The Batman/Joker Dynamic
Author: Mithun Shetty
In the 1939 issue of Detective Comics #27, Bob Kane and Bill Finger created what would become one of the most iconic comic book heroes, Batman. A year later, in Batman #1, these two creators, along with Jerry Robinson, imagined up the Joker, who some consider to be the perfect super villain. Over the decades of DC Comics’ history, these characters’ relationship has evolved into a profound representation of yin and yang; the two are considered to have one of the most interesting dynamics of any superhero / super villain pair. Rather than representing a mere triumph of good over evil, the relationship Batman and Joker share is far less cut-and-dry, and opens the story up to much more philosophical discussion. Simply put, the Batman and the Joker are the perfect match. What makes the Joker the ultimate villain to complement the Batman is the fact that each character justifies the existence of the other. While the many various story arcs spanning across several different media that center around the pair may vary plot-wise, most contain integral elements that are necessary to stay true to the story’s narrative canon.
To that end, the most successful and influential story arcs in the Batman franchise are those that maintain this structure and emphasize this consistent yin-yang relationship. This transmedia analysis aims to dissect the core components of five quintessential, exemplary works in the Batman universe that properly represent the nature of the Batman and Joker’s relationship. The following works will be considered: Christopher Nolan’s 2008 blockbuster film, The Dark Knight; Warner Bros. Games’ action video game Arkham Origins (2013); Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke’s graphic novel, Batman: The Man Who Laughs (2005); and finally, Alan Moore’s iconic graphic novel, The Killing Joke (1988). The plots of these works will be mapped against the archetypal structure of a dramatic work, Freytag’s Pyramid, in order to show how similar their plot structure is, as well as to highlight the integral components that do not vary across different works.
What is meant by the term “canon”? In the context of the Batman universe, we are adopting this term – typically defined as the set of rules, events, or ideas that are considered to be the essential, core foundations across a field, genre, or decade of literature – to describe the constant elements and rules by which the story is told across the franchise. While various elements of a particular story arc might vary, certain elements remain constant. In Batman, the narrative canon revolves around Bruce Wayne, an American billionaire, playboy, and heir to Wayne Industries who harbors a secret alter-ego as a masked vigilante and detective known as the Batman, whose sole motive is to exact justice against crime and corruption in Gotham City. Bruce Wayne’s transformation into the Batman was brought upon by the murder of his two parents by a thief during his childhood, leaving him as an orphan brought up by his butler, Alfred Pennyworth. Following this traumatic experience, using his seemingly infinite wealth, intelligence, and detective skills, Bruce honed his skills, trained in multiple disciplines and mastered his fears in order to become a costumed bat vigilante, inspiring fear in the criminals using methods often outside the jurisdiction of the authorities. The most important detail of the narrative canon to remember is Batman’s staunch, unwavering moral rules. While he engages in his crusade against crime through violence and fear tactics, he makes it a point to distinguish himself from the very aspect that defines his enemies: he does not kill. Regardless of the circumstances, he cannot take another’s life and justify his actions as separate from the murderers against whom he is fighting, establishing himself as a dark symbol of justice and morality.
The Joker’s rule set, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. His origin story is much more complex to define; there is no definitive origin or history that explains the existence of the Joker. Rather, many different works present alternate takes on this villain’s history, mostly involving the Joker himself recounting his backstory falsely or differently each time. Due to this ambiguity, a general consensus has been reached that the narrative canon of the Joker’s history is that of The Killing Joke, which depicts his life as a failed comedian who turns to crime and experiences a ghastly toxic chemical accident that leaves him horribly disfigured and causes a psychotic breakdown. However, unlike Batman, these back-story details are not necessary to understand the motives or justification of the Joker’s existence. In fact, one could argue that an absence of the facts enhances the chilling, disturbing effect of the Joker’s persona; his existence is justified by the fact that he is the antithesis of the Batman. Everything he does serves as a method of taunting the Batman, testing his self-control against his ruthless pursuit of chaos. His motives are not material or revengeful; he really only exists to drive Batman to his limits via terrorizing innocents and committing heinous crimes.
