Last week, we looked at the Joker as portrayed by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster Batman and analyzed his five traits:

  1. Criminally, murderously sociopathic
  2. Wickedly macabre sense of humor
  3. Grandiose/theatrical
  4. Artistic/aesthetic
  5. Egomaniacal

This interpretation somewhat varied from those that had come before it:  He was certainly more lethal than Cesar Romero’s Clown Prince of Crime from the old Adam West series, and artistic is such a singular Tim Burton peculiarity—a signature he left on the crazy-quilt mosaic that comprises the Joker in his ever-evolving mythic totality; in American Idol’s clichéd parlance, Burton “made it his own.”  His Joker shared an undeniable DNA strand with the arch-villain created by Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger, and Bob Kane in 1940, the one later personified by Romero in the sixties, as well as then-contemporary comic incarnations as envisioned by Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns), Alan Moore (The Killing Joke), and Grant Morrison (Arkham Asylum:  A Serious House on Serious Earth), despite the markedly different aesthetics within which each of those varied interpretations were realized.

Because where is the line drawn, really, between a reinterpretation and an altogether different character?  How does an artist (in a vocationally general sense) redefine a folkloric figure to reflect his own personal idiosyncrasies, the sociocultural conditions of the day, or both, while still working within the recognizable parameters of a time-honored fictional creation?

It’s mathematical.  There’s an equation to it.  Think of it like baking a cake:  Choosing the ingredients—or in the case of a character, the traits—well, that’s the art of it; you’re relying upon equal parts professional experience and personal taste to arrive at unique and delicious compound.  So, in the case of the Joker, throwing artistic into the psychological mix allowed for an interpretation that was reflective of Burton’s worldview and sufficiently different from previous depictions to render the character anew:  It was a Joker we’d never quite seen before… but it was unmistakably the Joker.

But, like baking, there’s a science to it, too—a numerical formula; proportions need to be taken into account.  If they aren’t, well… when does an apple pie cease to become an apple pie?  Burton endowed the Joker with a quirky trait—artistic—but he wasn’t free to toss out the foe’s more de rigueur characteristics, like his sociopathy, his macabre humor, and his taste for the theatrical—it simply wouldn’t have been recognizably Joker if he had.  Change a character just the right amount, he’s a new incarnation; change him too much and he’s an in-name-only usurper.  There is a limit.  Even minute alterations, as I illustrated with Rambo, can have big ramifications.  So, how much is too much?

Catwoman & Penguin

Have another look at Batman Returns (1992).  The villains of Burton’s second outing in Gotham, the Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), bear only nominal resemblance to their comic-book counterparts, and hardcore fans were unforgiving of the creative liberties the empowered director (flush with newfound box-office success) took with the established mythos.  Batman Returns is not devoid of merit—DeVito and particularly Pfeiffer embody their tragic antagonists with rich, heartbreaking performances—but perhaps a more appropriate title for this entry would’ve been “Burton Returns,” since Tim Burton is unquestionably the star of the show.  (What Burton lacked in fidelity to the source material he at least compensated for in splendid creativity; contrast that with Halle Berry’s Catwoman, an object lesson in the perils of wanton abuse of artistic license in the face of folkloric tradition.)  Burton baked the most delicious Black Forest cake you’ve ever tasted and called it apple pie, and response to Batman Returns was correspondingly schizophrenic.  Take heed:  You cannot reinvent a mythic character, no matter how misguided (Catwoman) or even well-intentioned (Batman Returns), without honoring what’s come before.

Both Burton and Joel Schumacher were accused of bringing too much personal eccentricity to their sophomore efforts—a consequence of greater creative control after their respective initial successes—so all eyes were on director Christopher Nolan, who’d established a penchant for realism in Batman Begins (2005), when he took on the challenge of incorporating one of the more colorful members of the rogues’ gallery, the Joker (Heath Ledger), in his 2008 follow-up, The Dark Knight.  Let’s have a look at how—and where—Nolan (along with co-screenwriters David S. Goyer and Jonathan Nolan) made judicious changes to the Joker’s psychological profile in order to reinvent the foe for a new century, and correspondingly new cinematic aesthetic.

