The Clown On Which the Knight Falls

Curator's Note

I would argue, and would hope you agree, that my selection (begins 1:33) for this piece may be the finest single scene in all of superhero cinema. I don’t feel that this statement is particularly hyperbolic when looking at several other interpretations detailing the legendary rivalry between Batman and the incomparable Joker. 

Because superhero cinema is typical action fare for summer movie audiences, it was important to me to choose a clip that, while partially rooted in action, had its legs firmly planted in the realm of characterization and interpersonal conflict. Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight managed to capture just about everything I love about Batman, and this is only accentuated with this scene. 

While interpretations of these characters go back to at least 1940, the film’s creative team largely decided to adapt modernity, with hints of characters as they first appeared. While the Joker would go through periods of comical campiness in the 1960’s, he was very much a vicious and cruel killer with comedic aims in early appearances. In the 1970’s, under the legendary team of Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams, Joker was returned from campiness back to the cruel Harlequin of Hate, with camp providing the basis for the character’s now longstanding insanity trait. Nolan also takes from at least one well-known work of writer Grant Morrison’s on the character in 1989’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth. Here, doctors at the Joker’s institution have agreed that, as evidenced in his brilliance, he’s achieved what they call "super-sanity"; meaning he may have reached a higher form of ultra-sensory perception and that his personality is recreated every day. 

The rivalry between Batman and the Joker is one of the greatest popular antagonisms ever created. It’s clear that in the eyes of Batman, Joker represents the randomness of crime. In comics and through this film, the villain is like a rattlesnake striking out at whatever dares get close enough. Because Batman himself was a victim of random crime, Joker represents everything about the world that he hates with all of his being. The embers for this conflict continue to burn brightly, and this scene tells you all you need to know about the relationship between these characters, and how they will forever remain locked in the timeless struggle of good versus evil. 

Is Nolan’s vision of this rivalry representative of modern comics storytelling? 

You decide.

Comments

Ian Peters's picture

Batman and the Joker, Past and Present

This is a very fascinating post, Chris. The different ways that the Joker has been depicted throughout Batman’s history is a very good way of exploring not only socio-political trends, but also industrial.  The Comics Code effectively limited the Joker’s scope during the 1960s (and the Adam West series also compounded the camp even further), tracking his gradual descent into increasing darkness and cruelty over the past few decades provides a perfect example of the evolution of the comic narrative.

Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight is one that will undoubtedly leave a lasting impression on the Batman mythology, and the struggle depicted between Batman and the Joker is itself intriguing. A few months later, when Batman R.I.P first hit the stands, I was fascinated by how the dynamic had changed from what I had remembered reading only a few years before. The Joker mistakenly thought that Batman had shot him in the head in an earlier story (Batman does not use guns), and this sudden perceived change in their assigned roles seemed to push the Joker beyond breaking point and to new levels of insanity never before reached.

What I find fascinating about this scene in The Dark Knight is that the Joker is effectively establishing a new relationship - one that is based on established roles, while at the same time one without rules. In some regards, this sequence embodies both the traditional relationship while also leading us towards the current one.  The reason this sequence is so effective (at least to me) is because of the stark contrast of these two points in the franchise’s history, and an absence of rules leads to the establishment of one of the most intriguing (and lengthy) battles between hero and villain in comics.  Nevertheless, Batman maintains his composure in later scenes in the film, thus ensuring that this struggle can continue forever.

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