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The Dark Knight and the Dangerous Legacy of the Charismatic Villain

on July 19, 2018, 12:30am

The Joker had left an indelible mark on pop culture long before Heath Ledger assumed the role. He’s one of the few super villains to be consistently featured on merchandise going as far back as the 1960s. His classic semi-origin story in 1998’s Batman: The Killing Joke spurred a dramatic shift in the medium that left fans demanding more of its darkness in their comics. The Joker’s place in the cultural firmament was enough to lure the likes of Jack Nicholson to portray the character on the silver screen. For decades, despite his myriad misdeeds and sizable body count, The Joker nevertheless garnered a consistent crowd of acolytes who saw him as a sort of harlequin antihero.

However, Ledger and Christopher Nolan’s take on the character would change his complexion in the popular consciousness in ways we’re still feeling a decade later. Joker had long since been an agent of chaos, mixing garish, loony displays with unnerving malevolence. But in 2008’s The Dark Knight, that sense of chaos found both an ideological weight under Nolan’s hand and a captivating avatar in Ledger’s interpretation that extended The Joker’s reach and influence beyond what anyone involved could have imagined.

The trouble is that Ledger’s Joker also left an unfortunate legacy of fans who were enraptured by the character’s magnetic presence but who forgot (or willfully ignored) that he was supposed to be the bad guy. In the 10 years since The Dark Knight was released, that particular incarnation of the character has become a mascot of disruption for disruption’s sake, of callous teenage nihilism and online baiting, whose impact has run in direct and indirect ways from a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, to the White House. If a charismatic villain is too effective, you run the risk of not just compelling the audience, but swaying it. There’s a portion of any audience all too willing to fetishize a morally bankrupt character because he’s speaking their language, because the bad guy’s false promises ring louder in their ears than their better angels.

Ledger’s Joker was meant to be tempting in that way, to represent a certain segment of the audience’s power fantasies, even as Nolan means to tear that down (albeit in favor of a different one). The Dark Knight’s version of the character is transfixing on the screen, a reptilian bundle of nervous energy who seems in complete control, while still channeling a frighteningly unpredictable joie de vivre. He speaks as though he has all the answers, with knowing insights into Batman, his equal and opposite creature of the night with whom he intends “to do this forever,” and Gotham, a city he recognizes as on the cusp of changing irrevocably under the Dark Knight’s watch.

Joker is still a murderous psychopath in The Dark Knight, but in a way that’s larger than life, with the gaze of Nolan’s camera and the draw of Ledger’s charisma making the greasepaint-decked madman seem immediate and yet also distant, safe enough to be a tragic hero for the wrong crowd. In the process, the film cemented a pop cultural icon who became an enduring influence in the popular consciousness writ large.

That is, in principle, a wonderful thing. Nolan, Ledger, and the team that worked to bring the Joker to life deserve tremendous credit for the achievement he represents. Good villains should be compelling. They should leave an impression that sticks with the viewer and makes the world of the hero, and the audience, a little grayer than it was before. It’s an approach that worked particularly well for The Dark Knight at a time when the line between the good guys and bad guys in the real world seemed to grow blurrier by the day.

The Dark Knight arrived on the cusp of the Great Recession, the perfect time for people to channel their scorn for a world whose grand order had seemingly betrayed them. There have always been icons for the disaffected, and Joker’s message that the rules are bullshit, that the freaks shall inherit the Earth, and that it’s all meaningless so you may as well expose that fact however you see fit is a well-worn if persistent one. The only true ideology he represents is chaos for chaos’ sake, a self-described “dog chasing cars” whose only true disdain is for anyone with “plans.” That id-fueled mentality, which bucks any attempt to impose order, found particular purchase in a growing number of young men who found themselves coming of age in a society that they felt had no place for them.

Ledger’s Joker reflected these people and their ideas in a crowd-pleasing package, blending the scary with the cool, offering misfit camaraderie, and assuming the casual, self-confident air that stroked the ego of anyone who quietly agreed with him, or at least shared his grievances. These are tempting lures, but also destructive ones that miss the thrust of the film they came from; The Joker doesn’t just lose in The Dark Knight — he’s proven wrong.

His notion that, when the chips are down and the lights are off, people will “eat each other” is subverted by the most powerful moment in the movie. Joker means for his grand finale in the battle for Gotham’s soul to be a demonstration of the evil that lies in the hearts of men. He plants explosives on one boat full of prisoners and another on a boat full of civilians. Each boat is given a trigger connected to the bombs on the other, with the promise that whichever group hits theirs first gets to live while the other will die. It’s a terrifying thought experiment made real, designed to prove that when you strip away the comforts and security the modern world claims to provide, the common man is capable of uncommon cruelty in the name of self-preservation.

His plan fails, not because Batman swoops in to save the day, or because Lucius Fox’s latest gadget creates a fix, but because both the prisoners and the civilians would rather die nobly than kill to save their own skins. It’s the beginning of the end of Joker’s deranged crusade. Joker may prove his “one bad day” hypothesis with Harvey Dent, but he doesn’t break Gotham, or even Batman for that matter. The titular Dark Knight chooses to save his foe, rather than break his one rule, even as Joker goads him to his limits. In the final tally, Nolan doesn’t buy The Joker’s lines, even if he’s adept at selling them.

But mercy is never as cool as vengeance. Remaining steadfast in the face of temptation will never sell as many day-glo T-shirts as breaking the rules with outsized flair. Thousands of fans walked away from The Dark Knight less wowed by the fortitude of its eponymous hero, or the city that birthed him, than they were enraptured by the seductions of the self-professed maniac who told them that nothing really mattered. That’s because the Joker of The Dark Knight offered them that easy answer, an answer that doesn’t ask you to change, that doesn’t ask you to be your better self, that doesn’t ask you to take responsibility for anything. Instead it offers just the opposite: the freedom to do whatever you want, to wreck whatever you want, to hurt whomever you want, because it’s all bullshit anyway, and anyone who doesn’t see that is just a part of the problem.

In a decade where the specter of terrorism shattered the illusions of safety in the Western world, when the collapse of the financial system left everyone questioning whom “the rules” were meant to protect, when dwindling opportunities and shifting demographics made the people who’d believed they were on the way to a life better than their parents’ feel squeezed out and cast aside, it’s no wonder that a figure who dished out that terror instead of taking it, who was bound only by his wants and his destructive talents, who laughed in the face of The End as he meant to expose it, would find resonance with a disillusioned lot seeking solace amid their ever-shrinking place in the world.

As the scope of that disillusionment grew wider, as the easy answers started to seem all the more appealing to an audience desperate for them, the world began to look more and more like the one that Joker presaged than the one that Batman dreamt after. That’s not the fault of a single film, its director, or its star; Ledger’s Joker simply emerged at the right time, in the right way, to appeal to an ugly part of our society that was starting to metastasize, and which found — true to the spirit of Nolan’s Batman — its own everlasting symbol.

It’s the symbol that was adopted by the killer who took innocent lives at a theater in Colorado and declared that “the message is: there is no message.” It can be seen in the cheering section of nihilist trolls who helped fuel the latest object of their affections to the highest office in the land. It can be seen in the fraying fabric between us, the kind that could only provoke an upturned corner in a Glasgow smile. The power of a compelling villain is a good thing, especially with an interpretation as singular as Ledger’s. But with the wrong fan base, and the wrong lessons learned, it can also make the real world worse, in ways that resonate years after the credits roll.

The Joker of The Dark Knight may have failed to expose the black heart of Gotham, but his greatest trick of all might have been shining a light on the lost souls on the other side of the screen, who wished he could be their champion.

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