07 October 2009

The Joker: Greatest Case of a Precisely Ideologically Opposed Supervillain/Superhero Relationship

I was doing some light wikipedia reading the other day, and I stumbled upon a few articles concerning the Joker, that is, nemesis to Batman, Joker. I had never really thought about him that much, but delving more and more into his nature, I have come to the realization that he's actually the greatest supervillain ever conceived, both in respect to his opponent, his universe, and to himself. Let me explain:

I've always been fond of comics and am well acquainted with the natures of good and evil forces within their pages. What makes a good villain is usually to be the counter of the hero. This can create more complex stories, say, if the villain isn't necessarily evil, just a counter to the hero, sort of hero/anti-hero conflicts. Venom and Spider-Man are a lot like this. Venom doesn't believe in killing innocents, he just hates Spider-Man. This makes him a Spider-Man (and by extension other heros, as well) exclusive-enemy, regardless if his tactics in thwarting other evildoers make him a villain in the eyes of police or horrify the innocents he is protecting. What I'm trying to get at is that a good hero/villain set-up are two opposites who just don't get along, rather than a definitive good and evil black and white battle.

The Joker and Batman have the greatest dichotomy in all of comics. There, I'm puttin it out there. The Batman believes solely in order and discipline, he has molded his body and mind into as perfect as a crime fighter as possible without added metahuman powers. He has vowed never to take a life, and without doing so continually avenges the lives taken from him (his parents...duh). The Bat hides everything about his private life and shrouds his alter-ego in darkness, a comprehensive mask and cowl. Everything about him is controlled and inhibited, analytical and comprehensive.

I do love this interpretation of him. The TAS always stealthily treaded the line between goofball and psychotic killer. Voiced by Mark Hamill.
The Joker, therefore, could not be a greater opposite. He is the embodiment of chaos, wildly uninhibited and completely insane. He has no qualms about unleashing the deepest sides of his personality on to the world, including his pension for murder. He doesn't hide his private life, he doesn't have a private life. The Joker has selective memory, his past is shrouded in mystery, even to him. Unlike the Batman's tight regulation and desire for control over his life, the Joker also switches personalities, and day by day may switch from playful clown to deadly killer. He sways in the wind, and takes the easy way out, letting himself float long life instead of Batman's rigid control over his own destiny.

The Joker doesn't care about anything, not even the ramifications of his heinous actions. He's completely unpredictable, mostly because he doesn't choose his own destiny. He lets his own madness control him and push him wherever he wants to go. This also makes him the ultimate supervillain, no other supervillains want to work with him, because he can never be trusted. His unpredictability and savagery actually scare every other villain in the DCU.

Alan Moore's The Killing Joke is a great look into the Joker's history (or at least a possible history), which apparently the upcoming film the Dark Knight is partially based on....which is awesome. According to this story, the Joker at one point had a wife, who was killed in a similar fashion to Batman's parents. It is interesting to note then the strength of Batman's character compared to the Joker's. While Batman is able to focus his pain and desire into something well, arguably positive, the Joker falls completely to his pain and after the chemical tank dealie, too, utterly loses his mind, to the extent that he forgets if he had a wife or not. No other comic book character has lost himself so irreplaceably to his own maniacal mind.
Probably the most famous pic from the Killing Joke. You can really see he's totally overcome by his madness, consumed by himself in his own world.


The Joker and the Batman need each other, and will always exist to oppose each other. A longstanding goal of the Joker is to make the Bat laugh, the Joker does not really want to kill Batman until he meets this goal. Likewise, Batman has a goal of never killing another man, he knows if he ever killed the Joker he would lose control, and become the Joker himself. The Joker, however, consistently gets out of prison and the death penalty by genuinely pleading insanity. The Joker is also so obsessed with Batman, he feels that if he were to ever succeed in killing the Bat, his life would lose all purpose. In one instance, when he thought the Bat was dead, he reverted to total sanity and lost all sense of his own self.

The Batman and Joker define themselves by their opponent. The Batman maintains his sense of order by viewing himself as the opposite of the Joker's chaos. The Joker maintains his mania as the opposite of Batman's stagnation. Without either, the other would lose all sense of direction, however, at the same time, they are locked in continual conflict, born out of the same differences, not least of which are the Joker's megalohomicidal tendencies and the Batman's continual inability to take a joke. It's an incredibly match up, their feud could possibly end if either the Joker were to stop killing, or if Batman would laugh. This is really the only facet prolonging their struggle.

