Anghus Houvouras on 'The Joker Effect' and its impact on modern movie villains...
"Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be
bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to
watch the world burn." - The Dark Knight
film being denied a Best Picture nomination set a series of events into
motion that doubled the amount of potential nominees. It was a box
office behemoth that raised an already substantial financial bar. While
the impact of the movie will be felt for decades to come, nowhere is
its influence felt more than the trans formative effect it has had on
cinematic villains. It gave creators a new kind of connectivity between
hero and villain. Not a villain linked by shared history or narrative,
but a bond formed by the ideas that heroes and villains represent. The
Dark Knight wasn't the first movie to introduce the villain as the
antithetical ideology of the hero. It is however the most successful
cinematic interpretation of the concept, and it's popularity has created
a legion of clones.
The Joker had been done before. Jack Nicholson
had done a cartoony take on the character in Tim Burton's highly
successful Batman adaptation, the film that started the modern comic
book movie revival. Heath Ledger took it to another level. His Joker was a
bastion of anarchy and Ledger carried a fantastically written character
and delivered an Academy Award winning performance. Since then, movie
villains have taken a decidedly deconstructionist tone and have borrowed
heavily from one of the most iconic screen villains of all time.
Raoul Silva - Skyfall
don't think there's another villain on this list that feels more
borrowed from The Dark Knight than Javier Bardem's Raoul Silva. The
character is practically designed right from the Joker template. In the
Joker paradigm, the villain considers himself to be the counterweight,
the balance to an unsolvable equation. Batman is an agent of order.
The Joker is an agent of chaos.
Silva: One summer, we went for a visit and discovered the place had been
infested with rats. They'd come on a fishing boat and gorged themselves
on coconut. So how do you get rats off an island? Hmm? My grandmother
showed me. We buried an oil drum and hinged the lid. Then we wired
coconut to the lid as bait and the rats would come for the coconut
and... they would fall into the drum. And after a month, you have
trapped all the rats, but what do you do then? Throw the drum into the
ocean? Burn it? No. You just leave it and they begin to get hungry. And
one by one... they start eating each other until there are only two
left. The two survivors. And then what? Do you kill them? No. You take
them and release them into the trees, but now they don't eat coconut
anymore. Now, they only eat rat. You have changed their nature. The two
survivors. This is what she made us.
The scene is reminiscent of the now classic interrogation room scene where Batman and The Joker first meet.
Don't talk like one of them. You're not! Even if you'd like to be. To
them, you're just a freak, like me! They need you right now, but when
they don't, they'll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals,
their code, it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble.
They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you. When
the chips are down, these... these civilized people, they'll eat each
other. See, I'm not a monster. I'm just ahead of the curve.
The Mandarin: Some people call me a terrorist. I consider myself a teacher. Lesson number one: Heroes, there is no such thing.
Stark represents so many basic capitalist ideals. He's the wealthy
innovator with an overreaching sense of responsibility. His villain is a
Sun Tzu inspired ideological terrorist who wants to tear down that
symbol. Like the Joker, Iron Man 3's Mandarin seems to be
intellectually stimulated by the idea of the hero. The line "Heroes,
there are no such thing." speaks volumes about Mandarin's lack of faith
in the integrity of humanity. Something the Joker spends the entire
movie trying to prove.
The Joker Paradigm is an interesting one,
because creatively it requires the villain to be tied to the hero at an
almost molecular level. The Joker sees himself as the effect to
Batman's cause. Silva very much sees himself as Bond's dark
reflection. The Mandarin is being presented as an antithesis to Tony
Stark. To build off Silva's analogy, the hero and the villain are both
rats who only have a taste for each other. The hero and the villain
seem almost fated to square off. Am i the only one who is starting to
find that paradigm a little boring?
I'm excited about Star Trek
Into Darkness, but a lot of what I hear from Benedict Cumberbatch feels
eerily similar to the speeches we've heard from The Dark Knight,
Skyfall, and the trailers for Iron Man 3.
John Harrison (a.k.a. probably Khan): You think your world is safe? It is an illusion. A comforting lie told to protect you.
again we have a villain with an aggressive anti-establishment attitude
who likes to discuss the 'lie' of society. The same lie the Joker
believed civilization bought into that kept them from turning on one
another and "eating each other". The same lie Silva bought into when he
became an agent, believing that civilization is good and worth serving.
The Dark Knight and the Joker was not the first movie to use these
basic tenants of storytelling, but it popularized it to a ridiculous
degree. So much so that major movie villains all seem to be delivering
variations of the same basic principle. While it's easy to understand
why these techniques are used, it does make me pine for a movie where
the villain isn't inexplicably tied to the hero due to a shared
A Shared History
Most modern movie villains
seem to be connected to the hero where they share a common history or
are somehow tied to an event that is responsible for their creation.
The hero and villain are often split from the same event.
