Note: This post does contain some spoilers of both the movie and the comic The Killing Joke, from which many aspects of the Joker in the film are taken. You have been warned!
So of course, Friday night, I went and saw the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight. Big surprise there, eh? Even my new found miserly ways could not keep me from seeing what might be the most anticipated film of the year. And the quick review? It truly is all that and a bag of chips. The long review, well, that’s what I’m about to write now, of course.
So the most talked about aspect of this film in all the advance reviews was Heath Ledger’s performance of ‘The Joker,’ and while I’m not completely sold on all the Oscar talk, I will say that he has created one of the most memorable on screen villains of recent memory. His portrayal of the Joker is chilling, freighting, and psychotic. Now before I go any further, I must give credit where credit is due. If it were not for the excellent script by director Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan (wow, a family working together!), Ledger would not have had the material to work from that gave rise to his wonderful performance. Anyway, the Joker of this film is one that is miles away from the one of the ’60s TV series, and a few padded cells down from Nicholson’s 1989 Joker. Whereas Jack played the Joker with more comedy then true psychosis, Ledger gives himself wholly over to the psychotic nature of the character.
And there is nothing wrong with either interpretation. The character has been written both ways in the comics, and even in Batman: The Animated Series, we see both aspects.
And here is the rub, Nicholson’s Joker would not work in the world created by Nolan. Tim Burton’s Gotham was a more fantastical place, with Gothic spires and Gargoyles on every roof top. It was dark and nightmarish in a demented sort of way, but was far enough removed from reality, that a more comedic, over-the-top Joker was called for. Nolan’s Gotham is a much more real place. Shooting on the streets of Chicago, we feel like it is not so far removed from our world, thus calling for a more realistic Joker. Even the way Nolan set up the Batman in the first movie makes him feel like a more plausible character. Yes, we can never truly believe that Batman and the Joker could ever be real, but it is so hard to imagine that a truly criminally insane person, like a serial killer, might adopt such an identity before going on their crime spree? No. The existence of such criminals as “Jack the Ripper,” the “Zodiac Killer,” and Charles Manson and his cult gives grounding to the Joker. And Ledger performs him as such an insane person, or as he calls himself, an “Agent of Chaos.”
Which brings me to the strongest aspect of the Joker in this movie, and that is as a foil to Batman. In the comics, the Joker has always been the best foil of Batman among his rouges gallery. Batman seeks to bring the people of Gotham order. He wants take back the streets from the criminals, and give power back to the good people of Gotham. The Joker wants nothing more than to throw it into chaos. He’s never sought power like so many other villains, it holds no appeal for him, what he seeks is merely anarchy. Take Alan Moore’s seminal The Killing Joke, for example (something I believe was an inspiration for Nolan and Nolan). In it, the Joker escapes from Arkham (again!), and seeks to prove that sanity is just a thin facade, and even the supposedly sanest person can be forced into insanity. To that end, the Joker kidnaps Commissioner Gordon, and in the process shoots and paralyzes his daughter Barbara from the waist down. He then subjects Gordon to psychological torture, stripping him naked and parading him around a carnival. Torture fit for Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay! He then shows him images of his still bleeding daughter stripped naked. All trying to break him and prove that anyone can be driven insane, though Gordon never breaks. The whole story is bookended by Batman talking to the Joker, asking if there is anyway they can stop their endless dance that can only lead to one of them killing the other.
Ledger’s delivery, the body language, everything he does physically brings out this psychotic nature and makes you truly fear the character. He feels real, truly psychotic. And the end, in his upside down monologue to Batman after his “social experiment” with the two ferries has failed (re. Killing Joke experiment with Gordon), we get to hear just what it is that he wants, to be nothing more than an Agent of Chaos, to reveal the truth of society underneath our politesse. In this aspect, we see a much deeper aspect of the Joker, one that truly earns him his name. One aspect of the Joker/Pierrot/Jester of the Commedia dell’Arte/Shakespearean tradition is that of social commentator. He alone sees the truth of society, it’s follies and foibles, and thanks to his place as a Jester/Comedian of the court (in the Shakespeare), he can comment directly on it without fear of reprisal from the King. In this, we see that sense of the Joker, but to us, he is proven wrong. His view is warped by his own psychosis…but is he so wrong? That is the question.
