“Wanna Know How I Got These Scars?”Posted: December 21, 2008
Part two of my contribution to our The Dark Knight/The Killing Joke seminar.
I think the most important difference between the two depictions of the character of Joker comes down to a question of origin. Moore demonstrates, as Joker wishes to prove, that a normal man can be driven to insanity by “one bad day.” Nolan gives no origin, but a few possibilities that are most likely lies. Moore’s Joker is a broken man. Nolan’s Joker is a force of nature. It’s an major distinction, but both are perfectly in harmony with the character. Both interpretations illustrate the Joker as the perfect complement to Batman. Either way, both characters are conflicting responses to a cruel and chaotic world.
In my last post, I talked about the scene at the end of the Killing Joke, where our hero and villain share a laugh. It’s a rare flash of the Joker’s humanity. He might be a monster now, but he at least was once a completely human being. It’s an appropriate ending for Moore because you have an origin story, because you’ve seen what’s created the Joker. Can you imagine how horrifically out-of-place this would have been in Nolan’s film? What if the last scene with the Joker has ended this way, with Bruce chuckling along with the defeated Joker, suspended over the edge of a building? Critics and audiences would’ve torn the film apart.
So what’s different in Nolan’s depiction?
I’ve heard more than a few people complain about the unbelievable good timing of most of the Joker’s plans in The Dark Knight. It’s easy to see where they’re coming from. The Joker happens to escape the bank robbery just in time join a line of school buses. He happens to hide bombs in a hospital, on a ferry, and in two warehouses without ever drawing attention. He happens to sew a bomb into one of his goons just in case he needs to escape the police station, and then, when the bomb goes off, happens to stand in just the right place to avoid getting hurt. True, these might be plot conveniences. But it’s more than that. It’s demonstrative of the nature of the character and the nature of the attacks. Nolan’s Joker is never truly human. He’s a force of nature. He’s terror personified. He destroys simply to destroy. All he wants to do is show the rest of the world how pointless everything they struggle for is.
One of the best scenes in the movie, I think, is also one of the most misunderstood. When Joker visits the scarred Harvey Dent in the hospital, he gives the final push needed to send Dent into insanity. I think many viewers just naturally assume this is just part of Joker’s plans, but it’s worth listening carefully to what he has to say. I really believe this is the Joker at his most honest. He calls himself a “dog chasing cars,” and it’s true. He targets people like Dent and like Batman because that’s his nature. He wants to be the eternal antagonist, but if there’s no law and order left to destroy, what would he do? He’d have no sense of purpose. Joker’s aims are deliberately anarchic, but there is no over-arching plan beyond anarchy for anarchy’s sake.
At the end of the scene, Joker arms Dent and sets him free. Dent decides Joker’s fate — life or death — with a coin toss. In that moment, it doesn’t matter to the Joker whether he lives or dies, because either way, he’s won. He’s forever corrupted the white knight. It’s the same decision he continuously gives Batman, but Batman will never bend. Two opposing forces of nature that cannot act against who they are. Though occasionally, as in Moore’s depiction, a glimpse of humanity might shine through.