All fiction has a “bad guy,” an antagonist pressuring the hero into acts that test mental and physical strength. There are the generic muscle-bound gorillas, the small dictators, the maimed/deranged or the repressed, but few remain in lasting memory as the hero conquers evil and restores the world to normality.
And then there’s The Joker, the arch nemesis of arguably the most competent of heroes blessed with strength, fortune and brains. But Bruce Wayne can’t handle The Joker, and audiences/readers/gamers just can’t get enough of him. He pops up, creates chaos, laughs as Gotham crumbles and waits in prison for another chance to torment the Caped Crusader.
But why is he so popular? Here are 10 reasons why The Joker has become the most iconic villain in fiction.
10. No Clear Back-Story – “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.”
For some it’s pain. For others it’s heartbreak or loss. For The Joker it is a mystery. Fans aren’t sent into a back-story that shows the villain before the breaking point, and on the rare occasion that they are, it’s different from the last example. Other than a vat of chemicals or a carved up grin, we have no idea of The Joker’s origin. And this works: we don’t feel sorry for him, we don’t know what he’ll do next and his madness is all the more enjoyable. “Do you wanna know how I got these scars?”
To have a back-story is to have a weakness, and a weak villain is a dull point in fiction. The Joker isn’t performing evil deeds because he needs to; he does it because he wants to.
“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.”
9. Relationship With The Hero – “You complete me.”
The Joker is obsessed with Batman. Batman is obsessed with The Joker. All heroes need a villain to be in a job, but The Joker needs Batman because he finds him “so much fun.” It’s almost a love story. They just can’t kill each other. Batman may beat him to a pulp, or The Joker may push him into a deadly trap, but without one, the other struggles to exist. Where else in fiction have we seen this bond?
In Arkham City (video game) The Joker dies from disease, and the final scene is of Batman carrying his nemesis out like a dead lover from a burning building. Batman’s ultimate goal is to cure The Joker of his insanity; The ultimate goal of The Joker is to be killed by Batman. Never, in any example from 75+ years of characterisation, has either man achieved their goal. It simply ends in lock-up, to continue forever.
“You’ll never be sad, and you’ll never be lonely. You’ll always have me to dance with.”
8. No Powers, Just Madness – “If I weren’t insane, I couldn’t be so brilliant!”
Darth Vader has the Force, Lord Voldemort has magic; The Joker is just a man with make-up, much in the way that Batman is a man with a bat suit. The realism makes the character all the more applicable; your next door neighbour is capable of applying lipstick and using madness as a tool for destruction. Having unbreakable skin, shooting killer beams out of the hands and enforcing super strength can be so dull and repetitive. A crazed mind is a weapon more difficult to contain.
“If you actually let me finish a sentence, you might learn something! You might learn we’re not so different. You might even learn something about yourself.”
7. A Range of Iconic Representations – “Oh I’m not gonna kill ya. I’m just going to hurt ya. Really, really, bad.”
Cesar Romero. Jack Nicholson. Mark Hamill. Heath Ledger. Jared Leto. Each man has brought new life to the character, and each has left a stamp on the comic book world with their portrayal. Romero was camp, Nicholson was mad, Hamill leapt out of the comic books, Ledger was dark, and Jared Leto appears to be embracing the 21st century with his tattooed, pimped-out and prison-fed take on the iconic villain. Every time there is a representation the bar is lifted, a trait that will continue into the future.
“Batman?! Batman?!! Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in where a man dressed up as a bat gets all of my press?! This town needs an enema!”
6. As Quotable As They Come – “It’s all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for… it’s all a monstrous, demented gag! So why can’t you see the funny side? Why aren’t you laughing?”
We all recite the words with our friends, or speak them as they hit the screen. As anarchic and twisted as they are, there is something extremely satisfying about quoting The Joker. He understands the world in a way that doesn’t include rules, and ultimately a world without rules is one fantasised about greedily. Perhaps it’s the delivery, the mixture of slow speech with a linger on key words. What’s your favourite quote?
“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?”
5. Nothing to Lose – “You have nothing to threaten me with.”
While The Joker holds Robin captive and kills off the help, Batman can’t pinpoint a weak spot. Harley Quinn arrived on the scene in later comics, but even she would be left to die if threatened. The Joker wants Batman to break his one rule; killing an enemy. Without a fear of death, and with no loved ones, there is nothing for The Joker to lose. Fans are attached to The Joker because he can’t be hurt in the ways we all can; loss of a family member, a house, a job, a pet just don’t apply.
“I don’t CARE what happens to the world, and I DON’T play nice with others!”
4. No Motive – “I’m like a dog chasing cars; I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught one!”
We don’t know what he wants. Nobody does. Not even the man himself. And perhaps he doesn’t want anything other than to break the rules and have some fun. Unpredictability is engrossing. He’s a mass murderer without a reason to kill. As a clown he appears silly and colourful, but that creates the irony of the character. Pure evil has no motive, and The Joker is the best example of the word; he doesn’t see the error of his ways, he has no regret and each life means nothing to him.
“Kid, I’m the Joker. I don’t just randomly kill people. I kill people when it’s funny.”
3. Intelligent AND Humorous – “Why so serious?”
He is psychotic, but there’s no denying the brains involved in his schemes. Most villains have intelligence; few can deliver this in a way that is enjoyable and funny. We find ourselves laughing as pain is inflicted upon others; are we sick? No, we just can’t help the refreshing ways The Joker taunts his opponents compared to the repetitive ways of Hollywood and fiction. This is summed up by Heath Ledger‘s Joker, who PLANS to get caught, who CORRUPTS the symbol of hope in Gotham and who PUSHES Batman to his absolute limits.
“Ladies and Gentlemen! You’ve read about it in the papers! Now witness, before your very eyes, that most rare and tragic of nature’s mistakes! I give you: the average man.”
2. Confidence in Ability – “Wait ‘til they get a load of me.”
The Joker is never flustered, never worried a plan won’t work out. Not because it is foolproof, but because results aren’t the point; it’s the anarchy that occurs during the process. How can you fear failure when there is no need for an outcome? The Joker doesn’t have to fear death because of the confidence in Batman: he knows the hero won’t kill him, which allows free rein in creating as much mayhem as possible. We aren’t told he is a doctor like many other batman villains; we aren’t force fed with information, the facts are in the action.
“I’ve killed your girlfriend, poisoned Gotham, and hell… it’s not even breakfast! But so what? We all know you’ll save me.”
1. THAT Smile – “But remember, as my plastic surgeon always says: if you’ve gotta go, go with a smile.”
How can you not enjoy the antics of a man who always smiles wider than any other? We don’t need to feel sorry for him, and that is the perfect villain. Whether it be scars, chemicals or just red lipstick, The Joker is defined by the grin that constantly reminds us of a sick joke that can’t be erased.
“Oh, yes! Fill the churches with dirty thoughts! Introduce honesty to the White House! Write letters in dead languages to people you’ve never met! Paint filthy words on the foreheads of children! Burn your credit cards and wear high heels! Asylum doors stand open! Fill the suburbs with murder and rape! Divine madness! Let there be ecstasy, ecstasy in the streets! Laugh and the world laughs with you!”