Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Ledger's Joker: Comic Book to Movie

The Joker, a character who has existed since 1940, and gone through many interpretations at the hands of DC's writers and artists. From a cold blooded killer, to a goofy clown, he's been interpreted in many ways. This works immensely in the character's favor because he comes in many flavors. This blog takes a look at how Heath Ledger's Joker in the The Dark Knight honors many of the wonderful elements of the Joker over the decades in the comic books.

The Joker's Origin

One of the Joker's greatest strengths is that he is a mystery. Even when we learned he came to be from a disastrous robbery of Ace Chemicals as The Red Hood where he fell into a vat of chemicals, the man who was beneath that hood still remained a nameless mystery. The unknown is always scary. The Joker being a force of nature, a man not defined by a name or a history and background, but who simply always existed as the Joker in the eyes of Batman and all of Gotham City, is part of what makes him such a unique and terrifying villain.

What turned him into a terrifying clown? What put that terrifying smile on his face that he has not lost since? Who knows. But like in the comic books, we are given some possible stories as to how it may have happened.

Story 1: "You want to know how I got these scars? My father waaaaas a drinker, and fiend! And one night he goes off craaaaazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn't like that.! watching....he takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it. He turns to me and he says Why So Serious? He comes at me with the knife. WHY SO SERIOUS?!?!? He sticks the blade in my mouth....'Lets put a smile on that face'. Aaaaaand......Why So Serious?"

Story 2: "So I had a wife who was beautiful like you. Who tells me I worry too much. Who tells me I ought to smile more. Who gambles and gets in deep with the sharks. One day they carve her face. We have no money for surgeries. She can't take it. I just want to see her smile again. I just want her to know that I don't care about the scars. Sooooo I stick a razor in my mouth and do this to myself. And you know what? She can't stand the sight of me. She leaves. Now I see the funny side. Now I'm always smiling"

Two conflicting stories about how the Joker came to be. Which one is true? Are either of them true? Does he believe they're both true? Who knows? Maybe even the Joker doesn't. But it's nice to have the multiple choice.

Unknown identity

Gordon: "No matches on prints, DNA, or dental. Clothing is custom, no labels. Nothing in his pockets but knives and lint. No name. No other alias"

Here's my card....

Where would the Joker be without his calling cards? After all the image of a Joker first originated on a playing card. It is only right that he honor that historical origin. And honor it he does. The Joker has a long standing history of using Joker cards. Whether it's left by corpses of his victims, at scenes of his crimes, he is never short of them.

Heath Ledger's Joker was no exception. We got our first glimpse of one at the end of Batman Begins:

 Cop with a smile!

A trick Joker has played several times before is decking himself out under the guise of one of Gotham's finest in order to get close to an intended victim:

Ledger's Joker was no exception:

Deep down everyone is as ugly as me!

The Joker is of the belief that everyone is just as bad as he is deep down. All it takes is a little push to pit them into the dark insanity that sweeps his sick mind. So convinced of this, that he has carried out some very sick experiments to prove this point. Jim Gordon was his subject in the graphic novel, The Killing Joke. 

In The Dark Knight, The Joker widened his scope beyond one man, and attempted to drive to ferries full of Gothamites over the edge by placing them in a situation where they would be forced to commit mass murder in order to survive. But like with Jim Gordon, the sense of morality and sanity prevailed, and they did not give into Joker's sick deadline.

Batman: "What were you trying to prove? That deep down everyone's as ugly as you? You're alone"

Gotham's soul

In No Man's Land, Gotham City faced it's darkest hour where the city was ravaged by an earthquake. Declared a No Man's Land by the Government, Gotham was cut off from civilization by having the bridges bombed and mines placed in the surrounding river. For nearly a year Gotham was cut off from the outside world. Gotham's spirit was broken. A city without hope. For that year, Batman, Gordon, Robin, Nightwing and several of Gotham's loyal finest fought to keep Gotham's people together. To restore some sort of law to a City without laws.
Finally the No Man's Land was lifted by the Government thanks to Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox. Gotham was set to be re-opened, while the repairs to the City were done by none other than Lex Luthor's Lexcorp. Gotham was a city with hope and spirit again. But the Joker set out to crush Gotham's hope. By kidnapping all the babies that were born during the No Man's Land, Joker intended to kill them. The Joker wanted to crush Gotham's hope.

In The Dark Knight, the Joker set out to destroy Gotham's soul by bringing down Gotham's White Knight, their real hope for Gotham's future, Harvey Dent, to his level. "You didn't think I'd risk losing the battle for Gotham's soul in a fist fight with you? Noooo, you need an ace in the hole. Mine's Harvey" Joker exclaims with glee to Batman.