Heath Ledger Joker



“I took Gotham’s white knight… and I brought him down to our level.  It wasn’t hard.  See, madness, as you know, is like gravity—all it takes is a little push.”—the Joker, to Batman, on the devastating psychological torture that transformed the city’s shining beacon of hope, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), into the villainous Two-Face

Just like Jack.  What makes this more unsettling than Nicholson’s interpretation, however, is the absence of backstory to give it contextual rationale.  The Joker himself proffers several conflicting accounts of his origin—an abusive father, a fickle wife—but we can’t be sure how much, if any of it, is true.  Nicholson’s brand of crazy had a comforting logic:  Ruthless mobster plunges into a vat of chemicals, suffers a psychotic break—a supervillain is born.  It’s got a certain pop-psychological credibility that lends method to the Nicholson Joker’s madness; it allowed us to have fun with the Clown Prince.  Ledger’s Joker is entertaining, but there’s nothing fun about him; even his perpetually sweat-smeared makeup, in direct contrast to both Romero and Nicholson’s classic clown visages, evokes a sense of pervasive unease seldom found in so-called comic-book movies.



“I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you… stranger.”

I noted in the previous post that this trait seems to be consistent across-the-board, and it is no less true here.  In superhero cinema in particular, the burden of levity is often placed on villains; sometimes that quality enhances their inherent villainy (Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor) and sometimes it undermines it (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze).  But the mirth exhibited by Ledger’s Joker, in blunt contrast with Nicholson’s, doesn’t even qualify as comic relief—there’s nothing relieving about it.  (The disappearing-pencil bit, anyone?)  To call it wicked may not even be fully accurate—it’s more like vicious.  And because it isn’t attributable to some traumatic event to give it context—like going bonkers from immersion in toxic waste—it only makes this Joker more mesmerizingly, off-puttingly Delphic.



Yes—he shares this in common with Nicholson’s Joker, as well.  Given Nolan’s more grounded approach to the material, though, it manifests in different ways:  I can’t imagine Ledger’s Joker holding an impromptu dance party or dumping dollar bills into the crowd from atop a parade float, but there’s no denying he is fond of dramatic gestures, as when he arrives uninvited—and strapped with explosives—to a meeting of mob bosses, or later when he burns a thirty-foot-high pile of cash—totaling a billion dollars—to the ground to prove a point (“All you care about is money.  This town deserves a better class of criminal…”).

This Joker is particularly fond of grand moral dilemmas (for reasons we’ll explore next), be it forcing Batman to choose between the lives of his unrequited love (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and the district attorney, or rigging two passenger-loaded ferryboats—one carrying everyday citizens, the other convicted criminals—and supplying each with a detonator and a time limit to pull the trigger.  In a pre-9/11 world, as Grant Morrison noted, grandiose evil seemed the speculative province of Hollywood movies and comic books; in the years since, it’s proven all too plausible—and Ledger’s Joker reflects that in a way that is authentic to the grounded tone of Nolan’s contemporary aesthetic.



“You know what I noticed?  Nobody panics when things go according to plan.  Even if the plan is horrifying.  If tomorrow I tell the press that, like, a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics.  Because it’s all part of the plan.  But, when I say that one little old mayor will die… well, then everyone loses their minds!  Introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos.  I’m an agent of chaos.  Oh, and you know the thing about chaos?  It’s fair.”—the Joker to Two-Face

This is different.  I suspect this is the aspect of his character to which audiences really responded:  the “unpredictable evil” that resonates in our post-9/11 world—the lasting damage to our sense of security, our principles, our public discourse, and our sociopolitical institutions long after the dust of an explosion settles.  This Joker understood that the panic in the immediate wake of a terrorist act subsides with time; the moral compromise it provokes, however, is permanent—and telling:

“See, their morals, their code… it’s a bad joke.  Dropped at the first sign of trouble.  They’re only as good as the world allows them to be.  I’ll show you… when the chips are down, these, uh, these civilized people… they’ll eat each other.  See, I’m not a monster… I’m just ahead of the curve.”—the Joker to Batman

Indeed, this Joker is ahead of the curve.  And despite his protestations to the contrary (“Do I really look like a guy with a plan?”), Ledger’s Joker is the ultimate scheming supervillain…



