Friday, September 5, 2008

Dark Knight in America - 3

Where do arch-enemies come from?

Batman's came from a 1928 silent movie called The Man Who Laughs, starring Conrad Veidt. Bob Kane saw the movie and the image of the title character stuck with him . . .

. . . and became the model for the character's look when he made his first appearance in Batman #1:

Originally a homicidal mastermind, the Clown Prince of Crime soon became more clown than criminal, which led to inadvertently hilarious moments like these:

It wasn't until 1973 that the Joker returned to his roots with a literal vengeance, in the Denny O'Neill penned "The Joker's Five-Way-Revenge." Every modern interpretation of the character (from Alan Moore's The Killing Joke to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns to Heath Ledger's embodiment in The Dark Knight) is a riff on the villain in this story:

And in this story, you can also see a seed of darkness get planted in Batman's character, one that's watered by Alan Moore and tended by Frank Miller until, like a weed, it pretty much overruns everything else in the Bat-Garden, and winds up as a twisted romance in the only place that makes sense -- an asylum:

What The Dark Knight does is return us to that moment where the seed is planted, so we can see how the Joker waters and tends it. Because that's his job in the movie. If you say white, he'll be black. If you say black, he'll play white. He doesn't have an origin -- he just has stories about how he got his scars, and he'll tell a different one depending on who's listening. He has unlimited access to explosives and money, but he's not interested in getting rich; he's much more interested in blowing shit up. He's got no sex life (unlike Jack Nicholson's Joker, who gets all Jack over Kim Basinger); he's much more interested in screwing with your head.

And his favorite head to screw is Batman's. Why? In terms of the story, because it's a test of character that spins off from the end of the first movie, Batman Begins, and the line "I'm not going to kill you. But I don't have to save you." This is where the shadow is created, in the margin between acting and not-acting; this is where the darkness begins and gives birth to everything that happens in the second movie.

Between the absolute
And the exception
Falls the Shadow.

Between the provocation
And the retaliation
Falls the shadow.

That's where The Dark Knight takes place -- in an arena where the only character laughing, the only character having any fun, is the one who is going to show the hero just how much of a tool he is for thinking he's pure and how much of a joke his values really are in the real world.

Why? Because the Joker is a terrorist, and that's what a terrorist does. He doesn't want to destroy your country--he wants to destroy your country's values. And the moment you compromise your principles even once is the moment he wins.

Other posts in this series:

The Premise
The Shadow

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