Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Parsing The Joker

Well, I'm one of the brainless masses who loved The Dark Knight. It's hands down the best "superhero" film ever made - mostly because it transcends the traditional limitations of said genre. It's probably the best film I've seen this year, regardless of genre.

Mild Spoiler Warning

Much has been made of Ledger's performance, and how he and director Noland positioned the Joker's motivations. There's an elegant level of symmetry in the film, both in characters, and in the plot - in some ways, the Joker character falls outside of the symmetry, acting as an agent of change. Noland is not being heavy-handed, but he is including the native american narrative concept of the trickster - the outside agent who triggers actions for seemingly mysterious motives, perhaps nothing more than a desire to see change replace stagnancy.

Like Lucas' Emperor Palpatine, the Joker is not given a backstory or a reason for his severely skewed morality (in fact he tells conflicting tales about his facial scars, letting the audience know that trying to explain him through circumstance is fruitless). The Joker's motivation in the film seems to be focused on devising ways in which he can make others fall down to his level - losing their moral compass and become agents of change. Of course, this reduces society to anarchy, but this seems to be the chaotic rubble where the Joker thrives - every encounter is a shootout, every discovery is an opportunity to loot and deceive. Like an alcoholic trying to get others to validate his drinking, the Joker seems to crave proof that the wall separating him from the rest of the world is a fragile one, and that given enough of a push, anyone can become like him. This would both validate him, and elevate him to some status as innovator or leader of this new paradigm. In this sense, the Joker wants to feel closer to others - but only though making them more like him. The archetype of clown is by definition of a character who is apart from his audience, and seeks to connect with them, but cannot cross the barrier of his own strangeness. Ironically, the psychoanalyst-turned-villain, scarecrow, from the first film, is given a cameo here, but not given an opportunity to peel away the Joker's layers. And of course - these motivations are tainted by (or due to) the fact that Joker is clearly psychotic in the classic, clinical sense of the term.

His obsession with Batman appears to largely by driven by curiosity. Is the Joker's makeup an ode to Batman concealing his public identity, or ridiculing the meaninglessness of a "hero in disguise"? While both have sidestepped societal norms, Batman's psyche appears to be glued together through forging an iron will and a heavy-handed sense of morality that he uses to justify some questionable means to reach a just end. Batman poses a flaw in the Joker's theory - in a mindset and means where everything can be permitted, Batman restrains himself. It represents both a weakness (in that Batman could easily dispatch the Joker if he could break some of his own rules), but defies the Joker's underlying belief that if you strip away the rules, that any man will descend into lawless, animal cruelty.

There's a lot more going on in the film, but the greatness of the Joker character in this film, aside from Ledger's performance, is that his character is opaque, and allows for varying interpretations of his motivations. In comparison, Batman is relative one-dimensional; his own story is kept interesting by showing how far his resolve and personal code will take him, and what that very resolve will inflict upon him. of course, the film shows us through other characters that "heroes" pay a price, whether they adhere to their codes, or abandon them for pursuing desires without restraint.

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