What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stranger: Heath Ledger’s Joker

(x-posted to The Valve)

Dear readers, this is about the film The Dark Knight and will, of necessity, be crammed absolutely full of spoilers.


It seems we are still too close to The Dark Knight; we are reeling. The critics have generally rated the film very high, which is useful but not explanatory, and Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker has already become legendary despite the fact that we don’t really know what is legendary about it. An attempted discussion at The Valve died out amidst cries that comic books are kids’ stuff (or maybe FASCIST!), and our friend Scott at Acephalous showed wonderful enthusiasm tinged with unmistakable vertigo. Some critics have compared the Joker to a wounded child who turned out bad (instead of turning out bat), which is wrong, and others have compared him to the Sex Pistols, which is pleasanter but still not quite right. There’s as much of the bum — the homeless, unemployed and mentally ill man for whom beatings have lost their meaning — in the Joker as there is the punk.

I’m going to start from the premise that Batman’s acting and psychology in this film aren’t very interesting. Christian Bale doesn’t get a chance to act, because neither playboys nor avengers get to feel much emotion, and he doesn’t develop because he did all that in the first movie. Instead, it’s the idea of Batman, the sum total of the things he represents, says, and does, that start the engine of the film — he is the fixed quantity, the “immovable object,” with which the Joker dances. Furthermore, the secondary plot of the film, involving Harvey Dent’s transformation into Two-Face, falls way short of Batman’s chemistry with the Joker. (This is partly due to Aaron Eckhart’s limitations as an actor, which are considerable. He appears to get his ideas for characters from their summaries on Wikipedia.) Thus everything revolves around the Joker. The film forces us to return to him obsessively.

In an interview with Fear.com, Ledger announced that he and Christopher Nolan had “the same idea” about the Joker, but refused to elaborate.

What is the meaning of what Ledger has left us?


I advise you to hire a poet.
Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust

First, it must be said that the Joker is much, much smarter than Batman. Not only does he guess every move that Batman will make throughout the film, adjusting his own actions accordingly, but he shatters the fundamental assumption of any superhero film, which is that superheroes don’t kill supervillains because they (the heroes) are finally so dominant that they have the luxury of mercy. In The Dark Knight, Batman doesn’t kill The Joker because the nature of the separation between the Joker and himself is just too tenuous, and he has to enforce that separation by refusing to kill. The Joker happily calls his bluff, leading to three scenes where The Joker wins by showing no concern for his own life (four if you count the grenades in his jacket).

The reverse is also true, though — The Joker can’t kill Batman, because, he says, “you’re just too much fun.” That’s what we have to understand first before we can pick up on Ledger’s mannerisms and bizarre intonations. The Joker feels about Batman the way Shakespeare might feel if performances of Hamlet were being blocked in court by Thomas Kyd. In the previous film, Batman has taken the crucial plunge by deciding that his own personal neuroses have a global significance and relate in some meaningful way to the ebb and flow of order (law) and chaos (crime) in Gotham City. As a result, the whole city of Gotham has to play along with Batman, pretending as though shining the Bat Signal into the clouds and having one man karate chop his way around the city is the best way to fight crime. Being Batman is an incredibly excessive, libidinal kinkiness, but it is also a sort of splendor, without which the impetus to fight crime is lacking. It may seem ridiculous to assert that we have to let people dress up as sleeker versions of furries in order to persuade them to wield the baton, but in truth The Dark Knight is just illuminating the fantasies that play themselves out more tamely in normal professional lives. The Joker understands this so well that he’s out to climb the ladder and throw it away, by which I mean that he wants to turn the battle between criminals and vigilantes into a non-stop morality spectacular in which every normal ferry trip becomes a live, game show version of the prisoner’s dilemma. His polymorphous perversity is an end run around Batman’s incompletely sublimated fantasies. It’s not necessarily disappointing to him that the people on the ferries don’t detonate each other — I mean, isn’t that wonderful? They got to prove they were good people — Eichmann on the one boat, Bigger Thomas on the other. The Joker claps when Gary Oldman is made commissioner, perfectly well aware that this scene of goodness rewarded is only possible because he (the Joker) killed Commissioner #1. Ladies and gentleman, we are tonight’s entertainment.

That’s why it’s ridiculous to criticize The Dark Knight on the grounds that it is a children’s film or infantile; it is about infantility, and raises questions about how much we can really escape from apparently embarrassing wishes. Part of the problem with a fiction like Enchanted or Harry Potter is that it allows adults to feel themselves at a safe distance from kids’ stuff through (respectively) ironic misdirection and misty, head-patting sentimentality.

