When I think about why The Dark Knight works so well, the answer always seems clear. The Joker.
There have been psychopathic villains before. Other evil guys with elaborate twisted plans. But there’s something special about The Joker. As we saw in a recent movie, putting The Joker character in a movie clearly does not automatically make it great.
So what’s special about The Joker in The Dark Knight? Is it just Heath Ledger’s excellent performance? Or is there something more going on? Today I want to examine the function of The Joker in the story, and breakdown why he is the perfect opponent for The Dark Knight.
Exceptionally Good at Attacking the Hero’s Greatest Weakness
A villain must be powerful
The more powerful the villain, the harder the struggle for the hero, and the harder the struggle, the more compelling the story. But that’s a little vague. What does power mean in this context?
The Joker is exceptionally good at attacking Batman’s greatest weaknesses. Much of Batman’s power comes from his ability to intimidate, from his physical strength, and The Joker delights in creating situations that nullify Batman’s strength, like when he’s captured Rachel and Harvey Dent.
The Joker turns Batman’s strength into a weakness. He can do this because he doesn’t fear death. In fact he wants Batman to kill him.
Because he knows Batman’s morality takes the form of one rule, he doesn’t kill people. So the more chaos The Joker causes and the more people he kills, the further he reveals that The Batman’s moral code can also be a weakness, because the only way to truly stop The Joker is to kill him, something Batman can never do.
But The Joker’s plan isn’t just to beat Batman, it’s to show Gotham his true colours. He does this by
Pressuring the protagonist into difficult choices.
In every story, the forces of the villain must increasingly apply pressure to the hero, forcing them to make more and more difficult choices. Choices which reveal their true nature. As far as pressuring the hero into choices that test and reveal the character, that is quite literally The Joker’s plan.
“True Character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the characters essential nature.”
After some set up of the story, Batman is faced with a first in a series of conundrums.
By refusing, at first, to give in to the terrorist demand, we the audience, see that Batman has what it takes to do what is right, but The Joker proves to be unstoppable. Always one step ahead of Batman.
- Batman and Gordon investigating a crime scene
- Discovering finger prints that lead them to the apartment of the suspect, only to find that it’s all part of The Joker’s game.
- The Joker had planned to be purposefully caught.
Throughout all this, the pressure on Batman increases, as people keep dying.
The people of Gotham turn against Batman until finally the pressure is too much, and Batman’s true character is revealed. Batman decides to turn himself in.
Harvey Dent claiming to be Batman and taking his place is the only thing that stops him from doing so.
The most revealing choice Batman makes is when The Joker pressures him to choose between Harvey Dent and Rachel.
In choosing Rachel, Batman reveals what he is unwilling to sacrifice for the greater good of Gotham. The limit to his resolve. But with The Joker, things are never that simple.
Throughout the film, The Joker forces Batman into choices that reveal who and what he cares about when the pressure is really on. Batman is forced to face his true self.
Competing for the same goal as the protagonist
How do you make sure your villain is the right one for your hero?
After all, The Joker may be the right villain for Batman, but completely inappropriate for a different hero.
“It is only by competing for the same goal that the hero and the opponent are forced to come into direct conflict and to do so again and again throughout the story”
This concept helps distinguish your villain and make sure they are the right one for your hero.
So how are Batman and The Joker competing for the same goal?
Both of them have their own vision of what they want Gotham City to be. Batman is fighting for hope, for Gotham City without crime, for law and order. And The Joker, chaos.
Batman vs The Joker. Law and order vs Chaos.
In their final scene together, The Joker even has a line that makes it very clear that he knows what the battle is all about.
“You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for the soul of Gotham in a fist fight with you?”
They’re both competing for the soul of Gotham, and only one of them can win.
I want to underline this point further, because it shows that a measured but specific threat can be extremely powerful.
In the finale, the only lives in danger are a few hundred people on the ferries.
Batman is not racing against time to stop the villain’s random machine of destruction that can destroy the whole world, like Superman in Man of Steel. Batman and The Joker aren’t competing for the survival of humanity, they’re competing for the soul of Gotham. The stakes are personal.
So now we’ve seen how The Joker is exceptionally good at attacking Batman’s weaknesses. How he pressures him into difficult choices as they both compete for the soul of Gotham. But what is the effect of these things? What is the greater function of The Joker?
Throughout the movie, Alfred hints at the lessons Batman needs to learn.
In the beginning, Batman believes that criminals are simply just after money, that theres a logical order to things. But he learns not to underestimate his enemies, that his strengths can become his weaknesses. Batman grows wiser because of The Joker.
Under the pressure of the villain, Batman learns that alone he does have limits, but with the right allies, they can overcome any challenge. Batman’s determination deepens because of The Joker.
And in the battle for Gotham’s soul he learns that he’s able to make the difficult choices that no one else can.
Batman becomes The Dark Knight because of The Joker.
The Dark Knight shines as an example of what happens when the forces of evil grow from the hero. When they’re linked. When there are 2 sides of the same coin.
The Joker isn’t a great villain because he has an insane laugh and acts unpredictably. He’s great because he has a profound and specific effect on the story and on the hero. The Joker is the perfect villain for The Dark Knight.