I’ve mentioned earlier in this series that I don’t necessarily care for the practice of elevating the Joker so far above the other members of the Rogue’s Gallery in focus and importance. That doesn’t mean he isn’t a top-shelf villain – in fact, to me, the Joker is not only one of the best comic book villains, but one of the best villains period.
There are two “tricks,” so to speak, that his various writers and performers have used to pull this off, one minor and one major.
The minor one is to take advantage of the Joker’s time in grade as a villain. He’s been such a big name for so long that the usual genre rules don’t always apply to him. Some second-string antagonist is probably not going to beat Robin to death with a crowbar, or shoot and paralyze Barbara Gordon, because that’s not the sort of thing that happens. But the Joker might, which means that his mere presence on page or screen puts the audience in a heightened state of danger.
I’d even say that the only person in the entire Batman universe who could be considered safe when the Joker is around is Batman himself. Alfred? Gordon? Anyone else? All of them are potential victims. Whenever the Joker is present, everything seems a little wilder, a little more unpredictable. That’s the minor trick.
The major trick, which can’t be achieved through mere seniority and requires clever writing instead, is that the Joker is persuasive. Persuasive villains are the ones that frighten me most, because their villainy seems like it could leak out of the fictional world and into the real one.
It’s difficult to explain what I mean by this, so I’ll use examples instead. Three of my personal top-ranked persuasive villains are Lucifer from Paradise Lost, Col. Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson’s character, of “you can’t handle the truth!” fame) from A Few Good Men, and Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas, of “greed is good” fame) from Wall Street. Hopefully you’re familiar with at least one of these three characters by reputation – familiar enough to know that at times, audiences have thought that they aren’t even villains at all, but misunderstood heroes.
This opinion can persist even when directly contradicted by the author. Milton’s Lucifer may be the ur-example by virtue of being chronologically first. Here’s Milton, speaking of Lucifer, in book two of Paradise Lost:
But all was false and hollow; though his Tongue
Dropt Manna, and could make the worse appear
The better reason, to perplex and dash
Maturest Counsels: for his thoughts were low;
To vice industrious, but to Nobler deeds
Timorous and slothful: yet he pleas’d the ear,
And with perswasive accent thus began.
Despite all this, William Blake famously said that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”A quote whose interpretation is more complex than I’m making it sound. Nathan Jessep and Gordon Gekko found similar fans among authoritarian jingoists and self-interested cowboy capitalists, respectively. These are the villains that came close enough the pure flame to bring some of its heat from fiction to reality – the ones that are almost too good.
To me, the Joker at his best is one of these – his is a pure and persuasive embodiment of cynicism.
If you want to understand as much of the Joker as possible by reading a single page, the page shown above is as good as any. Special attention should be paid to the final panel, and the expression of startling vulnerability on the Joker’s face.
The character is often described as nihilistic, but I think cynical is a more accurate description. It’s only fair to warn you that we are now entering the territory of one of my personal hobby-horses: I see cynicism as a form of sloth. The cynic believes that the world is fallen and irredeemable; this belief is deliberate, as it relieves them of any obligation to improve it, or even engage with it honestly.
Think how relaxing that must be! To no longer have to deal with the world’s frustrating obtuseness, and its habit of tangling up new snarls of injustice every time you turn your head for more than a few seconds. If it’s all just a big joke, then all it asks of you is to laugh.
This is why I believe that the Joker remains the best foil for Batman in the end. One of Batman’s most heroic attributes is his persistent refusal to fall for the Joker’s bullshit. Many in the fandom have come to the ambiguously canonical conclusion that the Joker’s ultimate goal is get Batman to kill him, which in his twisted worldview would constitute a victory. I don’t necessarily dispute this conclusion, but I do consider it an incomplete understanding of the relationship between the two.
Batman spends his time in an environment (Gotham, which is fallen) that encourages and rewards cynicism, and yet he never quite succumbs to it. The Joker is the character that most eloquently describes its temptations. For Batman to see the hidden self-interest in the description speaks to his moral alertness – and the chance that he might miss it this time is the most alarming thing a writer can do with the character.
We’re closing in on the end! Next week, what you’ve all been waiting for: my unsolicited advice on what all the various high muck-a-mucks in charge of Batman should do.
 A quote whose interpretation is more complex than I’m making it sound.
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