In 1863, German novelist Gustav Freytag created his archetypal pyramid of the classic structure of dramatic works, dividing it into 5 separate acts. The first act of the pyramid is called the Exposition, in which the background information (i.e. setting, context, and characters) are introduced to the reader. This is followed by Rising Action, which includes any set of events that build towards the third act, the Climax. The climax is the culmination of the story’s plot; it is the turning point at which the protagonist’s story changes significantly enough to alter the course of the story. The fourth act, Falling Action, is similar to Rising Action, in that it includes any events that follow the climax between the protagonist and antagonist. Finally, this structure resolves in the Dénouement, in which the narrative comes to a close, and the story is finally resolved. Being a drama, the Batman narrative canon can be analyzed through this lens.
While it may not be 100% accurate, the works mentioned above closely follow this general pattern. Once again, the exposition of the Batman works under analysis may vary plot-wise, but the most important details in this act are that the Batman and Joker become aware of each other’s existence in some way or the other, usually through a threat or crime the Joker has committed, prompting a response from Batman. Next, the rising action simply includes the procession of the plotline up until the climax, during which each character learns about the other on an increasingly profound level; this usually includes Batman gathering information about the Joker and the Joker continuing to devise his evil plots while observing the Batman. The climax in these works occurs when the two characters confront one another in a dramatic way; this act of the structure is arguably the most important of the entire pyramid. At this point, the ideologies and motives of each character become demystified, usually through intense dialogue amidst acts of violence and chaos. Following the climax, the falling action depicts the action-packed events that lead to the dénouement. This act is almost equally as cathartically important as the climax, as it explains the following consistent resolution to the various story arcs: one never truly “defeats” the other. While the Batman may thwart the Joker’s immediate plans and the Joker may be incarcerated or temporarily stopped, the Joker is never fully vanquished. The characters both come to the realization that due to their inherent, unchanging motivations and moralities (or lack thereof), one can never truly triumph over the other. Thus, there is no real long term resolution; they come to an understanding on a certain level, and in a way demonstrate how they are quite similar to one another.
The expositions are where the most variation is seen among the works. Unless stated, these works do not specifically go into the origin story of the two characters; therefore, it is assumed that the rules of the canon fill in this information. For example, In The Dark Knight, the origin of the Batman is unexplained; this is due to the movie being the second installment in Nolan’s trilogy, with the first movie Batman Begins focusing more on this topic. This lack of an explicit explanation of Batman’s backstory holds true for all the other four works. In the case of the video game Arkham Origins, there is a short story sequence that refers to this backstory. Within the game map there is a location where the outlines of Bruce’s parents’ bodies are drawn, with a lone rose. Upon visiting this site, the character mourns, paying homage to the back story. The graphic novel, The Man Who Laughs, also briefly refers to this story via a hallucination in the story during which Batman has visions of the night his parents were murdered. The Dark Knight pays no attention to the Joker’s origins or backstory. Instead, Nolan’s Joker is seen in multiple scenes telling a fabricated story about how he received the disfigurements on his face, including an abusive father and self-infliction. The graphic novel The Killing Joke is the only work that directly explains his history. It introduces him as a failed comedian who turns to two criminals to support his pregnant wife, only to have her die in an accident, follow through in the criminals’ dangerous plan, run into the Batman during the crime and fall into a vat of acid trying to escape, leaving him horribly disfigured.
Nonetheless, the most important aspect of the works’ expositions is that the Joker begins a string of homicides and other crimes in order to call the Batman’s attention, thus beginning the Batman’s pursuit of the Joker. The Joker kidnaps and tortures Police Commissioner Gordon and murders his daughter in The Killing Joke; he murders a wealthy billionaire in The Man Who Laughs; he murders innocent civilians in The Dark Knight in an attempt to reveal the Batman’s identity; lastly, unbeknownst to Batman, the Joker anonymously terrorizes civilians and mob leaders and places a hefty bounty on Batman’s head in Arkham Origins in order to call his attention.
