The Dark Knight – Why the Joker isn’t the villain

Written by on February 19, 2019

Ok, yes, The Dark Knight was released more than 10 years ago (2008) but it still stands up as one of the best crime dramas that have been made in recent times, as well as one of the most watchable films of recent times. This is primarily down to the villain of the piece, Heath Ledger’s take as The Joker. The writing of the film is tight and much more serious than any other super hero film, and certainly more serious than any other superhero film up to that point.

One of the more enjoyable parts of the film, or rather after film, experience is to puzzle over the Joker. Heath Ledger’s character is so well written and performed that he eclipses, easily, the character whose nick name gives us the film’s title. This should be used as a case study for character writing, something that is distinctly lacking in a number of more recent films, in all genres, not just superhero films. We are too often given a 2D villain to contrast the hero of the film, usually discarded after one film, on rare occasions returning for more than one appearance, though these are rare cases.

And so… to the title of the piece, why would The Joker not be considered the villain of the piece, there are a number of reasons for this but the most compelling is the similarity that his character holds to the hero of the film Batman. As this is the second film in a trilogy it is worth considering the first film alongside this one in order to see parallels. The first film, Batman Begins, shows the emergence of Batman in Gotham city in order to fight the Mafia families that have taken over the city, as well as the corruption that goes with it in areas such as the police force and the ruling levels of government. In this film Batman is an agent of chaos, throwing stones into the middle of a lake, shaking up the established order of the city and disrupting the accepted habits of the people therein.

The Joker does exactly the same thing, approaching an established order that includes the Batman as a vigilante. The Joker takes on the Mafia families and exposes corruption within the city. At the same time, he tries to take out Batman, someone who is officially considered a criminal by the city of Gotham. The continued activities of Batman are an example of poor policing. There is a joke early in the film of the investigation into Batman being ignored.

At the end of the first film Batman has significantly reduced the level of crime in Gotham city. By the end of the second the Joker has turned the opinion of Gotham against Batman and caused the police to actively pursue him. The local Mafia families are all but destroyed, their money burned, and a new desire for justice among the populace. It is not a small thing that the first thing that we see the Joker do is to rob a bank that is owned by one of the Mafia families, causing the rest to consolidate their money and move it overseas to avoid losing it all, an action that would ultimately be used against them.

It is interesting to consider a small aside here. The action of the Joker burning the money that he has stolen from the mob is an echo of an action Batman takes in The Long Halloween graphic novel. This is a small but significant event which shows how the film makers sought to blur the lines between the characters.

We could consider the individual actions of the characters for more evidence regarding who is playing the part of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ over the course of the film. This being a superhero film there are of course casualties, explosions and violence. These actions are undoubtedly undertaken in order to reach a specific end. Although in real life the debate of do the ends justify the means can rage on. There are good reasons for this, however as a like for like comparison this is fine. Both characters commit crimes over the course of the film in order to meet their aims. While the Joker’s crimes remain local Batman commits an obvious and brazen act of international kidnap in order to further his goals.

The Joker of course is behind a number of murders, whether he commits them himself or not we can discuss as he has a number of criminals working for him. The murders he is seen to commit himself are all criminals. Although still a crime it could be argued that this is vigilante behaviour in the same vein as Batman himself. The difference between being responsible for death and committing the act yourself is an important one when you look at the previous film. The actions, intended or not, of Batman undoubtedly lead to the deaths of many people. His actions in not joining the league of shadows in the first film lead to them being able to plan an attack on Gotham without his input or influence, and lead to him being too late to stop the initial part of the group’s plans, which cause chaos in the city and release many convicted criminals among the general population.

An example of how the people feel about Batman is shown by how quickly they decide to attempt to expose him as soon as the Joker demands that they do so. The people do not see him as a hero, but rather a criminal to be lived with, as long as his being only effects other criminals. In a sense the only reason that they wish to give in to the Joker is because he is committing similar actions but in a much more public setting. Even so his actions only effect the higher levels of Gotham’s social hierarchy and their governmental institutions (including police) the general populace is somewhat ignored, and as such safe.

The part of the film that has most people convinced that the Joker is the villain is the placing of two bombs on two ships, one containing ordinary civilians and the other containing prisoners. Each boat has the detonator for the other. The desired effect, it is thought, is for one set of people to kill the other, if they do not then both ships will explode. In the end both sets of people refuse to detonate the other, refuse to sacrifice the lives of others to save their own. The bombs to not explode. This incident however does not show the inherent evil in all people, but rather the good in all people, this incident stands as an example of how good people can be, even the convicted criminals. Even if the bombs had exploded due to their lack of action this would still show how good people can be when pushed, and that Gotham is still a moral place despite the accepted narrative of the setting.

These issues are far from exhaustive, I am sure that if you go back and watch the film you will see things that I do not, or disagree with what I see here. What this shows more than anything is the complexity in the writing of these characters. In looking at The Dark Knight in this fashion we can see just how complex the characters are as opposed to the much simpler characters and storylines presented in later superhero films. This is the reason why this stands out as arguably the greatest superhero film to date, arguable because of Avengers Infinity War, though most likely judged for different reasons.

Perhaps looking at this film in time of heroes and villains is the wrong way of looking at this, this is a crime drama where everything is a different shade of grey. This is not a standard superhero film in the way we think of them now, this is the crowning achievement. There is no true hero here, only a drama played out with complex characters over a backdrop of organised crime.

If there is a villain in this and the previous film we could make a much better argument for the character of Alfred. Instead of getting help for the young Bruce Wayne after the death of his parents he instead indulges him and does nothing to stop the insane transformation into Batman. Once this change is made Alfred still hides information from Bruce Wayne regarding how the love interest Rachel feels about him during the second film, which inadvertently leads to the huge absence of Batman between the second and third films, who knows the damage that caused not only to the city, but also to the mental health of Bruce Wayne. The lack of practice may also have led to very real physical pain as a result of losing a fight with Bane in the third instalment. But that is a discussion for another day.


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