I’ve been reading, watching and playing a lot of stuff to do with Batman lately. I’m not sure how it happened, but it has. Having now re-watched Batman and The Dark Knight, I think I’ve decided on which interpretation of the Joker I prefer.
Whilst the character of Batman/Bruce Wayne has always been pretty constant in the comics and the films, the character of the Joker hasn’t been anywhere near as constant. As far as I can tell, this is due to three reasons that go beyond having different writers at the helm: 1) the Comics Code 2) the 1960s Batman TV series and 3) no definitive origin.
The Comics Code appeared to keep the character of the Joker in check for several decades, with his crimes seeming like huge pranks as opposed to the actions of a deranged individual. Then the success of the 1960s TV series saw the Joker further muzzled into some kind of camp parody that also influenced the comics.
It wasn’t until the watershed that seemed to happen in comics during the 1980s – where the likes of DC and Marvel started to worry less about the Comics Code, as it was no longer financially important – seems to be when the muzzle was removed from the Joker. That and the TV series’s influence was waning.
How does the lack of origin work into all this? Well, it goes back to the whole point of this post – which Joker (on film) do I prefer? In the Tim Burton directed 1989 – Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren written – outing we know how the Joker came into existence. And it fits in with several origin interpretations from the comics. Yet with the Christopher Nolan directed 2008 outing, we don’t know how the Joker came to be.
I prefer the Joker where you don’t know where he’s coming from, where you don’t know quite the reason behind why he does what he does. The Dark Knight kind of Joker. Why? Because his villainy is more impressive when you don’t know why he does what he does. Having a history allows him to be classified and as soon as you can start solidly labeling someone or something, it’s less scary, less threatening. Being able to rationalize is a way of coping with fear and having that taken away from you makes something far more terrifying.
I’m not saying that I want all my comic book villains to be so mysterious, but a dollop of “fear of the unknown” does work rather well. Don’t you think?