The different media set the exposition in very unique ways. The two graphic novels use artwork with deep, somber imagery (in both cases, rain) to evoke a dark, ominous mood in the reader that primes them to the tone of the rest of the work.In the video game Arkham Origins, the initial sequences in the game serve two purposes: to orient the player to the controls of the game and to establish the exposition of the game’s plot. This exposition is far more interactive as the player is allowed to freely explore the game map, with little to no knowledge of the current situation. This style of figuring-out-as-you-play introduction feels much more organic, and does the best job of uniting the player and character’s perspective in the game. While The Dark Knight film may not be as interactive as the game, the exposition shown in the movie is the most relatable to a human audience. The movie opens with a bank robbery and homicide by a group of criminals wearing masks, one of whom is later found out to be the Joker in disguise. The characters in the introductory sequences are actual human beings displaying real emotions of fear and helplessness, which therefore has a profound effect on the emotional state of the audience.
The rising action of the works under review is of relatively minor importance when it comes to understanding the dynamic between the Batman and Joker. Briefly, in The Dark Knight, the Joker continues to hatch his plot to destroy Gotham, by means of explosives strategically planned throughout the city, terrorist threats publicly televised, and more murders and crimes; in The Killing Joke, the Joker taunts the Batman and tells him where he has kidnapped the Gordon; in The Man Who Laughs, Batman continues to pursue the Joker, who makes more threats on public figures, while also struggling with resisting a minor dose of the Joker’s weaponized poison; lastly, in Arkham Origins, Batman continues to fight off the various bounty hunters, all while gradually uncovering the true identity of the mastermind behind the crimes in the city.
The climaxes of the works are the most intense moments of each story; they are the apex of the physical and/or ethical conflict between both characters. At this moment, both characters understand the ideologies of the other. Usually through intense dialogue, one character either explains or demonstrates his moral stance to the other. In The Dark Knight, after the Joker has been easily apprehended, he and the Batman engage in a heated discussion in an interrogation room. The Joker has kidnapped the district attorney, and Batman violently questions him. At one point Batman asks the Joker why he wants to kill him, to which he replies “[Laughs] I don’t wanna kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No…You complete me” (The Dark Knight, Nolan 2008). Until this point, Batman simply believes the Joker wants him dead. However, he further clarifies his standpoint on the city of Gotham: “To [the citizens of Gotham] 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. 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” (The Dark Knight, Nolan 2008).
Batman comes to understand that the Joker’s crimes are not motivated by money or power; he simply is trying to expose corruption, not only in the officials of Gotham, but the citizens of Gotham themselves. He firmly believes that a chaotic society, not bound by morality or rules, will expose people for who they truly are. It is for that reason that the Joker goes through extreme lengths to get the Batman to break his rule; either he must deal with Joker’s elaborate threats and challenges, or he must disobey his morals and choose between saving one of two hostages the Joker has hidden (thereby being directly responsible for the death of an innocent). Yet, the Joker is aware of the Batman’s inability to do the latter. Out of anger, Batman punches and throws the Joker against the wall, to which he simply replies “You have nothing – nothing to threaten me with – nothing to do with all your strength” (The Dark Knight, Nolan 2008). The Joker knows that regardless of how he may push him mentally, the Batman will not kill him. The Killing Joke and The Man Who Laughs both have a set of frames in which the Joker explains his stance to the Batman. In The Killing Joke the Joker explains that he went crazy, not because of his disfigurement, but because he was able to see the world for what it truly is: “When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot! I admit it!” (The Killing Joke, Moore 1988).
He had a revelation regarding the banality of human existence in terms of human priorities and values, over money, power, motivations for war, etc. His fight, again, is not to gain power or money, but to prove a point. This battle of ideologies he is fighting leads Batman to his own conclusions about the Joker. The Man Who Laughs hints at this idea much more subtly; during a fight scene between the Batman and Joker, Batman’s interior monologue is shown to the reader; “This psychopath is LAUGHING. I’m about to break his bones and all I can hear is his laughter echoing through the whole house” (The Man Who Laughs, Mahnke 2005). Soon after this fight, Batman further contemplates the Joker’s psychological state. “I never prepared for this. I planned for the killers, the muggers, the rapists. Desperate people doing desperate things. But I never imagined something like the Joker” (The Man Who Laughs, Mahnke 2005). Batman clearly understands that he is not creating chaos for trite reasons, but rather has larger goals at hand. Finally, Arkham Origins’ climax is unique to the other three. Rather than seeing Batman come upon a revelation about the Joker, we see Joker clearly distressed and confused by Batman’s actions. Following an altercation between another villain and Batman on a rooftop, the other villain escapes, blowing up the building where the Joker is standing and throwing him to his sure death down a skyscraper. However, Batman dives after him and saves his life, to which the Joker angrily questions “Why would you DO that? Newsflash: I’m the one that’s trying to KILL you!” (Arkham Origins, Warner Bros. Games 2013). The Joker realizes that the Batman refuses to kill him, despite all the murders for which the Joker is responsible.
