wasn’t much to go on. All the Joker is to us is a creepy guy with creepy makeup who laughs very creepily. Decent villain so far… for a comic book, anyway. So what was it that brought so much terrifying realism to a villain who is usually painted in bright colors on a comic panel? He’s mysterious, evil, and charismatic we know that, but there is a certain je ne sais quoi that makes him different from the many villains we know with those same attributes. So what is it?
One thing in this mystery which we can take as a given is that the Joker was such a good villain because of how well he played off of the hero, Batman. You can’t have a perfect villain if he isn’t perfectly matched with the hero. So what made Batman so good? Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Trilogy is not quite what he was in any other interpretation of Batman before him. He was darker, deeper and better than he had ever been before. And more than that, Christopher Nolan made use of a literary device that is a marvelous frame for an excellent character: The Christ Figure.
The Christ Figure is a great technique in literature, ingrained permanently in the art of Western Culture. Though obviously from Christian roots, one doesn’t have to be at all religious to appreciate it. The idea behind the literary Christ Figure is a character who is good and yet who takes evil or responsibility for evil upon himself in order to help or save others. Sonya in Crime and Punishment is a good example of this. She is shy and pure, and yet she sells herself into prostitution in order to feed and protect Katerina’s children, who aren’t even her real siblings. The Christ Figure is used in storytelling to make a character instantly likable. We can’t help but admire such a sacrificial person and we want them to win in the end.
Nolan’s Batman is another good example of this character type: He risks his life defending Gotham from evil although he owes them nothing. But if Batman is the Christ in the story, then what is the Joker? The answer might make this article sound like it’s being read from a podium in a mega-church, but the Joker is Satan.
The Satanic Figure is another excellent technique in literature. They are, unsurprisingly, the polar opposites of Christ Figures. Where the Christ in a story sacrifices all to help others and reaps no benefit for himself, the Satanic Figure works to destroy and corrupt, but surprisingly, also while reaping no benefit. We react in a visceral manner to such people. If a villain wants money, we can understand that. Power? We can relate to that too. But for absolutely no apparent gain? This is where we are taken aback. If someone performs an action with no gain for anyone, we consider that foolish. If someone commits evil with no gain for anyone, we consider that depraved. A very good example of a Satanic Figure is Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello, one of the most loathsome characters in literature. With relatively little motivation, the Machiavellian Iago utterly destroys innocent people and has nothing to show for it in the end. He merely takes sick pleasure in the destruction his hatred has wrought. Nothing more.
At this point, it is fairly obvious to see how the Joker is a Satanic Figure. He burns a mountain of money. He rejects powerful mob bosses. Money and power don’t interest him. As Alfred so eloquently puts it, he just wants to see the world burn.
So how does this make the Joker such an excellent villain? Well, let’s go back to what I said earlier: You can’t have a perfect villain if he isn’t perfectly matched with the hero. Looking at the character types in both Batman and the Joker, it’s clear to see that they are evenly matched opposites. But perfectly? That has to be illustrated with their actions and motivations. This is where it gets really cool.
Throughout The Dark Knight, we are constantly reminded of Batman’s deeply held belief that Gotham is good and the Joker’s belief that Gotham is evil. This conflict of beliefs reaches a verbal climax near the end of the film, when Batman and the Joker are fighting in the tower. The key line is when Batman says “What were you wanting to prove? That deep down we’re all as ugly as you?”. And there we have the Joker’s real goal. Yes, he did want to prove that. You can tell by Heath Ledger’s disappointed expression when the ferries fail to blow up. The Joker wanted to prove that Gotham was evil. Why? Because he is evil. As witnessed by the way he taunts people throughout the film, he cannot believe in good in others because he possesses no good himself. This is why the Joker is so fascinated by Batman, who completely contradicts his theory of absolute corruption.
Now fast forward a little later, to when Batman is standing over the body of Harvey Dent. The White Knight of Gotham is dead. Not only in the physical sense, but in the spiritual sense. The incorruptibility he stood for is dead, brought down by the Joker’s demonically clever tactics. Batman knows that the people of Gotham can never know what Dent did. It would destroy their belief in good, and thereby twist them into the image of the Joker. And so, Batman does the only thing he can; shoulders the blame. And by doing so, he becomes a perfect foil of the Joker. While the Joker takes his own depravity and projects it onto others, Batman looks the depravity of others and takes it upon himself.
And so, Batman and the Joker are shown to be true opposites. A Savior and a Devil. And it is therein that we find a huge reason behind The Dark Knight‘s genius. One would be hard pressed to find a single work where the hero and villain are so perfectly matched. The Joker himself acknowledges it in the interrogation scene. “You complete me.” he says to Batman. And even without any literary study and dissection, we know on a instinctual level that he is right.