Friday, August 15, 2008

The Dark Knight: The Joker

As we've been discussing, in Dark Knight, most of the characters face moral dilemmas and struggling with violating their own principles. Many are the ways, large and small, in which the persons of the drama betrayal themselves, others, and the principles they profess. But none of the betrayed the principles they profess more than ...

the Joker.

The Joker, as portrayed by the late Heath Ledger, is very convincing liar. So much so, that I've noticed that he managed to deceive lots of people in the audience as well. "Oh," I hear people saying, "the Joker was such a force of chaos! He represents anarchy!" Um... yeah.

What part of "It's all part of the plan?" did you not get?!

Yes, the Joker does represent chaos ... in a way. But I'm astonished at how many people seem to have overlooked the fact that the Joker's brand of "chaos" requires enormous amounts of complex and detailed planning. The opening bank robbery scene ALONE is a masterpiece of clockwork scheduling. Watch the film; right after he says, "I kill the busdriver," the Joker steps a bit to one side. He's getting out of the way of the incoming bus. That presumes he knows exactly when and where it's arriving.

The list is almost endless. Planning on the reactions that send people to the ferries. The bombs and their detonations. The burning fire truck blockade. Getting captured. His one phone call. Batman is the one who's improvising in this story; everything the Joker does is coldly calculated in advance.

And that includes his carefully crafted persona. Hanging his head out the car window like a crazy dog, "I just do whatever comes into my head," playing the unpredictable lunatic. Did he convince you? That was all part of his plan, too.

He professes to be an agent of chaos, but he's actually a mastermind of order. But, in fact, he has a clear agenda, and goes to great lengths with elaborate plans to make his point. It's a great way to write him and very consistent with his original portrayal, in which advance planning was his forte and how he stayed a step ahead of the police.

The Joker's goal is make all the other characters in the Dark Knight betray and abandon their old principles. But in order to do that, he must betray and abandon his own, and much more severely than they do. To be what he says he is, he must be exactly the opposite ... and keep you from noticing it..

Somehow, however, I think he'd be okay with that.


Guys' Guy said...

Wow...I have to say I am not surprised at how well thought out this post was. Excellent points and I have to say you have really hit the nail right on the head.

Siskoid said...

Scip, you've done it again. Loved the entire series of posts, even though I should be clearly sick of Dark Knight commentary.

Great stuff, as usual.

Anonymous said...

Kudos to you, fellow!

I had exactly the same thought re: how interesting it was that the Joker portrays himself as a force for anarchy when in reality his plans are always meticulously thought out, and I don't think I've seen that point brought up in any other commentary on the film as yet! :)

Ken Walden said...

In a sense the Joker's plan was to cause others to feel that they were slipping into anarchy, to remove whatever principles or guidelines they had based their lives around or relied upon. An interesting juxtaposition that it took great precision and planning in order to produce the largest amount of chaos in the minds of others. To those on the ferry, to Dent, Gordon, Batman, it felt like everything they had was slipping away from them, into a sort of moral anarchy.

ticknart said...

"The Joker's goal is make all the other characters in the Dark Knight betray and abandon their old principles. But in order to do that, he must betray and abandon his own, and much more severely than they do. To be what he says he is, he must be exactly the opposite."

Wait a minute, what principles did The Joker abandon? Sure, he says he's an agent of chaos, but the second time he tells how he got his scars, we know he's a liar. Why should we believe him when he says he's all about the chaos?

The Joker, in The Dark Knight, is all about order and planning, for himself and what he does, at least. He created the chaos in Gotham through his careful planning because he enjoyed watching the people be scared of the chaos, but not because he is chaos.

Remember that issue of JLA that Grant Morrison wrote where Martian Manhunter (and someone else, who I can't remember) was trapped in a maze created by The Joker, so J'Onn shifted his brain to think more like The Joker? What was the path through the maze like? It was one perfect, straight line right through everything. That's what Ledger's Joker is like.

ticknart said...

And that's why I don't think he ever betrayed his own beliefs.

Sorry, I hit publish too soon.

Anonymous said...


Check out "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" for Fritz Lang's take on a similar character, with one difference that may be more stylistic than substantive: Dr. Mabuse carries himself as a genius first and a madman second. Granted, IMDb gives TToDM a rating of only 8.2 while TDK weighs in at 9.1, which scientifically proves that TDK is a better film.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

He's out to inflict pain, death, and fear, and promoting chaos and confusion is an effective means to that end.

