I’ve been seeing a lot of articles lately with headlines like “Why Heath Ledger’s Joker Will Never Be Matched”. I was going to do a take down of that for several reasons; he’s largely a product of a post-9/11 world that will eventually move on from that mindset, The Arkham game portrayals are better really, etc. But while I was mulling over that listicle I really sat down and deconstructed The Dark Knight. I’ve come to the conclusion The Joker is actually the hero of the film. More than that, he’s arguably better at it than Batman.
Let’s consider how we meet The Joker in that opening scene which will go down as one of the greatest heist scenes ever shot. Joker stages an elaborate plot to rob a bank and even though there’s a dramatic reveal near the end we all knew it was him because the clip had been released as a promo long before it came out. So everyone who saw that film was already in the mindset, “Here’s The Joker, what crime is he going to pull?”
The thing is, he doesn’t pull a crime. He stages an elaborate bout of vigilante justice worthy of Batman himself. The bank is a mob bank. It houses millions of dollars of funds gained through extortion, drugs, theft, murder, you name it. Not only does The Joker rob the bank, he does so in a way in which all his criminal accomplices murder each other one by one thinking that they’ll get a bigger cut if they do. This is supposed to look like a diabolical bit of insanity but it’s really him immediately eliminating five dangerous murderers while he’s literally in the middle of crippling the mob financially.
Swap The Joker out for, say, The Punisher for that scene. Sure, he’d be a killer with a gun and killers with guns are how we know guys are bad in Batman movies, but the real result is that The Joker completes a major anti-mob strike while getting a quintet of thugs off the streets for good. He doesn’t kill any civilians and only wounds the manager with a shotgun in self-defense. Even then he lets the guy live with a joke.
In fact, for the whole movie his target is mostly the same mob that Batman has apparently been unable to really stop since Batman Begins. Not only are these crime families still going strong, but they are augmented by the fact that Batman was unable to stop the spread of Scarecrow’s fear toxin, creating a permanently deranged underclass that are now presumably desperate and starving. It’s these largely forgotten downtroddens that The Joker recruits for his army, which implies that Gotham has left them to rot.
Now granted, The Joker also wages a war against the institutions of law in Gotham including assassinating judges and commissioners. That is clearly wrong, but again, look at it from The Joker’s point of view. We know that the police and the courts are corrupt. It’s one of the main reasons that Bruce Wayne became Batman in the first place and why he only trusts James Gordon and Harvey Dent. No one else is incorruptible.
And if the system is so broken that it requires a man like Batman to dispense justice then why is it worth preserving in the first place? If you’re The Joker and you hate the mob then why would your plans stop at robbing them and killing their henchmen? The upper echelons all have the supposed legitimate government catering to them, which is the sort of joke that might indeed make a man become The Joker..
There’s what he does to Harvey Dent to consider, of course. He murders his girlfriend and leaves him scarred and full of rage. Then again, that’s not how The Joker says he sees it. He tells Batman that he turned Dent into “one of us”. What does Dent do when he becomes Two-Face? He goes on a rampage that leaves mob bosses and crooked cops dead in his wake. It’s only when Dent is threatening to kill innocents that things become a problem.
Hey, have you ever noticed that it was that exact time that The Joker made it a point to tell Batman exactly what he’d done to Dent? Almost as if The Joker knew that once Dent’s spree on deserving victims was spent he would do something that Batman should stop.
Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight is an agent of chaos. He says as much, but what does that mean? For him “organized crime” is the problem. It’s institutional, monolithic and supported by people that masquerade as law-abiding citizens who look to the skies for an unlawful vigilante to protect them from the common thugs of the street. He knows that the “rules” are a smokescreen to protect evil and so he fights a two-front war against both the mob and those that who enable the mob to continue to do business.
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One of the most-remembered lines in the film is “I believe that what doesn’t kill you makes you stranger.” Great line, but people just write it off as a quip. I don’t think it is. It comes after the wounded bank manager is spitting at The Joker about how criminals used to believe in honor, once again pretending to adhere to a moral code moments after he started shotgunning the robbers to protect illegal income.
We never really ask where The Joker comes from in The Dark Knight, but what if he’s the product of a mob hit that he wasn’t supposed to survive? What if those famous scars, his Glasgow smile, are the result of criminal violence just as the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents was? He tells different stories to different people in the film, but you notice that it’s always to people he feels are already lying; a gang boss dressed in a fancy business suit, an assistant district attorney in a system he considers coddles the mob, and a man in a costume dispensing justice with his fists. They’re all part of the joke.
In the end over the course of The Dark Knight The Joker does more to eliminate crime and corruption in Gotham than Batman ever comes close to. He does it in a horrific way, but that’s what you get when you almost kill a man like him. He’s Darkman. He’s The Bride. Heath Ledger’s Joker is the real Dark Knight.