As you can see in the image in the top right corner of the left image, the game acknowledges this decision and rewards the player for deciding to save the Joker with an achievement (in-game reward that unlocks certain content for the player) entitled “One Rule”. This achievement system is an interesting component that adds a layer to the narrative experience of the video game that films or graphic novels cannot- it is an acknowledgement of the narrative outside of the game itself. Achievements in console video games usually benefit the players the same way by adding points or ranks to their Gamerscore/Profile/personal gaming account. The achievement system is not related to the actual progression of the game. Therefore, when the game awards an achievement to the player on certain special occasions, it is an external method of acknowledging a poignant moment in the video game without the game itself explicitly pointing this out to the player.
One advantage that the movie and video game have that the graphic novels do not is the inclusion of moving visual sequences. The movie itself and the cut-scenes in between gameplay are quite effective in showing the changing facial expressions of the characters. Graphic novels can do this to a certain extent with illustrations of static frames of the characters’ countenances. However, without actual moving pictures, it is quite difficult to transition between the Joker’s menacing grin and laugh and his expressions of anger and frustration, as well as between Batman’s hardened, emotionless grimace and his enraged expression he uses to intimidate his enemies.
The falling action between the climax and denoument of the works is also fairly unimportant relative to the rest of the plot. Batman simply proceeds to work towards thwarting the Joker’s efforts. In The Killing Joke, he physically bests the Joker in a violent altercation. In The Man Who Laughs, he uses his detective skills to discover the Joker’s plan to poison Gotham’s water supply, find the contamination site, and fight all of Joker’s henchmen. In The Dark Knight, Batman rushes to save one of the hostages. Meanwhile, the Joker escapes, and threatens to bomb two ferries carrying many citizens and prisoners of Gotham as part of a social experiment; Batman attempts to find and stop him. However, unlike the other works, the falling action in Arkham Origins is quite important. Batman goes to a prison where Joker is instigating a riot, only to see that he has set up an elaborate trap in order to test Batman’s ability to adhere to his rule not to kill. He has himself strapped up to an electric chair holding Police Commissioner Gordon with another villain charging the chair with an apparatus attached to his heart. If Batman does not kill the villain, the Joker will die, and if he does not kill the Joker, the apparatus will kill the villain after a certain amount of time. If Batman takes no action, the Joker will set off a bomb and kill everyone. This is yet another test to see if Batman will be able to adhere to his morals or violate his rule.
Finally, the dénouements of the works are the most perplexingly profound aspects of the story arcs and the Batman/Joker dynamic. It is apparent that, despite the efforts they may go to, one cannot vanquish the other completely. Even if Batman can temporarily stop the Joker or thwart his plans, he cannot kill him. To kill him is the only way to truly end his ability to cause harm in Gotham. Similarly, the only way that the Joker can win against Batman is to be able to cause Batman to violate his beliefs and murder him. However, since this is impossible, there is no real resolution. In all the works, the two characters come to this realization following Batman physically defeating the Joker.
In The Dark Knight, Batman launches Joker off a building, and as he falls to his death, Batman saves him once again, to which he states: “You just couldn’t let me go, could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible, aren’t you? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness, and I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever” (The Dark Knight, Nolan 2008).
In The Man Who Laughs, the characters are fighting outside a pool of deadly chemicals, and as the Joker lunges towards Batman and almost falls in, Batman saves him while having an internal monologue: “It would be so easy to just let him fall into it. So many are already dead because of this man…I can’t. Damn it, I can’t” (The Man Who Laughs, Mahnke 2005).
