The Joker Effect – Why Movie Villains are Starting to Sound the Same

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

It’s difficult to fully comprehend just how much The Dark Knight changed movies.  It legitimized the superhero film as a serious dramatic vehicle.  That’s a fancy way of saying that it made audiences believe that a story about a guy in a bat suit could be as emotionally engaging, nuanced, and as compelling as any other movie released that year.  There were successful comic book adaptations before, but The Dark Knight was the revelation.

The 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

I 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. 

In Skyfall, James Bond represents order.  He is a tool of the establishment.  An agent who begrudgingly does the heavy lifting of his Government masters but still believes in, and is willing to die for God and Country.  Silva represents the abandonment of that idea, the notion that sacrifice is meaningless and that agents like Bond are pawns in a political game that is more about protecting interests than protecting citizens.  There’s a passage when the two characters first meet that gives us a glimpse into Silva’s take on the yin/yang relationship between them.

Raoul 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.

The Joker: 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.

It’s not difficult to draw parallels between these two scenes.  Even the most rudimentary aspects are carried over from The Dark Knight into Skyfall.  I use the Skyfall example because it’s so damn obvious.  There are already a few people online who have gone to great lengths comparing the two.  What’s interesting is how it’s crept into other franchises.  Have you watched any of the Iron Man 3 trailers lately?  Here’s a quote from Sir Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin:

The Mandarin: Some people call me a terrorist. I consider myself a teacher. Lesson number one: Heroes, there is no such thing.

Tony 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.

Once 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 history. 

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 villain. 

Burton’s Batman takes this notion to a ridiculous level.  In the first act Batman is responsible for the creation of the Joker.  In the third act we learn The Joker is responsible for the creation of Batman.  I think writers and audiences often see these connections as good storytelling.  To me, it comes across a little lazy.  Does every villain out there have to have some kind of connection to the hero?  Aren’t there righteous people and evil people in the world that aren’t thematically connected? 

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. 

I 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 shared history. 

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.

This debate really isn’t new.  It reminds me of a story about legendary comic artist Steve Ditko, who disagreed vehemently with Stan Lee over the direction of The Green Goblin.  While working on revealing the villain’s identity, Lee wanted it to be someone Peter Parker knew.  A familiar face that would make the conclusion to this story even more tragic.  Ditko preferred the alternative: The Green Goblin was a stranger, unknown to Peter.  Nothing more than an evil presence that crosses path with Spidey.  We know who won that debate.  The Spider-Man movies take a cue from Lee’s decision. 

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.

The 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 Joker. 

Creatively, I prefer the idea of a random hero/villain relationship.  One where the heroes and villains are linked by dueling ideologies, not connected by past events or actions.  One where Spider-Man and Green Goblin aren’t products of the same science, one where the Joker doesn’t murder Bruce Wayne’s parents, and a world where Darth Vader doesn’t have to be Luke and Leia’s father. 

Remember 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? 

My point, 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 from Lulu.com.

  • Amanamearth

    I like the article and agree on the most part but it seems you miss the point with some enemies and haven't done your full research.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=519845513 Jason Bryan

    I would say the reason why movies are getting more and more interconnected is because fantasy is becoming more and more fantastical. Media of all forms, music, movies, novels, TV shows, they&#39;re all about the extremes and fantasy now.<br /><br />Maybe it&#39;s just me, but when I think of the music, movies, novels, and TV I grew up on, the subject matter was more plausible and generally

  • John

    The Joker as played by Heath Ledger, whilst an exciting and brilliantly refreshing performance, was NOT a new idea. The Joker himself was inspired by Professor James Moriarty, arch enemy to Sherlock Holmes. The two men had no connection, but their opposite roles as geniuses in society put them at odds. Good genius versus evil genius. The Joker and all of the subsequent villains were inspired by

  • The Mechanic

    Great article, the worst part about it is that The Dark Knight started this trend and yet was failed to be noticed as a best picture contender.

  • hesoyamdonMonster

    it Hollywood, great movie never win

  • The Mechanic

    Yep.