Insofar as we can untangle the Joker, the story goes something like this: It is the nature of the self to be melancholic, and thus to long for a return to a critical point of origin, which, if lost, would leave a void threatened by madness. As a result, the individual tries to go back to a point of origin that he has (for all practical purposes) invented, lacerating himself in the process, and so actually becoming the scarred, exiled creature. At the same time, the individual, despite his scars, gradually is able to come closer to the illusion of being identical with his fantasy. Of course, ceasing to distinguish between oneself and the fantasy is also madness: when Batman takes off his mask, he is Bruce Wayne, whereas when the Joker takes off his clown mask at the end of the bank robbery, he is still a clown. The main thing enabling Batman to remain both people without a psychotic breakdown is the Janus figure of the gatekeeper, Alfred, whose two-facedness in this film (part butler, part CIA scorched-earth man) earns him the name in all its fullness.

The role of time in this psychological process is pretty confusing, but there are lots of examples that can help us see our way forward. For example, in the film Fight Club, Edward Norton’s character Jack is trying to recover the manhood that he’s lost to consumerism and the working week. This desire splits off into a persona of its own, named Tyler Durden, who Jack imagines to be Brad Pitt. In order to be Tyler Durden, and thus to recover his own primordial self, Jack has to put himself through physical ordeals (mostly savage fistfights) that smash him (and his life) to pieces but make the Durden aspect of his personality, still represented as an unharmed Adonis, more and more totalizing. In The Dark Knight, the Joker shows up at a meeting of crime bosses from whom he has just stolen $68 million. One of them asks “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t have [my henchman] tear your head off,” to which the Joker replies, “How about a magic trick? I will make this pencil disappear.” The Joker makes the pencil disappear when the henchman moves towards him — the Joker slams the man’s head against a table, killing him instantly when the pencil slices through his head. In other words, the conversation about why the Joker shouldn’t be assaulted happens as the assault is actually being attempted and then foiled: the two things are one and the same, except for the split between the logic of insanity (the Joker as Adrian Brody’s pianist, performing at gunpoint) and practical thinking (the Joker defends himself against an immanent threat). The fantasy of innocent “magic tricks” is realized at the precise moment when it has utterly failed and been replaced by calculating violence. It is a version of what characters experience in Jean Genet’s novels: when the drag queen gains enough aesthetic sense to become, at last, an elegant jeune fille, he is a middle-aged man. When Harvey Dent truly becomes Gotham’s patron saint, he is a dead murderer.

The Joker would like to be completely mad, and so feel no cognitive dissonance at all; when he is accused of being mad, and replies “I’m not — no, I’m not,” his voice is heavy with regret. Even the stories that he tells to Gamble and Dawes are lucid in their very ridiculousness. Consider the story he tells to Gamble: while his father is beating up his mother, the mother defends herself with a kitchen knife, which then inexplicably causes the father to take the kitchen knife and begin ritually carving up his son’s face. What is supposed to be a story about torture and abuse turns into a story about the envy of the excluded: the little boy re-writes the story to make himself the center of attention, introducing a twist that has its own horrible fascination but actually doesn’t “fit.” This is precisely what Batman has done — turn the selfless work of upholding the law into a spectator sport with him in the middle. The second story not only features the Joker scarring his own face rather than trying to undo the damage to his wife’s face, but involves the Joker getting what are clearly external scars by sloshing a razor around inside his mouth. The union of the internal and the external is what Batman wants out of fighting crime, at Hancock-like cost to those around him.


In the first film, Batman fought human agents of totalitarian order; here, he fights an anarchist in love with the fireworks of chaos and the excesses of image. My sincere hope for the final installment is that Batman will face off against something inhuman, by which I certainly do not mean campy monsters. It seems to me that the inhuman is also the best possible lead-in for Batman’s conflicted relationship with the person who shares his denatured humanity — Catwoman, invoked slyly here by petitpoussin. (Nobody, as petitpoussin correctly observes, has been able to bring any life to Rachel Dawes.)

That said, what we make of Nolan’s trilogy will be greatly affected by whether we continue to overvalue films like Iron Man. Jean Baudrillard once wrote that Disneyland existed to make Americans believe that the rest of America was real; by the same token, risk-free parables like Iron Man and Harry Potter, towards which we feel genial disbelief, disguise from us the fantastic chimeras that dominate our real lives, and which comprise the glistening heart of The Dark Knight. I mean our dreams, our wishes, our nightmares, our faiths. It is because we are having trouble dealing with Ledger’s Mephistopheles, his tongue snaking around his lips, that we hear so many empty words about his “great performance” in a genre where “the movie is only as good as its villain.” Nolan thinks we deserve a better class of superhero movie: not the kind we need to preserve us in our delusions, but the kind we deserve.