The joke’s in the telling: or, why the Joker steals the show

Posted by Catherine Spooner on July 29, 2008 in Dr Catherine Spooner, Guest Blog tagged with

There’s been a lot of media attention given to Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight. The Joker is arguably the most charismatic of Batman’s adversaries, and Ledger’s is the most sophisticated screen portrayal of the character (I’ll no doubt be shot down for this, but I always thought Jack Nicholson was merely playing himself in clown make-up). What is it that is so compelling about this screen villain, and about Ledger’s performance?

It has become convention to the point of cliché in representations of contemporary killers to provide an origin story: an account of the trauma, usually experienced in childhood, which gives rise to the subject’s subsequent behaviour. By giving evil actions a place in a teleological narrative, they can be detected, explained, brought under rational control. Once the Devil was used to explain evil; now Freud performs the same function. To go one step further, Alexandra Warwick describes how the narrative of trauma, haunting and healing has become a dominant one in contemporary culture, to the extent that none of us can do without it:

It seems that contemporary culture wants to have trauma, it is induced, predicted and enacted, persistently rehearsed even when it is not actually present. Far from fearing trauma or experiencing it involuntarily, it is now almost not permissible to be without trauma. The dominant rhetoric of contemporary experience is that there are defining events in our individual, social and national lives that are insufficiently assimilated or experienced at the time of their occurrence, which we are then belatedly possessed by, unable to proceed until the fallout is dealt with. […] Deviation from the course is almost impermissible, we must be haunted, because something must have happened. (‘Feeling Gothicky’, Gothic Studies 9/1, May 2007, 5-15, p. 11; emphasis in original)

Christopher Nolan’s first contribution to the franchise, Batman Begins, tapped into precisely this impulse: it was an entire film devoted to the series of traumas that turned Bruce Wayne into the Dark Knight, a movie saturated with imagery of subterranean spaces and psychic returns. The film confirmed our suspicion that ‘something must have happened’ to Bruce Wayne to turn him into the bat-cape wearing vigilante we know and love, rehearsing the ‘defining events’ of his childhood in order to portray him as a haunted man. Although Nolan’s film stuck closely to its comic-book sources, it brought out unexpected resonance for a post-9/11 America not only in its story of a enigmatic Asian terrorist on a moral crusade, but also in its provision of a traumatised hero for a traumatised culture. Nolan’s version of Batman, played by Christian Bale, is dark, adult, psychologically complex, but he is also ultimately explainable. The Joker, however, is not.

The Joker, in Nolan’s version of the narrative, is not provided with an origin story, a recounting of the traumatic event that made him what he is. (This contrasts, for example, with Jack Nicholson’s Joker, who was allegedly disfigured in a vat of acid.) Ledger’s Joker does, indeed, enjoy telling his victims how he got his manic smile – but the story changes each time. Which is the true account? None of them, perhaps: the audience has no way of knowing. The pleasure is clearly all in the telling, and in the anticipated punchline – or as it should perhaps be more accurately described, slash-line. The joke is on us – the audience who seek the comfort of a trauma narrative, to assimilate the horror to a rational structure. An agent of chaos, a villain without a grand plan, without even a proper name, the Joker is provided with no linear, teleological narrative explaining his life. The ultimate postmodern criminal, he lives to disrupt grand narratives (‘truth’, ‘justice’, ‘trauma’, ‘good and evil’), plunging us deep into the murky waters of moral relativism. He doesn’t even want to destroy Batman, as that would bring an end to the fabulous joke.

The Joker deliberately resists our desire to inscribe psychological depth. The Joker’s henchmen in Nolan’s film wear clown masks – and at one point, the Joker himself removes a mask to reveal his clownlike, hideously made-up face. The texture of this second mask is constantly emphasised in the film: in close-up it is portrayed as peeling, flaking, smearing – it suggests skin disease, a body already in decay. Nicholson’s Joker’s clown-face was thrust upon him, the result of a terrible accident; it is irremovable. The crumbling of Ledger’s mask points to the fact that it is make-up rather than his ‘real’ face, is a willed and conscious choice. Our attention is constantly drawn to its masking qualities, not least when he dons other masks and then removes them, but we are never given access to what is underneath – if indeed there is anything. The Joker is all mask – that is his identity. In contrast, Bruce Wayne has several masks, including the Batman costume and the playboy persona he maintains as his cover, but beneath those we are shown an authentic, suffering self.

This, perhaps, is one reason why Heath Ledger steals the film from Christian Bale, brilliant though his portrayal of Batman is. Batman is a man who is hiding something behind a series of masks. The Joker hides nothing – he is the mask. And the notion that there is nothing behind the mask is ultimately the scariest thing of all.

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