When I think about why The Dark Knight works so well, the answer always seems clear: The Joker. There have been psychopathic villains before. Other antagonists with elaborate, twisting plans. But there’s something special about The Joker. But putting The Joker character into a movie clearly does not automatically make it great. So what’s special about The Joker in The Dark Knight? Is it just Heath Ledger’s excellent performance? Or is there something more going on?
To examine the function of an antagonist in a story. And breakdown why The Joker is the perfect opponent for The Dark Knight, he is exceptionally good at attacking the hero’s weakness. Let’s begin with a quote from Robert McKee’s Story: “So an antagonist must be powerful. The more powerful, the harder the struggle for our hero. And the harder the struggle, the more compelling the story.” But that’s a little vague. What does powerful mean in this context? John Truby has a good piece of advice about how to make the antagonist powerful in a specific way: The Joker is exceptionally good at attacking Batman’s greatest weaknesses. Much of Batman’s power comes from his ability to intimidate and from his physical strength. And The Joker delights in creating situations that nullify Batman’s strength. Like when he’s captured Rachel and Harvey Dent.
Where are they?!
You have nothing. Nothing to threaten me with. Nothing to do with all your strength.
The Joker turns Batman’s strength into a weakness. He can do this because he doesn’t fear death, in fact he wants Batman to kill him.
C’mon I want you to do it.
Because he knows Batman’s morality takes the form of one rule: he doesn’t kill people. So the more chaos The Joker causes, and the more people he kills. The further he reveals that Batman’s moral code can also be a weakness. Because the only way to truly stop The Joker is to kill him, something Batman can never do. But the Joker’s plan isn’t just to beat Batman, it’s to show Gotham his true colours. He does this by pressuring the protagonist into difficult choices. According to Robert McKee: “True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure — …” and “…the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.” So in every story, the forces of antagonism must increasingly apply pressure to the protagonist. Forcing them to make more and more difficult choices. Choices which reveal their true nature. As far as pressuring the protagonist into choices that test and reveal character, that is quite literally The Joker’s plan.
After 45 pages of pretty boring set-up, on page 46 the screenplay kicks into gear when Batman is faced with the first in a series of conundrums.
You want order in Gotham? Batman must take off his mask, and turn himself in. Every day he doesn’t, people will die.
By refusing, at first, to give in to this terrorist demand, we the audience see that Batman has what it takes to do what’s right. But The Joker proves to be unstoppable, always one step ahead of Batman. In a sequence that I realized is very similar to another movie with a great antagonist — Se7en.
Batman and Gordon investigating a crime scene. Discovering fingerprints that lead them to the apartment of the suspect — only to find that it’s all part of the antagonist’s game. Even The Joker’s plan to purposefully be caught is similar to Se7en.Throughout all this, the pressure on Batman increases as people keep dying. The people of Gotham turn against Batman, until the pressure is too much and Batman’s true character is revealed.
Today I’ve found out what Batman can’t do. He can’t endure this.
Batman decides to turn himself in. Harvey Dent claiming to be Batman and taking his place is the only thing that stops him from doing so. The most revealing choice Batman makes is when The Joker pressures him to choose between Harvey Dent and Rachel.
Which one you going after?
In choosing Rachel, Batman reveals what he’s unwilling to sacrifice for the greater good of Gotham. The limit to his resolve. But with The Joker, things are never that simple. Throughout the film, The Joker forces Batman into choices that reveal who and what he cares about when the pressure is really on. Batman is forced to face his true self.
How do you make sure your antagonist is the right one for your hero? After all, The Joker may be the right antagonist for Batman, but completely inappropriate for a different protagonist. Let’s go back to John Truby. “It is only by competing for the same goal that the hero and the opponent are forced to come into direct conflict and to do so again and again throughout the story.” This concept helps distinguish your antagonist and make sure they are the right one for your hero. So how are Batman and The Joker competing for the same goal? Both of them have their own vision of what they want Gotham City to be. Batman is fighting for hope, for a Gotham City without crime.
For law and order. And The Joker…
Upset the established order and everything becomes chaos.
Batman versus The Joker. Law and order versus chaos. In their final scene together, The Joker even has a line that makes it very clear that he knows what their battle is all about.
You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fist fight with you?
They are both competing for the soul of Gotham, and only one of them can win. This point needs to be further underlined, because it shows that a relatively measured but specific threat can be extremely compelling. In the finale, the only lives in danger are a few hundred people on the ferries. Batman is not racing against time to stop the villain’s random-machine-of-destruction. When the villain’s plan is to destroy the whole world, on a meta level we the audience know that can’t happen, because there’s probably going to be a sequel. But The Joker could have blown up both ferries, and the film could have had an Empire Strikes Back-esque ending. A powerful set-up for the next film. Again, Batman and The Joker aren’t competing for the survival of humanity. They’re competing for the soul of Gotham. The stakes are personal, first and foremost. So now we’ve seen how The Joker is exceptionally good at attacking Batman’s weaknesses. How he pressures him into difficult choices as they both compete for the soul of Gotham. But what is cumulative affect of these things? What is the greater function of The Joker?
With respect, Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man you don’t fully understand either.
Throughout the script, Alfred hints at the lessons Batman needs to learn.
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.
In the beginning, Batman believes that criminals are simply after money, that there is a logical order to things. But he learns not to underestimate his enemies, that his strengths can become weaknesses.
Batman grows wiser because of the Joker.
Know your limits, Master Wayne. Batman has no limits. Well you do, sir.
Under the pressure of the antagonist, Batman learns that alone he does have limits. But with the right allies, they can overcome any challenge. Batman’s resolve deepens because of The Joker.
People are dying, Alfred. What would you have me do?
Endure, Master Wayne.
And in the battle for Gotham’s soul, he learns that he’s able to make the difficult choices no one else can.
You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. I can do those things because I’m not a hero. I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be.
Batman becomes the Dark Knight because of The Joker. The Dark Knight shines as an example of what happens when the forces of antagonism grow from the protagonist. When they’re inextricably linked. When they’re two sides of the same coin. The Joker isn’t a great villain because he has an insane laugh and acts unpredictably. He’s great because he has a profound and specific affect on the story, and on the protagonist.
I think you and I are destined to do this forever.
The Joker is the perfect antagonist for The Dark Knight.