In Arkham Origins, after Batman figures out how to successfully remove the apparatus without killing the villain or the Joker and Gordon on the chair, the Joker angrily attacks Batman for ruining his plans, prompting Batman to physically harm the Joker. After a while, the Joker tries to encourage Batman to murder him: “Come on, baby! Beat me ‘till your knuckles bleed…and why quit there? You know there’s only one way to stop me” (Arkham Origins, Warner Bros. Games 2013). However, Batman refrains from killing him once more.
Finally, The Killing Joke final frames of the novel show the Joker and Batman having a conversation after Batman physically defeats the Joker. The Joker asks Batman why he doesn’t kill him, to which the Batman replies “Do you understand? I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want either of us to end up killing the other. But we’re running out of alternatives and we both know it” (The Killing Joke, Moore 1988). He offers to help rehabilitate the Joker, but to that he merely replies with a joke that metaphorically states they do not trust each other. The comic book ends with both parties erupting into raucous laughter at the sheer irony of the situation – almost as though they were friends. Only they truly understand each other and the struggle they both cannot overcome.
Batman and Joker: Not So Different After All
One can see how deeply similar these works are in terms of communicating this dynamic across. Though the external elements of plot may vary, the core conceptual flow of the story is the same: two beings, with inherently flawed, opposing ideologies, put each other through rigorous challenges in an attempt to defeat the other; one aims for ensuring justice, while the other aims to push the other to his limit. Despite these efforts, both characters realize that, due to their insurmountable relentlessness in their goals and morals, one cannot triumph over the other. In turn, the Batman effectively seals his own fate by continually saving the Joker, allowing him to create more murders down the road. Though he is not directly responsible, he is allowing a murderer to eventually roam free. This is a serious flaw in Batman’s ideology that makes their relationship so interesting; it is for this reason that the reader can understand that the Batman is not entirely a “superhero.” His morality is subject to questioning just as the Joker’s is, perhaps just simply to a more subtle degree. The Joker points out this flaw to Batman, saying that for this reason Batman is just as responsible as he is for the damage in Gotham. As The Killing Joke author Alan Moore once stated in an interview, “…psychologically, Batman and the Joker are mirror images of each other” (2001). The Joker’s motive is to expose corruption in Gotham’s infrastructure and its citizens, yet goes about doing so in a very violent, immoral way. Both are fighting against problems they believe to exist in their city, and have spawned from some tragedy in their life; they really only differ in methodology. As literary critic Geoff Klock states, “both Batman and the Joker are creations of a random and tragic ‘one bad day.’ Batman spends his life foraging meaning from the random tragedy, whereas the Joker reflects the absurdity of life, and all its random injustice” (Klock 2002). However, if one were to kill the other, his justification for his existence would disappear. In this sense, their relationship is almost a type of dark romance. As the Joker succinctly puts it in Grant Morrison’s comic series The Clown at Midnight, “You can’t kill me without becoming like me! I can’t kill you without losing the only human being who can keep up with me! ISN’T IT IRONIC?!” (Morrison 2007).
Comparative Media Analysis
The different media used to depict this relationship each have strengths and weaknesses that allowed it to tell certain aspects of the Batman/Joker Dynamic more effectively. While each represents a different imagination of the story, they inevitably end up sending across the same message. The film medium added a very human element to what was otherwise a set of 3D animations or cartoon drawings. Having human actors effectively emphasized the profound connection to human nature and behavior, more effectively than the others would have been able to. The video games added an immersive layer to the philosophical experience: the player is literally in control of Batman, and has the option to choose whether or not to make the decisions necessary in the game to progress, which is in turn an ethical dilemma in and of itself. Finally, the graphic novel bridges the interactive gap between a plain novel of text and a movie; while it does not directly display the emotions or feelings of the characters like movies do, it does assist with the imaginative process of visualizing the story. There are gaps between frames; these gaps allow the reader to play through the events of the story in a subjective manner and further engage in the story arc. However, one could argue that video games are the most effective method of storytelling when it comes to this sort of delicate relationship mixed with the action-packed nature of the Batman universe. They bridge together the interactive aspects and decision-making of playing a video game with the emotional, witness point-of-view experience of watching a movie via mini cut scenes between gameplay. However, regardless of which multimedia lens the Batman/Joker dynamic is viewed, it is certain that their relationship is both unique and profound, earning it a spot among the most interesting character relationships of all time.
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