Maybe it's that his idea of "chaos" is not literal. Rather, he believes that the comforting notion of a Grand Underlying Order is a sack of crap. The "chaos" he claims to be after may be ontological. It's the "all is madness" idea of nihilism, which (I assume) wouldn't deny that there are recurring, orderly aspects to the physical world and even psychological truths ("push Dent like so, and of course he'll freak like this..."), but that "behind it all" is nothing but chaos or void or whatever it is all them young'uns with their clove cigarettes and black clothes go on about.

More likely, he was just saying whatever sounded scariest.

He does represent chaos of a very particular kind: senseless violence. He comes from nowhere, kills and maims for no discernible reason, and is nigh-impossible to stop. He has methods and plans, yeah, but not reasons. Alfred nailed him: the Joker just wants to watch it all burn.

Anonymous said...

I love the "Testament of Dr. Mabuse."

Highly recommended for genre fans.

I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find out that Bill Finger was a fan.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... this is an interesting debate. I'd agree with Scip that he's obviously a meticulous planner and therefore is no personification of chaos, but I'm not sure anything he does even inspires chaos. On the other hand, tipping Gotham towards anarchy looks a little more likely. Yeah, the words are used as synonyms, but they aren't really the same thing.

Joker tempts the public to distrust their public servants, which, given the history of Gotham, isn't hard. He tempts them to distrust Batman, who himself is an agent of anarchy as long as the powers that be remain corrupt. He tempts them to distrust each other in the ferry standoff.

But he also destroys the heirarchy of the mob first by showing himself to be more competent and later by destroying their cash.

I think the question remains, why? I think for the best of reasons, given the character- not because he really cares about anarchy, but because it's fun! It's all a game, to defeat each and every representation of hierarchical order that he encounters. And where else could he succeed, but Gotham? A place where they're just beginning to get rid of the corrupt officials and they rely on a volunteer dressed as a bat to do the job of the police force. And his coupe de gras? Obviously Harvey Dent... turning a representative of the hierarchy into yet another anarchist... too cool for school.


Ben said...

I don't know about most people, but the complexity of the Joker's plans was the one point where I had to make a conscious decision to suspend disbelief. I enjoyed the hell out of that movie, but the Joker's bomb-deployment abilities were nigh-ridiculous.

Would anyone second me that the funniest moment in the movie was when he sanitized his hands upon exiting Harvey's room?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for making me think.

Ken Lowery said...

The Joker is an agent of chaos (more accurately, nihilism) because of his actions and the intended consequences of those actions. Yes, he certainly enacts elaborate plans, and -- as Chris Sims pointed out in a recent post -- in many ways he's FAR more organized than the ultimately reactive Batman, but as he tells Dent, he does so to show everyone else the flimsiness of their illusion of control. Ultimate point: ALL control is an illusion. What kind of philosophy does that sound like to you?

"But but but the Joker was lying to Dent--!"

Sure, sometimes. If you've read the great book ON BULLSHIT, you can tell what kind of bullshitter the Joker is: the "truth value" of what he says is irrelevant to the desired result of what he says. Sometimes, he's telling the truth, and that also doesn't matter.

Again, what do you call that? He's not betraying his principles at all. I think he rather likes that Batman can ultimately thwart his illusion-shattering plans... you did notice how happy he was at the end, right? Unstoppable force, immovable object, etc.

Ken Lowery said...

Come to think of it, that's another reason the Joker's pleased as punch at the end: the Batman (and the people of Gotham), by thwarting the Joker's plans, sort of prove his point about the fallibility of plans.

Chance said...

Even as I watched TDK, I was bothered by the amount of planning the Joker put into his schemes. The sheer amount of research, secrecy, and luck that make the pieces all fall into place despite the seemingly absurd odds against it --- I thought that was the film's major flaw.

Rob Pugh said...

The world is chaotic, anarchic and without meaning, and the Joker is prepared to force you to see that, even if requires meticulous planning and execution.

An interesting parallel/similarity/[antithesis?] to Batman in TDKR when he opines "the world only makes sense when you force it to."

The two characters, in different iterations, see the world the same way, but differ on what to do about it.

Rob Pugh said...

Sorry, too quick on the "publish" button...

Personally, I saw the Joker as an old school religious type. Pick the fire and brimstone evangelist or the Catholic inquisition... he has a worldview, and he knows it's true, and he's prepared to go to any lengths to reveal his truth to you... he'll gladly burn your body at the stake to save your soul. To have you accept his "good word."

Can you tell I was raised Catholic? I may have issues.

Anonymous said...

