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The Joker's Virtues

Although he is evil, The Joker shows us what it's like to live "in the zone."

by James Leroy Wilson
July 31, 2008

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The Joker's Virtues
Before watching The Dark Knight, I saw a headline suggesting that many people are concerned the movie is too dark. My instant reaction was that Batman is supposed to be dark. But upon seeing the movie, I understand the complaint.

Movies tend to be unrealistic, especially action movies. But most are set in "our" world, that is, Hollywood's version of the real world as we know it, and while the plots may be implausible and the action sequences incredible, they're based on something that might actually happen in real life. I'll call these "standard movies." Other movies are set in a fantasyland: the future, other planets, a made-up past of swords and sorcery, or comic-book cities with superheroes. Batman and the Gotham where he resides are from the fantasyland of comic books.

The problem with The Dark Knight is that the Gotham it depicts resembles the "real" world too much, with external shots of skylines resembling New York and Chicago that are used in standard action thrillers like, say, the Die Hard movies, and not the dark yet colorful, stylized skylines in comic books and the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman flicks. This sense of realism, and the serious, complicated plot, make the Batman costume, and Batman's gadgets and stunts, seem ridiculous and out of place. A dark and serious Batman plot requires a dark but surreal set design to remind us that this isn't even pretending to be real life. It appears that director Christopher Nolan tried to make a "standard movie" out of Batman instead of a "comic book movie." But Batman is simply not a plausible "standard movie" character. His costume, gadgets, and abilities are just too far-fetched.

I think the reason Heath Ledger is receiving justifiably high praise for his performance as The Joker is that he was adapted to become  a "standard movie" villain instead of a "comic book movie" villain. Consider the contrast with Jack Nicholson by clicking to this image  (Image taken from the Chaser forum; Nicholson's Joker to the left, Ledger's to the right).

No matter how Nolan may have tried with this and with the previous Batman Begins, there's a comes a point where applying Batman to a more real-life environment just makes him look all the more ridiculous. But Ledger's Joker seems all the more charismatic precisely because he doesn't seem out-of-place in this movie the way Batman himself does.

That said, I did enjoy The Dark Knight. And in a way, the "standard movie" realism make both the Batman and The Joker more effective as archetypes. Batman is a very flawed superhero, crossing lines of truth and decency, and abusing power with the excuse that his intentions are good. On the other hand, his intentions are indeed good, in that he believes in the fundamental decency of people and that they deserve a life free from crime.

But what struck me about Ledger's Joker is that he has at least three very admirable traits that help explain why he is such an effective force for evil. They don't justify his philosophy or excuse the violence or mayhem he inflicts, but they are nice traits to have:

1. Fearlessness. The Joker avoids near-certain death on more than one occasion not by running from or cheating death but by looking it straight in the eye. Batman is also fearless, but is protected by his suit and gadgets.

2. Always has fun. No matter where he's at or what he's doing, The Joker seems to be where he wants to be. He plans ahead, but he lives in the present moment. Batman, on the other hand, thinks in terms of past and future; he's tormented by the past and looks forward to a better day for Gotham.

3. Keeps his wits about him. This follows in part from #1 and #2 above, but it's more than that: The Joker can withstand pain and mock those who are inflicting pain on him; he's always thinking of the next move. Batman, however, can succumb to anger and rage.

You could say that the Joker lives much of his life "in the zone." And this clearly adds to his charisma, allowing him to attract co-conspirators who aid him in his schemes. What makes him "insane" rather than a "rational" criminal mastermind you may see in other movies, is that he is not committed to power or wealth, but to chaos and mayhem for its own sake.

And he is insane and he is a villain. But in many movies, one wonders why the villains are the way they are: who would kill so many people for a few million dollars? After all, won't the IRS be on their tail in a few years anyway? If they flee the country, won't the CIA hunt them down? In The Dark Knight, we see a Joker who is living life at full speed, unafraid. To the Joker, the "ends don't justify the means" because he has no ends and is committed to the means - mayhem and destruction - for their own sake. Yes, he makes plans, but he has nothing he has to protect - not even his own identity - so only the present really matters.

The Joker is a nearly-unstoppable force in Gotham not because he likes to blow things up, but because of his fearlessness, enjoyment in what he does, and his wits. The Joker is very aware, very present. And these are useful traits to have not just for a super-villain, but for anyone. Especially the majority of us who would like to be a force for good.

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