The Joker: What Makes Your Villain Tick

By Andrew Watson · September 21, 2011

Ask a whole chunk of famous actors what their favourite roles are, and I bet you a fiver they bring up the times they’ve played a villain. Unforgettable villains are roles in which an actor really gets to sink his/her teeth into. What’s more fun than going to work to put on the character hat of maniac, psychotic, narcissist, or femme fatale? And… what is more memorable? The fairly non-descript Luke Skywalker or the magnificently evil Lord Vader? While Luke Skywalker is running around being too short to be a storm trooper, Vader is killing people with his mind. That is awesome.

But villains are not just in science fiction blockbusters; they are in every good movie. Villains, or antagonists, are there to stop the hero or protagonist from achieving his or her goal, using whatever means necessary. This is easily seen in films like Star Wars in which Darth Vader looms over the whole proceedings, but what about villains in the formulaic romantic comedy? In (500) Days of Summer, what does Tom Hansen want? Love, security, a relationship. His antagonist, Summer Finn, hates the idea of being confined in a typical relationship, and isn’t even sure she believes in love. When the two become romantically involved, sparks fly and Tom moves from happiness to despair at will.

Your antagonist doesn’t even need to want entirely different things. In fact, he/she can even be on the same side. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a grand twist on the formula, pitting Steve Martin’s uptight ad executive against John Candy’s buffoonish shower curtain salesman. Although they both have the same goal of getting home in time for Thanksgiving, the film cleverly turns Del Griffith (John Candy) into an accidental antagonist. Who steals Neal’s (Steve Martin) cab in the opening moments of the movie? Who nearly kills the both of them by falling asleep at the wheel?  Who sets the car on fire and uses Neal’s credit card without telling him? Del Griffith may not be on the level of a Darth Vader, and it’s arguable that he’s a villain in the traditional sense. But there is no doubt that his is clearly the film’s antagonist.

But what makes an antagonist tick? Is it just a case of one man putting various sized hurdles in the way of our hero? Or do they need something more? To find out, I thought I would study one of the most fascinating villains to have graced us in the last few years: The Joker. The late Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight was outstanding, portraying a truly unhinged creature that dominated the proceedings like a puppeteer, simultaneously pulling the strings of the police, Batman, and the criminal underworld at his pleasure.

So what makes The Joker such a perfect antagonist?



THE JOKER: Do I look like a guy with a plan?

What makes The Joker and the Batman such an ironic pairing is that they both want the exact same thing: Harvey Dent. Batman is an ironic character, fighting for a crime free city by technically committing a crime himself in the form of vigilantism. When he meets Gotham’s new D.A, he believes that that Harvey has the power and the skill to clamp down on the criminal underworld, and may be his ticket out of the game. They work together to bring about a landmark case, which could see a record number of criminals in prison. The Joker’s motives are hidden, but once Harvey makes his move against the criminal underworld, The Joker makes his intentions clear.



THE JOKER: You have nothing to threaten me with! Nothing to do, with all your strength!

Antagonists always have the upper hand. Whatever the hero does to overcome any challenge or obstacle, the antagonist will invent a new or more fiendish plan to stop the hero in his tracks. Conflict must rise as the film continues, and we gain much more pleasure watching a hero win under the most trying of circumstances, which means he must be the underdog. Batman is the strongest and meanest guy in town, and in a straight fight he could take out The Joker in one clean sweep. But the Joker is more calculated than Batman, and this is exemplified by not one but two elaborate double bluffs he plays on the caped crusader. The first, he toys with Batman’s emotions, deliberately lying about the locations of Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent so in order to trick Batman to go after the wrong person. Secondly, he kidnaps half of Gotham to draw Batman out to face him, distracting him from a second evil scheme he allows to unfold at the same time.

For the majority of the film, his intelligence is underestimated. Batman thinks that criminals are simple, that we just need to find out what he wants. The criminal underworld does the same thing, thinking that he is a two-bit wack-job, whose only motivation is half of the mobs share. Perhaps this is the key to a good antagonist, the hero needs to underestimate how intelligent or complex villain actually is, how strong and powerful he/she is, or even the depth of his/her stupidity, to the point where it nearly costs the hero defeat.



THE JOKER: 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… these civilized people will eat each other.

The Joker is not just a powerful obstacle in the path of Batman; he is also his polar opposite. What Batman wants to achieve is driven by his belief in good. He believes that people are inherently good, the world relies on order, and that they just need someone to believe in. This is what drives him onto rooftops smashing criminals to the pulp every night of his life. When Batman comes face-to-face with The Joker for the first time in a “Heat-esque” interrogation scene, The Joker lets slip a little. When he releases Harvey Dent from the hospital and allows him to go on his Two-Face killing spree, we hear his true intentions:

THE JOKER: The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon’s got plans. You know, they’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are. So, when I say… Ah, come here.

[takes Dent’s hand into his own]

THE JOKER:  I just did what I do best. I took your little plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hmmm? You know… You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger 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!

The Joker believes the exact opposite to Batman, the world is chaotic, people are inherently evil, and all it will take is a little push to prove it. That’s why he goes after Harvey Dent, in order to prove that even a man so ideologically dispensed towards law and order can fall from grace and become a criminal. He stages his big social experiment, in which Gotham citizens and Gotham criminals are given the chance to blow the others up and guarantee their escape. Ultimately, The Joker is proved wrong on one count, but he still succeeds in turning Harvey Dent into a killer.



Finally, all heroes or protagonists can only achieve what they want if they learn a valuable lesson. This is often the character flaw that holds them back from their goals without them even realising, and often it’s the antagonist that is there to expose this flaw. On page 29, Harvey Dent spookily predicts his and Batman’s own fate:

DENT: You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

This is the lesson Batman is forced to learn over the torturous 140 minutes. He wants Gotham to be clean of crime and corruption, but also wants Batman to be a symbol of good. Without admitting it, Batman likes being the hero; he wants to be a detective. The Joker finds a way for these to conflict, and forces Batman to learn his limitations: he plays on Batman’s vigilantism and turns Gotham against him, forcing him to try and give himself up. He also pushes him to try and break his one and only rule, the rule that separates him from the evil in the world: he does not kill.

In the end as Batman defeats The Joker, he leaves his parting shot. With Harvey Dent turned into the murderous Two Face, the landmark case that left hope for Gotham looks bleak. All that Harvey worked for, all those criminals that he put away will be released. Batman realises at this point, that in order for the greater good he must sacrifice himself, giving up his reputation as a symbol of good for the sake of Gotham. He doesn’t break his one rule, but he takes the rap for Harvey’s murders, keeping his reputation and the case intact. Irony is bliss for a film lover, and it takes no guessing to know who has forced him to learn this lesson: The Joker.

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