For this blog’s first FFC, I would have very much liked to choose a character from the classics—Lemuel Gulliver, for instance, or maybe Sherlock Holmes, or Captain Ahab. For some reason I was thinking that starting off with a more intellectually based or understated character would have given this whole exercise some legitimacy. But then it occurred to me that the point of this series is not to legitimize itself, or me, or to fit into some tidy picture of what other people might think is “discussion worthy.” The point of this series is simply to discuss fictional characters who we find fascinating, for whatever reason. And the simple truth is that there might not be a fictional character anywhere out there who fascinates me as much as The Joker, so that’s where we’re starting.
The Joker is such an iconic figure that no matter who is reading this, they probably don’t need a basic character introduction, so we’re not going to bother with one. Whether you happen to be a fan of comics (or comic-based storytelling) or not, the fact is that he’s one of the most significant villains in the history of fiction.
In the interest of full disclosure: I’m not a fan of the Joker, never have been. I just don’t like the cut of his jib. Most of the time, I find a story’s villains to be the most interesting aspect of the story itself, but not so much in this case. How can the villain be the most interesting part of the story if there’s nothing there to understand? And it’s that question, I’ve found, that makes him fascinating to me—my fascination with him is rooted in my mystification by him. I simply can’t process what it must be like to “just… do things,” as Heath Ledger so aptly put it in his portrayal in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.” To live, and think, and breathe total chaos—I have a really hard time wrapping my mind around what could possibly motivate someone to exist like that. We know every detail of every step that Bruce Wayne took on his way to becoming Batman; it’s been told and retold, analyzed and reanalyzed. But what has to happen to a human being to make him turn out like the Joker?
Was he born that way? Was it always in his nature to feel no empathy or fear? Or did his condition develop over time? I heard once that he was a failed standup comedian, but I could never get that to stick. That’s an instance, I think, of people failing to understand what they’re dealing with. “Failed standup comedian” implies that at least part of his maliciousness is due to his loathing of rejection, and I can’t get that to fit the character that I’m familiar with. I think it would be more consistent with the character if he had been a very successful standup comedian, and abandoned his dream and his job to cause as much trouble as possible—for no reason. Then again, you have to be careful when talking about consistency with a guy like this, right? Like, his only consistency is inconsistency? I’m not sold on that, either. After all, the chaos isn’t total. You’ve never seen him be a hero, for example (although it would probably make for a really cool story if he tried it out for a day). Also, a character who truly is total chaos wouldn’t find himself in perpetual opposition to any given thing; a character representing total chaos can’t be called a villain or a hero. So there has to be something that drives this fellow other than the oft-quoted chaos theory.
I don’t think there’s another character out there who is so popular yet so misunderstood by most of his fans. Of course, people failing to comprehend the magnitude of his craziness has led him to some great opportunities to cause mayhem, so maybe underestimation just comes with the character. Maybe he’s so widely appreciated because he’s a representation of some inward desire we all have to live without restraint, and we admire, in a way we probably wouldn’t admit out loud, his (dare I say) courage to really do it. Part of what makes him who he is, part of what makes him the threat he is, is that he’ll cross lines that very few other people will cross. And it’s worth pointing out that he’ll do it unapologetically. Is there something admirable in there? I think so, but I’m not sure what. Maybe that’s part of his charm, too. We have to be careful admiring too much about a guy like this, though. In our society it’s kind of chic to be “crazy.” Most people joke about it, like “we’re all a little bit crazy.” They think it makes them seem more fun or something, I don’t know, or maybe people just fall back on that to excuse idiotic behavior. But no, we’re not crazy. Not like this.
For me, the quintessential interpretation of this character came on the big screen, In “The Dark Knight,” with Heath Ledger. That seems to be the popular choice, but it’s the popular choice for a reason. Watching that movie, it felt like that character was what all the writers of the character had wanted him to be, going as far back as forever. I think the greatest Joker moment in that movie came during his game of chicken with Batman on the cycle, remember? Bats was riding straight at him at full tilt and Ledger was staring him down and muttering under his breath something like, “Come on, I want you to do it I want you to do it…” I think when a lot of people watched that movie that moment probably subconsciously registered as a bluff by both the Joker and Batman. But I say that even though the end result may look the same, there’s a difference between a guy who has the stones to call out Batman’s bluff during that game of chicken and a guy who isn’t bluffing at all. That guy stared down an oncoming military grade motorcycle and truly didn’t care whether or not it ran him over and mangled him. This is a reminder of what it’s like to be truly psychotic, and not some watered down version of it that most of us like to kid around with.
Which brings us to another perversely admirable trait in this particular character. What can he be threatened with? Nothing. He has nothing to lose, no real goal, and no fear of pain or death. For my money, that can be a good place to aspire to be in life, it just needs some empathy thrown in to make you human.
It’s hard getting to the root of what drives a guy like this. Dissecting the character usually causes more questions to pop up than ascertainments. Starting from any given point, a journey through his psyche resembles an ancestral tree, with the answer to one question often depending on the answers to two more, making it impossible to really pin down anything definitive about him. Is he aware of his psychosis, for instance? Well, would it matter if he was? Would it change anything? Is he the kind of guy to even draw a line between sanity and insanity, or are we all just different degrees of the same condition? This guy is so whacked out of his mind that I don’t even know which questions to ask. All we can do to manage a fellow like this is to put him in restraints or put him down.
At the end of the day, trying to understand him is futile. I know this, but it doesn’t stop me from trying. A madman with no discernible origin, empathy, or attachments is so far off in left field in relation to where I live that for me, he’s an extraordinarily fascinating fictional character.