Now, I would be remiss to discuss one further aspect of the Joker in this film, and that is the musical aspect and its relationship to the idea of foil to Batman. The score for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is one that doesn’t really have character “themes” in the traditional Romantic sense, like Wagner or the scores of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. But, it does have some ideas and gestures that can be called motifs of sorts. The one most associated with Batman has two parts: first is a two note repeated motor rhythm played in the strings (in someways I think this is a sideways homage to the original T.V. Batmantheme, but I could be wrong), and second is a two chord progression that moves upwards. The chords themselves has a decidedly minor/dark quality, but the upwards motion is a very recognizable heroic topic. In this sense, we get the nature of Batman represented, his dark/fear inducing quality mixed with his want to do good. In Dark Knight, the score gives us a similar two-part motif most associated with the Joker, but it changes the elements to make it a musical foil to the Batman motif. First, the two-note rhythm, now played by an electric guitar (I think), is mostly one repeated notes with accents to give it a more off-kilter feel, it doesn’t settle into regularity and is very uneasy, like the Joker’s mental state. The second aspect, the chords, now move downwards, and for the second chord is goes to a deep pedal note, musically it is the bottom dropping out. And the downward motion, of course, is the opposite of the upward heroic topic.
These are just some thoughts. There is much more I could go into: the amazing effects for Harvey Dent’s Two-Face persona (truly chilling), the death of (SPOLIER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOLIER ALERT!!!!!) Rachel Dawes (now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) and how it clears the decks for the possible introduction of a new love interest (i.e. Talia al Ghul or Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman) in the next movie, or the very end and the implications for the next movie. But this has gone on long enough and I really should go do some work…since I am at work.
Addendum: Okay, I’ve edited the many, many spelling errors! Also, my friend and film scorer B (name withheld to protect the innocent) pointed out that in the Joker’s motif, it is not electric guitar playing the rhythm, but most likely an electrically altered (distortion) cello. This, though, fits well with the foil idea because for the Batman motif, the rhythmic aspect is played by groups of cellos. So the same base instruments (no pun intended), but the Joker’s are distorted. Also, he corrected me that also, for the Joker, there are not chords, but open octaves that move downwards. Again, I feel that these differences only strengthen the concept of foil nature that the Joker plays for Batman. Aural skills have never been my strong point.
Furthermore, something else B said sparked a further semiotic relationship in the Batman motif in my mind. He reminded me that Batman, especially in the second film, does not consider himself a hero. In fact he makes a point of saying that in Dark Knight. As I said above, even though the Batman motif employs a heroic topic in the upward motion of the chords, there is a darkness in the qualities. A hero, but a dark hero, a reluctant hero (which brings to mind Luke’s mournful, plaintive theme from the original Star Wars as he looks at the dual sunset on Tatooine).
A last idea that occurred on the bus ride home tonight. I’m not sure if this carries throughout the both movies, but I think that, for the most part, it is Hans Zimmer scoring the music for Batman and James Newton Howard who does the music for the tragic aspects of Bruce Wayne. Having two composers with such different styles on the film was, I always thought, an odd choice. But, when I thought about this aspect, how the two composers might be scoring different aspects of the lead character, and how that difference, the Bruce Wayne/Batman dichotomy, is at the heart of the entire mythos, it all of a sudden made a whole lot of sense. I’m not completely sure if my theory is true in, it would take more familiarity with both composers’ styles and a careful watching/listening of both films…but I could be right…or not.
Alright, enough on this topic…at least until I go see Dark Knight a second time.