You can really see the difference between them, the bright flashy colours in the Joker's outfit, the mangled hair compared to the conservative darkness of Batman. Yet both are human.


Theirs is almost an ideological and personality-based conflict as much as it is a traditional hero/villain relationship. It's frivolity vs. stoicism, the ridiculous and the conservative. And if you made it through this note, I commend you, folks! Fuck you, Riddler!

Addendum: I felt like adding some more recent thoughts I've had.

For one, I've been stewing more and more over Nicholson's Joker and decided that I really don't like it. For one thing, he has a backstory. I'm more of a fan of the Joker who doesn't know his own past, or future. He doesn't care, as I said before, the Joker's mind is completely locked in the present with almost no quandary for previous relationships or possible negative outcomes. The Joker is not even really about revenge, he's about the thrill and execution, not caring what people do to him but rather in what comedic way he can make a strike at Gotham.

Nicholson was great, but he was almost too campy. He had a fine suit, plenty of loyal followers, but also a sadistically classic campaign to unleash a massive covert chemical attack on the entire city. The latter part is true Joker material. The suit, always a staple of Jokerness, is an element of his attempted class, but he skews it, with jarring colours and out of date fashion. The true joker should just be darker, though, with an even greater touch of mania and sadism. The Joker gets extremely personal, for example killing the second Robin, Jason Todd in the A Death in the Family storyline. You can't really blame the first film for the lack of this intense personal strife, as it is both difficult in films to introduce so many characters at once, even those with such a background as Batman and Robin, and also to kill someone like Robin off so quickly would be both jarring to the audience and squash most sequel appearances.

Anyway, that aside, Nicholson's Joker is just too goofy and too established.
From the Batman (1989), I do look forward to Ledger's Joker. In an interview, Nolan said he cast him because Ledger is "fearless." Makes sense.
I still love TAS's Joker the best, they just got that the most perfect I've ever seen him in a non-comic medium. I like a Joker that literally came out of nowhere, as if necessarily formed by the psychosis of society itself as a foil for a hero trying to stand for alignment and justice. While I did enjoy how the Joker and Batman created eachother in the film, I still don't like Joker killing the Bat's parents. Just as the Joker was seemingly created by the ills of society, as was the Bat. As much as I cave to awesome duality like a mutual-origin storyline, the idea of a corrupted civilisation casting the mold of its greatest hero and villain compels me more. It also beautifully more blurs the line between what really is good and evil. Essentially, Batman and Joker are just vigilantism and insanity, control and chaos, something unlawful that can be inwardly controlled, and something lawful that cannot be. Compelling shit.

Additionally, I've also been gesting over some interesting stuff about both of their natures, focusing on physical appearances and themes. Now, I was heretofore unaware that bats and clowns were natural enemies, but clearly they are. There is an interesting wikipedian theory on clowns; that a normally appearing clown can be equally funny or menacing depending completely on the circumstance. An easy example is that a clown in day at a party is great, a clown at night in your hallway is creepy as hell. Clowns are all about context, and the Joker, by assuming the moniker of a clown, appearing mostly at night, in a dark alley, is inherently disturbing.

There is an incredible irony between hero and villain here. Bats are typically associated with ghouls, vampires, the night, and death. What a great hero. Clowns are associated with laughter, fun, children, and parties. What a great villain! It is exactly this that makes a perfect villain, I mean, look at John Wayne Gacy. Thankfully, the Joker's malalignments are not sexual or pedophilic. Also, awesomely, the Joker hates nazis.
I love this assessment. Only time you should be proud of the Joker ever.
The causes for Joker's psychosis are complex, mostly because no one, not even he knows what his past exactly is. He's clearly not cannibalistic, nor necrophilic. He's just...really really homicidal. This might tame him compared to other factual serial killers, but no one can really match his just utter and complete insanity and freedom.

In terms of the bat being the hero, well, somehow creepy animals like that make pretty good heroes. Spider-Man, Ant-Man, it all works. Not to mention heroes like Nightwatch, Moon Knight, Nightwing and Darkwing. People always identify better with villains, its more fun to indulge an evil desire than to see standards carried out that you normally live by. In this respect, it works that some heroes like these and Batman are so dark, but still somehow noble, serve to protect us. There is some fulfillment gained by watching this, that in some way, the salid evil works to protect us from the maniacal good in our lives. What we're left with is a moderation between the two, the out of control glee and pleasure, and the incredibly restrained solemnity. PASSIONATE STUFF!!

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