  • hesoyamdonMonster

    good point !! their were some many great fantasy movies before which i felt was …..aa..— i cant really explain how —-, with the new trend of CGI, nothing feels special anymore, lord of the ring is good example, their was a good mixture of CGI and the real shoots to the comparison of Hobbit, which i felt the CGI was over used,so it didn&#39;t have the realism to it . if i want to watch

  • http://www.facebook.com/luke.graham.1044 Luke Graham

    What do you mean? Which enemies has he missed the point on? You can&#39;t just make a statement like that and not back it up. <br />I agree the article has missed some other examples. Bane feels like a derivative of the Joker as well (a double whammy of dark reflection and shared history). But it is an article for the internet, not a university essay, so there is no need for &quot;full research&

  • http://mycareersuicidenote.tumblr.com/ anghus

    Some of the comenters on Reddit mentioned Green Goblin in Raimi&#39;s Spiderman as someone who had both a shared history, was kind of a dark reflection, and also commented heavily on the role the of the hero and the villain. The speech on top of the building where the Goblin tells Spiderman that the people of this city will eventually fear and hate him. That&#39;s a good example because of the

  • http://www.facebook.com/bart.raeke Bart Raeke

    The thing about most of the iconic Spider-Man villains being a part of Peter&#39;s life in various ways comes from the idea that Peter Parker is just as important to the story as Spider-Man. It&#39;s one of the few comics that has a such a huge supporting cast of &quot;regular&quot; people (some of them aren&#39;t quite regular, but we get as much as them out of costume as in). Because of that

  • zach

    When you look at comic book history these characters are and always have been connected in these ways. Heroes and villains are personal, that&#39;s what makes them great. In order to have a great super villain they need to be more complex than just a desire for money.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fernandoyanmar.narciso Fernando Yanmar Narciso

    to me tha villains are the real heroes, since they&#39;re trying to make something to break the world&#39;s monotony

  • Mohit Kumar

    Totally agree with you Bart.

  • http://mycareersuicidenote.tumblr.com/ anghus

    well, in the comics Joker was created by Batman. I find Nolan&#39;s Joker more interesting because Batman didn&#39;t really create the Joker but inspire him. There&#39;s a great episode of Batman: The Animated Series where Batman is captured and all the villains hold a trial for him. They blame Batman for their lot in life, but the reality is they would have ended up criminals anyway. Maybe

  • V

    And the funny thing is villains will always be tragic because they only think they are making a difference. When in fact they are sacrificing everything they ever had for no reason at all. The world keeps turning, with or without them.

  • http://mycareersuicidenote.tumblr.com/ anghus

    never said it was a new idea. just that it popularized it and influenced this new crop of movie villains.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bart.raeke Bart Raeke

    Depends on the writer when it comes to how Joker created Batman. Most people refer to The Killing Joke, but fail to grasp that the story he tells, the one that people will cite, is very likely a lie based on the Joker himself saying that if he has to have a past he prefers one that is multiple choice. This is where Nolan and co. got the inspiration for the differing &quot;want to know how I got

  • http://mycareersuicidenote.tumblr.com/ anghus

    and that&#39;s the inherent problem with comics. varying continuities. i always have to go back to the historic version of the character creation, because in reality it&#39;s either that or a &#39;pick and choose&#39; mentality based on popularity. I love comics, but its infuriating to discuss them in terms of film because the characters are rarely allowed to grow or evolve before being reset.

  • Frank Mondana

    The writer is looking at Burton&#39;s Batman through a revisionist lens. The link between the hero and villain was fairly new back then. It was also the 1st comic book movie that made the audience take such films seriously. Before Burton&#39;s movie comic books were for kids and any movie based on them were supposed to be campy crap.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bart.raeke Bart Raeke

    True, but wasn&#39;t that back in the day when Batman didn&#39;t have a problem with killing, either? I like to think that sometimes shaking the bugs out is a good thing, and in this case, you can easily discard a direct correlation since other aspects were also changed for the better. Then it does become a case of being able to say Joker found himself via Batman and his before is just not

  • http://www.facebook.com/bart.raeke Bart Raeke

    I know it&#39;s not a movie, but the TV adaption of The Incredible Hulk (with Bixby and Ferrigno) wasn&#39;t intended as camp. It has shades of it now from time taking a toll, but it&#39;s obvious they were playing the story straight. It stands alone, really. Well, the Spider-Man live action show of the same relative era tried, it just didn&#39;t catch on at all.

  • http://mycareersuicidenote.tumblr.com/ anghus

    Yeah, according to the latest continuity altering storyline Joker claims to have basically orchestrated all the events in Jason&#39;s life that led him to eventually become Robin, basically that he &#39;birthed&#39; him, metaphorically speaking. Because when stories have nowhere new to go, they become incestuous and begin to add layers to the previously built foundation.