Joker's campaign of chaos was so organized that I began to give serious thought to the possibility that this might be the League of Shadows' second attempt as destroying Gotham. Think about it - some of the tones from their previous attempt in 'Begins' mirrors what we saw Joker orchestrate in TDK (e.g. Gotham to tear itself apart, break down its defenses). Ultimately, the League element was not introduced in TDK, so this notion could be easily discounted. But what if..?

Scipio said...

"he has a worldview, and he knows it's true, and he's prepared to go to any lengths to reveal his truth to you."

That's consistent with viewing him a terrorist / terrorism metaphor.

Anonymous said...

""he has a worldview, and he knows it's true, and he's prepared to go to any lengths to reveal his truth to you."

That's consistent with viewing him a terrorist / terrorism metaphor."

Not to mention an awesome lyric!


Anonymous said...

Nice one! The amount of people who don't get that the disconnect between The Joker's meticulous plans and the way he presents himself to Dent was a deliberate choice is astounding.

Heck, on the one in a million chance it wasn't a deliberate choice by the Nolans, it sure makes the character more interesting anyway.

Mock Turtle said...

I don't read comic books or graphic novels, but really enjoyed this movie and am enthralled by this character. I love this post and these comments because they help me wrap my head around why I couldn't take my eyes off of Ledger's Joker.

When I first saw the TDK trailer back before Ledger died I remember in particular the Joker's comment "It's all part of the plan" but the context of that statement to Dent surprised me. The first time I saw this movie I thought to myself that there is no plan at all, it's all chaos like he says, but reading your post and these comments makes me realize what I already knew instinctively, that there's more to this character and this story than I thought possible. The Joker's Plan really is meticulously thought out, and yet carefully crafted to look like anarchy right down to what he looks like and what he says.

This is great stuff. Thanks a lot.

Anonymous said...

For a couple of weeks now, I've been nurturing the delusion that the Joker's elaborate plans and his personal appearances were being orchestrated by a hidden mastermind (like the Scarecrow or Ras al Ghul) who wouldn't be revealed until the next movie. Supporting evidence for this crackpot theory was completely lacking, and it is with great relief that I can now abandon the entire delusion. Thank you Mr Scipio!

Anonymous said...

"Do I look to you like a guy with plans?"

"Well it's either that or you're just accidentally dressed like a nurse and made up like a clown and are visiting your arch-enemy in the hospital, so, yeah, you kind of do."

c a p u l a r i s said...

One can delight in creating chaos and promoting anarchy and still be a meticulous planner. It seems as though most people assume the two are mutually exclusive, when they are in fact not. A lack of planning and a lack of rules are two different things. The Joker just lacks rules.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments by all. But I think the entire point is missed here. How can the Joker abandon his principles when he has none? His goal was to show people that no matter how hard they tried to manipulate events, ultimately things would go awry (which is essentially chaos theory to the tee). His theory was only proven when his own plan failed in the end. I didn't get either that he was wanted to be viewed as crazy (with his appearance, etc.). Seemed he took offense to that. It was more, he just flat out didn't care about himself at all.

Lovecraft In Brooklyn said...

The best thing is that the Joker wins in both an in-character and out of character sense. I'm your standard bitter teenage nihilistic 'root for the villian' type and at the end of the movie Batman still has his principles... but he dosen't have his reputation. His girlfriend his dead and his best friend is a supervillian. Sure, Nolan copped out and didn't have the boat blow up but otherwise... Joker won.
The role killed Heath Ledger and I can't be the only person walking out of that movie inspired... this is going to be the new Clockwork Orange (which, now that i think of it, was probably a big influence on Ledger's performance). Somebody, somewhere is going to copy him
The Joker puts a face on chaos and entropy. Its the scariest thing in the world - so master it. He's Vonnegut gone evil.

Ken Walden said...

Another thought after all these comments is that we have to remember the limits of the genre as well. In a comic book movie it seems to be the adversary has to be either:

a. of roughly equivalent power to the hero
b. a planner of supernatural extent a la the Joker
c. extraordinarily lucky and the beneficiary of many deus ex machina

Given that the Joker is a character with no special powers, I much prefer B over C. Of course if we examine it the amount of plans in place in the movie were probably impossible, but I enjoyed the revealing of his plans enormously, and I hate movies where the bad guy succeeds only through dumb luck.

Lovecraft In Brooklyn said...

Plus elaborate plans and tricks and strange reveals are Chris Nolan's speciality. Batman Begins lacks that, which makes it feel like less of a Nolan movie. Insomnia, Memento, The Prestige, Dark Knight - they all have morally ambigous characters engaged in decit that even they don't fully understand (Bruce isn't ambigious, really, but Dent is)