Christopher Nolan's first and third Batman films are examples of this principle in
action. In Batman Begins, Ra's al Ghul heads The League of Shadows, a
group dedicated to the idea that society needs razing every few
generations. This goes back to the modern villainous concept that
civilization is a lie that needs to be exposed. Batman was created
because Thomas and Martha Wayne were murdered. A murder that was the
product of The League of Shadows' economic warfare on Gotham which sent
Bruce Wayne on a quest to avenge their deaths. A quest that leads him
to... The League of Shadows. Villain and hero intertwined at a
molecular level. In The Dark Knight Rises we deal with the fallout from
the end of Batman Begins. Batman kills Ra's al Ghul. Talia al Ghul and
Bane return to Gotham to destroy Batman. Villains and hero intertwined
at a molecular level. The hero and the villains are linked through a
shared history. The villain creates the hero. The hero creates the
Nolan provides us
with a Joker whose connections are philosophical, but he admits he was
created because of Batman's existence. His role in the world is defined
by Batman. "Escalation" as Gordon put it. Batman is indirectly
responsible for the Joker's creation. It didn't take being dropped into
a vat of chemicals to turn the Joker into Batman's nemesis.
tried to think of a movie where the villain and the hero aren't
inexplicably linked either philosophically or by plot circumstance. The
first person I thought of was Hans Gruber. It always comes back to Die
Hard, doesn't it? Hans Gruber is a money grubbing thief posing as a
high minded, ideological terrorist. He squares off with off duty policeman John McClane, an unwitting victim of circumstance. Die Hard
has one of the best heroes and villains ever committed to film. And
neither of them knew of the other's existence prior to the events of the
film. Hans didn't kill McClane's father. McClane didn't arrest Hans
for bank robbery back in New Jersey. They're just two people with
radically different agendas with no pre-existing knowledge of their
existence and no shared history. Wouldn't cinema be better served by
some movies where the villains and the heroes aren't intertwined at a
molecular level? It's funny that we get the more standard hero/villain
relationship in the sequel Die Hard with a Vengeance. Simon (Jeremy
Irons) is revealed to be Hans Gruber's brother which provides them with a
It's probably safe to assume that this kind
of cinematic device isn't going anywhere. Batman will always have the
Joker. Movie villains will often be written to have a shared history
with the hero. While it makes cleaning up the story tidy, it isn't the
most innovative approach. And with more big budget franchise movies
coming our way, I doubt the formula is going to radically change.
In The Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man fights the
Lizard, who was friends with his father, whose work creates the
radioactive spiders that bite Peter Parker transforming him into the
wall crawling hero. Even Raimi's Spider-Man films had every villain
connected to the main characters. The Green Goblin was Harry's father.
Doctor Octopus was conducting research funded by Harry. Sandman killed
Uncle Ben. Venom worked at the Daily Bugle and wanted Peter Parker's
life. Every character is interconnected. Nothing is random.
idea of a random villain seems almost unheard of anymore. Which brings
us back to The Dark Knight's Joker. Ideologically tied to Batman, but
not historically linked to the character in any way. A product of
Batman's existence, but not created by Batman. Two characters with
dueling agendas and no shared history. And that is why the Joker is the
superior screen villain. Often imitated, but rarely improved upon.
The modern movie villain has been transformed by the Joker. It has
given Hollywood a template, something that big studio movies love. A
villain that is connected to the character as an idea, rather than
having a shared history. I liked Skyfall, though have no trouble
admitting it was derivative storytelling. I'm psyched for Iron Man 3
and Star Trek Into Darkness. But part of me feels like I already know
what I'm getting with these villains: the Joker inspired "dark
reflection" to our hero. It's like every movie villain has become the
how epic that moment felt? It's one of the most memorable scenes in
cinematic history. Now, it's hard to find a comic book adaptation or
major geek franchise that doesn't employ some kind of shared history or
common event that creates the hero and the villain. Everything within
the story is interconnected. I'm not saying this is new. Hamlet's
father was killed by his Uncle. This is storytelling 101. I'm just
asserting that it's more interesting when the villain is random, like
David Fincher's superior thriller Seven. I like a villain with an
agenda that isn't always linked to the hero. It may be more difficult
for an audience to wrap their head around, but it's far more interesting
and far less predictable.
Would Seven have been better served
by giving the killer a backstory that connected him to the police detectives trying to hunt them down? Would the whole story have been
more tidy if Kevin Spacey's remorseless killer had a shared history with
the detectives tasked with bringing him to justice?
if I have one, is that tying heroes and villains together through a
shared history or common event has been done to death. Nolan's Joker
has popularized the idea of the villain as the personification of a
dueling ideology. With Raoul Silva, Mandarin, and presumably John
Harrison, we're starting to see a tonal shift towards villains that
exist as the antithesis to the heroic philosophy. Deconstructionist
characters who challenge the heroic foundation. Men who just want to
watch the world burn.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker.
His latest work, the graphic novel EXE: Executable File, is available