“You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fistfight with you?  No… you need an ace in the hole.  Mine’s Harvey.”—a “vanquished” Joker explains to a horrified Batman that he may’ve lost the battle, but not the larger war

From the moment he robs that bank in the opening reel, systematically dispatching his own henchmen once they’ve served their purpose, we can see that Joker is very much the Man with the Plan.  The entire middle section of the movie proves to be a carefully orchestrated chess game on the part of the Joker, in which all the heroes—Batman, Gordon (Gary Oldman), Dent—play right into his hand!  The Joker doesn’t merely outsmart them—he manages to undermine their heroism.  He accomplishes this through foresight, planning, and self-sacrifice (again, discomforting shades of al-Qaeda).

“I’m not a schemer.  I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.”—the Joker to Two-Face

Therein lies the captivating, confounding truth of this Joker:  that someone so meticulous, so organized, would labor so methodically in the name of debunking order—methods, plans, schemes—as a gossamery social construct.  It doesn’t make sense—to be simultaneously anarchistic and strategic:  Why operate as an agent of anything if your raison d’être is to lay bare the fallacy of agencies?  It’s not contradictory behavior—Nolan and company knew what they were doing (speaking of clever scheming) when they engineered this iteration of the Joker—but it’s certainly incomprehensible to the rational mind…

That’s the point, though—the reason why this Joker was so frightening:  He is a funhouse-mirror reflection of a twenty-first-century enemy—patient, resourceful, and committed to exposing our values as a farce through dramatic and violent example.  He’s not in the game for money or revenge (the motivation of most of the villains in the Burton/Schumacher cycle), but rather to give civilized society the push it requires to tip into the abyss of madness.  If any rationale can be extracted from this Joker’s behavior, perhaps it is only this:  Almost all villains of fiction want humankind to feel their pain; plunging the world into a state if manic turmoil, it stands to reason, must’ve been the Joker’s only misguided hope for catharsis.

But, then, maybe I just find it comforting to ascribe method to his madness.



So, let’s do the math, if you haven’t already:  Nicholson and Ledger share three traits in common, making them—because I promised arithmetical quantification—60 percent similar.  Decisively more than half.  Just enough to trace their parentage to the same source—the Joker as he first appeared in Batman #1 in 1940—but with enough latitude for reinterpretation.  You’ll notice that both Burton and Nolan retained the Joker’s three most recognizable, most consistent characteristics, leaving them two traits apiece with which to play (because, as David Freeman instructs, a fictional character can’t be comprised of any more than five).  Burton delivered an idiosyncratic take on the Joker that repositioned him, cinematically, from the Silver Age to the Modern Age; almost two decades later, Nolan, as though with a Brillo Pad, excoriated the makeup—and comic-book trappings—to unleash a Joker that seemed as much ripped from the headlines as the funny pages.

As we can now evaluate Nicholson’s Joker from the perspective of a new generation, it will be fascinating to see how Ledger’s Joker is regarded through the lens of time—and in light of portrayals yet to come.  Because that’s the thing about a literary figure of this rarified ilk:  When a fictional character refuses to stay confined within the story that birthed him, when he lends himself to perennial reinvention at the hands of different artists, across different media, through which he finds continued relevance—like Dracula, Bond, and Batman, for starters—he transcends fiction to become the stuff of folklore and, over the ages, mythology.  He belongs to everyone—there is no definitive interpretation, even the prototypal rendering.  The Joker has secured his place in popular culture; we agree, collectively and intuitively, on what makes him him even as he means something different to each of us.  To paraphrase Hero Complex, the one true Joker is whichever one the audience chooses.

To be sure:  Anyone who takes on the weighty responsibility of creative custodianship, be it a writer, editor, illustrator, actor, or filmmaker, is required to understand their chosen mythic subject at his most elemental—artistry requires something more reliable than intuition—which is why Freeman’s blueprinting techniques prove especially indispensible in this regard; whether you’re inventing or reinventing a character, craft is the wand by which you conjure magic.  In that sense, there’s a lesson to be learned from both Jokers we’ve studied:  channel the artistic passion of Nicholson’s, and engage the methodical discipline of Ledger’s.  Writing with confidence, after all, is seeing the method behind the “madness.”