One of the most fascinating things about the Joker is his relationship with Batman. They go beyond a mere hero vs villain rivalry. Their relationship is a symbiotic one. In some perverse way, the Joker exists because of Batman. He is the chaos that disrupts the order Batman stands for in Gotham City. "I'm an agent of chaos" as Joker explains.

But their relationship goes even deeper than that. The Joker doesn't see Batman as just an obstacle in his path. No, he his something much more than that. To Joker, Batman is an endless source of entertainment and fun. Where would Joker be without the Batman to challenge him?

The mere thought of killing off Batman made the Joker laugh in derision. Once he got to know and appreciate how much fun Batman was as a challenge, he just couldn't let him go. "You...complete...ME!" he exclaims passionately to Batman.

"You won't kill me out of some mis-placed sense of self righteousness. And I won't kill you because you're just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever"

Indeed Batman is so much fun that Joker will go to great lengths to ensure Batman's very identity is never revealed, as witnessed in the Mr Reese plot, when he threatened to expose Batman's true identity on TV, but the Joker intervened that the idea of a world without Batman "Was so BORING!" and he didn't want Mr Reese spoiling everything. So he ordered Gotham's people to kill Reese, or he would blow up a Gotham hospital.

This was also touched upon in the Batman Animated Series, in the episode, The Man who killed Batman, where Batman is believed to have been killed by a lowly criminal called Sid the squid. The Joker, upon learning this, pulls robbery to see if Batman really is gone. When Batman doesn't show up, the Joker is bitterly sad. He forces Harley Quinn to return all the stolen jewelry, and declares "Without Batman, crime has no punchline".

Liar Liar

Joker lied to Batman about the real location of Harvey Dent and Rachel.

Joker claimed to Harvey Dent that he had no part in Rachel's death just because he was in jail at the time.

Police HQ escape

How does the Joker escape custody? Simple. He riles up the Detective guarding him by getting under his skin, takes advantage of that, and makes his escape.

The Joker and Harvey Dent

In the comics, The Joker and Harvey Dent/Two Face have a history of crossing swords. Everything from manipulation to attempted murder.

In the five part landmark story, A Lonely Place Of Dying, which introduced the third Robin, Tim Drake, Harvey Dent was manipulated back into a life of crime as Two Face after he made the decision to reform. This manipulation came from a mysterious voice that came from a radio:

It wasn't until the very end of the fifth issue of this story did we find out that the mysterious voice who'd been manipulating Dent all along was none other than the Joker:

In The Dark Knight, The Joker was instrumental in scarring Harvey Dent as well as helping push him over the edge into insanity as Two Face through psychological manipulation.

Hiring the psychos

The Joker likes to keep it all in the family. A sick mind like his attracts other breeds of insanity. In The Dark Knight, Thomas Schiff, one of Joker's men who delivers the eerie message that Rachel is the next target on Joker's hit list, is "A paranoid schizophrenic. A former patient at Arkham. The kind of mind the Joker attracts".
The second thug who is undoubtedly a psychopath is the one who complained about hearing voices in his head. Voices he said the Joker promised would make go away and replace with "bright lights". This was the thug whom the Joker sliced open and implanted a bomb which was instrumental in the Joker's daring escape from Police Headquarters.

The cut smile

In the Joker origin done in Batman Confidential in July 2007, a year prior to the release of The Dark Knight, an origin story was done for the Joker, in which he acquired a cut smile or chelsea grin, due to being sliced across the face by one of Batman's batarangs. 

Joker is an original graphic novel written by Brian Azzarello and illustrated by Lee Bermejo. It was published in 2008. Bermejo's artistic interpretation has been frequently compared to Heath Ledger's Joker from The Dark Knight. However, these similarities are entirely coincidental as Bermejo's depiction of the Joker was developed prior to The Dark Knight's production.

City evacuation

In the Joker story, The Man Who Laughs, which re-tells the first appearance of the Joker, the Joker's anarchy causes a mass evacuation in Gotham:

The Joker's phony clown targets

In The Dark Knight The Joker set up hostages disguised as clowns to fool the Police into killing them thinking they were his men. The Joker tried a similar trick in No Man's Land when he used Police officers as hostages dressed up like him to fool their fellow Police officers into killing them.

Miscellaneous Joker tid bits/visual homages

The first one is the homage to the clown mask Cesar Romero's Joker wore in his first episode in the 1960's TV show. The second ones are in reference to Joker's penchant to announce his murderous intentions on public TV to all of Gotham City.