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.