  • turnip

    Like we were all supposed to ignore the bombastic, unbelievable storyline (the Joker can do whatever he wants! Why? Just because!) and the plotholes the size of Texas. Best Picture? Not quite, kids.

  • Tygr

    You it is not difficult creating powerful and compelling villains or super villains. They are the funnest to create but according to movies, the easiest to imitate. The Dark Knight&#39;s Joker was phenomenon. Heath was legendary in his performance, God rest his soul. What bothered me about the sequel &amp; Bane, was the fact that they didn&#39;t include the Joker in any part of the movie (I

  • flip

    Not only that there&#39;s also that gimmick where the villain gets caught but it turned out he wanted to be caught and it was all part of a fiendish scheme to destroy the good guys from the inside out. And we&#39;re looking at you again skyfall, as also avengers.

  • http://mycareersuicidenote.tumblr.com/ anghus

    you know, i hadnt even really thought about that in avengers. but damn, that is spot on. If anybody was about chaos for the sake of chaos, its Loki.

  • Don Johnson

    Raoul wants revenge on M. I haven&#39;t cared to read into the other villains mentioned, but I assume all are after something, while the Joker&#39;s primary motivation, ironically, is to prove that nihilism is the only correct path, and kills people to illustrate how meaningless life is. He also, personally, wants to see Batman&#39;s will break. None of the villains are perfect clones, but I

  • The Mechanic

    Life Of Pi is just as &#39;&#39;unbelievable&#39;&#39; as TDK and that didn&#39;t stop it from winning accolades. It&#39;s a film of course it&#39;s not real. Then you might as well go on as to how much Star Wars and LOTR are also unbelievable. IT&#39;S A MOVIE!!!

  • Rylexander

    The Dark Knight didn&#39;t start this trend. &quot;Dark reflections&quot; of heroes have been present for a long time. Venom, Bizarro, Professor Zoom, the Abomination. In comic books, the best villains are the ones that are the antithesis to the heroes, and that is because they make the hero question himself/herself. The Joker tells Batman that &quot;it&#39;s all a bad joke&quot;, and honestly,

  • http://mycareersuicidenote.tumblr.com/ anghus

    i agree. in hindsight i dont think i spent enough time focusing on the point that TDK popularized it and made it cool again and the other movies are aping it&#39;s success. I&#39;ve gotten so many messages from people who declare &quot;YOU THINK THE DARK KNIGHT STARTED THIS SHIT?&quot;. While i think i touched on that, it obviously wasnt clear enough.

  • http://www.facebook.com/anthony.d.stokes.3 Anthony Donovan Stokes

    I find it odd that Nobody realizes the most blatant rip off of the Joker is Bane in TDKR. Aside from the whole parallel thing, you could quite easily swap the two of them and wouldn&#39;t have to change much to the story.

  • bruceledge

    and wrestler jon moxley.

  • ghost ECHO sevn

    And this is truly one of the biggest reasons The Trilogy deserved a better finale. The ball was dropped and then kicked along down the field for almost three hours.

    • http://delusionallosers.wordpress.com/ Anthony Donovan Stokes

      lol I honestly hated it. I almost walked out, but honestly if you’re a fan of the trilogy it’s not the worst thing that could’ve happened, but whenever somebody says it’s a great movie I wince a little

  • bossy909

    Look…he’s discovered a little thing called archetypes…the villain has to either be linked or random…thats two things…so what? you do a bunch of random villains and you’re back from where you started. The fact is that there are two stories. The love and the journey…and the love story is a journey…so one story…you just mix up the details. Read the bible, read homer, read Gilgamesh…at some point you have to set down the idea that there’s some magical new story out there and focus on characters and details. Plus the pigeon hole Hollywood loves the one dimensional yin yang good evil shit…I can name a dozen bad guys that spout the same world-turned-upside-down view “created” in dark knight…from decades ago…

  • bossy909

    Loki was always that way…before marvel lifted the entire Norse mythology…complicated…but a trickster a devils advocate. Mischievous for mischief’s sake

  • bossy909

    Sean bean plays the antithesis to bond while being a double agent…god and country are a joke etc. in Goldeneye.

  • bossy909

    You choose some arbitrary character (thanks to Heath’s performance) at some arbitrary time and that’s the point where people start imitating…because you choose that frame of reference and you’re looking for it. As it turns out…when you’re looking for something…you’re gonna find it…

    Did you know most movies have the number eleven in them? Look for it…
    It’s the masons.