Beyond a Joke - Dark Knight

The Dark Knight

Heath Ledger as The Joker with Christian Bale as Batman in The Dark Knight

As the latest Batman adaptation arrives on the silver screen, Alan Bissett explores the colourful history and enduring appeal of the caped crusader’s arch nemesis, the Joker

‘Wait’ll they get a load of me . . .’ It is 1989 and Warner Bros have taken movie marketing to new heights. The logo is everywhere: baseball caps, T-shirts, Prince albums. But even as we scribbled the insignia on our school jotters, there was only one real star of Batman, and it wasn’t Batman. A brooding insomniac billionnaire whose life is, uh, complex? No thanks. Kim Basinger? Mere eye candy. No, this guy had all the coolest lines. ‘Never rub another man’s rhubarb.’ ‘This town needs an enema!’ ‘If you gotta go . . . go with a smile.’

I’d never heard of Jack Nicholson until Tim Burton resurrected the pointy-eared staple of kids’ TV for the big screen. I was too young for One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest or The Shining, but after Burton’s Batman even those seemed like dummy-runs for Nicholson’s true-calling: that of Batman’s cackling arch nemesis, a day-glo, psychotic funster. Like the devil, he had all the best tunes, such as the film’s soundtrack song ‘Partyman’ which called him ‘the funkiest man you’ve ever seen’. High praise coming from Prince. After a decade in the doldrums, the role was iconic enough to re-energise Nicholson’s career. He is the Clown Prince of Crime. The Harlequin of Hate. The Ace of Knaves. And he’s back in Christopher Nolan’s new Batman film, The Dark Knight.

‘Pleased to meet you. Hope you guessed my name.’

Frequently rated among the greatest fictional villains of all time, the Joker is the same chaotic trickster who appears in every culture, from Loki in Norse lore to the Judeo-Christian Lucifer, or the Dionysus of Greek myth, inspirer of ritual madness. His literary antecedents are Shakespeare’s Fool, happily ridiculing King Lear; Professor Woland from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, a lurid showman who wreaks havoc in Stalinist Moscow; and Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs. Indeed, the idea for The Joker first came to Bill Finger after seeing Conrad Veidt in the film adaptation of Hugo’s book, a German expressionist nightmare with a permanent smile.

A classic piece of pop-culture design himself – with his fixed grin and chalk-white face – we can see the Joker’s visual influence on V for Vendetta, Stephen King’s It and Bono’s ‘Mr MacPhisto’ persona from U2’s Zoo TV tour. His anarchic spirit cackles in Tyler Durden, Jack Sparrow and Andy Kaufman. If Batman is the classic anti-hero then the Joker is surely an ‘anti-villain’, charismatic and colourful, a glam-rock hood thumbing his nose at authority. Politically, he is an anarchist. Philosophically, he’s exisentialist. His art school is surely Dada. He doesn’t commit crimes, he commits ‘performances’. Life for the Joker is a cosmic farce, the only logical reactions to it being laughter or murder. Batman’s great dilemma is: how do you defeat someone who cares nothing about his own existence? In The Dark Knight we see the Batpod speeding towards a raving Heath Ledger. ‘C’mon!’ taunts the Joker, ‘Kill me!’ Batman bottles it, swerving at the last moment. The Joker, we sense, is almost disappointed. Even the great supervillains from the comic world – Lex Luthor, The Leader, Doctor Doom – are mere variations on the mad scientist theme, hellbent on world domination. The Joker doesn’t want to run the world. He wants to fuck with its head.

For such a well-known figure, his fictional back-story is not clear. All versions, however, have him falling into a vat of chemicals which bleaches his hair green and his skin white, causing insanity and a trademark grin. Burton’s treatment intertwined the origins of Batman and the Joker: a young hoodlum kills Bruce Wayne’s parents, inventing the Caped Crusader; Batman later drops him into the vat, inventing the Joker. As though proving themselves mirror images of each other, in fact the Joker first appeared in 1940 in the very first issue of Batman’s own monthly title. Created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, initially he was a mass killer, slashing his way through Gotham City. Following the Comics Code Authority’s censorship of the medium, though, the Joker became a mere giggling fool, popping up to generally just get up to no good. From this era comes Cesar Romero’s harmlessly camp bank robber from the 60s TV show. The character disappeared from the comics for about ten years and when he returned in 1973 he was insane again, the basis for Jack Nicholson’s dangerous clown.

Depth was later added to The Joker’s character. In The Killing Joke (1988), he starts out as a failed stand-up comic, who enters crime to support his pregnant wife. His wife dies on the same day he has his fateful accident, leading him to reason that ‘anyone can go insane after one really bad day’. In Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns (1986), ranked as one of the medium’s greatest achievements, the Joker even takes on psychoanalytical and political symbolism. He is both flip-side to Bruce Wayne’s sexual repression and figurehead for the rising tide of violence feared in the Reaganite 80s.

Which brings us to the present, with another Republican administration and a new Joker. ‘He cuts through the movie the way the shark does in Jaws,’ is how Nolan described Heath Ledger’s take on the character, ‘He comes and goes and causes complete mayhem.’ Stripped of charisma, he is an omnipresent enemy, destester of law and order, terrorising Gotham with eruptions of violence. Sound familiar? This is a frighteningly real Joker, for the post-9/11 age. ‘Some men,’ as Michael Caine’s Alfred comments in The Dark Knight, ‘just want to watch the world burn.’

Dark Knight is out on general release on Fri 25 Jul. See next issue for review.

The Dark Knight

  • 4 stars
  • 2008
  • US
  • 2h 32min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Christopher Nolan
  • Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman

Nolan's revamp of the superhero franchise reaches its apotheosis with this sequel to Batman Begins, a supremely well-imagined, perfectly executed film that combines blockbuster spectacle with indie cinema cool and smarts. Psychotic, chaos-loving clown The Joker (Ledger) is introduced as the dark knight's ultimate nemesis…