Is there anything better than a great villain?
Batman’s villains are reflections back on the main character, showing what he could be if not for a few different decisions or circumstances. When you’re dealing with a character already straddling the line between law and anarchy, you get some interesting results.
The most interesting thing about Batman villains is that, whereas our hero wears a costume, they often wear their psychological issues as physical attributes. Two–Face wears his black–and–white view of the world on his face; he can never get the two to reconcile. The Riddler is an egomaniac with great intelligence; he is a scrawny wimp, the prototypical nerd. Catwoman is voluptuous and sensual; she is the feminist using sexuality as a weapon.
So after looking at what the different iterations of Batman tell us about our mind-set through time, can his villains do the same?
While it would be fun to continue run through the whole roster, I’m going to focus instead on the two best villains to demonstrate the evolution of our perceptions of evil. It’ll keep things brief(er) and they’ve both been reborn in Nolan’s reinventions, making them the most relevant to the conversation.
The Joker is the exception here; he puts on paint.
I’ll be fair to the 1960s show from here on out, and at least mention it. The Joker in the TV show wasn’t frightening; he was a challenge to be overcome. Perhaps that is a larger statement of the cocksure nature of our society at the time: we needed to believe no one could ever pose an insurmountable challenge to us.
Later re-imaginings of the character have deformed him. The comic books in the 1980s had him become a failed comedian turned to criminal acts to pay the bills, the “victim” of a heist gone wrong at the hands of Batman. This was the first time the character became physically deformed (at least that I know of) and made it not paint, but chemical staining that turned his skin white; the 1989 movie picked this up and ran with it. The Joker became a narcissistic career criminal who lose his sanity in the face of his deformity (get it?). The deformity was expanded by having his face get torn by a bullet and a permanent smile grafted onto him.
Jack Nicholson’s Joker was Moriarty to Batman’s Holmes. They were engaged in a game of wits motivated as much by pride as competition. the game itself was thrilling, regardless of the outcome. This pairs with the interpretation of Batman for this time, a man sure of his role as the hero strong enough to withstand his schemes.
Twenty years later, Nolan’s treatment of The Joker returned to the paint but retained the deformity, but it simply is. As our world has become more sinister and chaotic, reasons for evil have become secondary. We’re all accepting that even if we get an explanation of causation, there are some levels of evil we can never comprehend truly.
Whereas Nicholson’s Joker was evil, he had cartoonish methodology. Deadly hand buzzers, conversations with corpses and mime-act assassinations had a dramatic flair to them that showed us evil as frightening, but recognizable.
By contrast, the newest imagining of The Joker is anarchic. He relies on subtler machinations, using charisma to appeal to the baser emotional sensibilities of people, his philosophies spreading like an infection from within. It’s not any accident that in The Dark Knight, The Joker is referred to as a terrorist. Much like al Qaeda leaders like bin Laden, he gathers his followers from among the disaffected, themselves unaware that they’re nothing more than fleshy tools. He has sold them on the idea of a greater cause, when the cause itself is merely a talking point for his own gain.
And of course, there’s the layer where The Joker here actually is a solid representation of the Devil. But I’ve spoken about that before.
And then there’s Harvey.
I have to admit that growing up, Two–Face was more of a personal favorite than The Joker. The character always seemed so sad; by his nature, he was aware that what he was doing was wrong. But his anger at his shattered sense of what justice cripples him as much as his scarred visage.
I remember a story where he had his ex-wife in their burning home, and wound up with her and Batman dead to rights. Mrs. Dent (and Batman) escaped. The last panel showed Two–Face holding the scarred side of the coin; he’d broken his rule because he couldn’t kill his love. That’s powerful, man.
So when Two–Face was finally slotted as a villain for Batman Forever, I was thrilled. When the heady fog of Ace Ventura: Riddler Villain wore off, the sins of the character’s interpretation were overwhelming.
If he didn’t like the result of a coin flip, he’d simply flip it again until he got the result he wanted. This is hugely and grossly wrong. That violates the core of Two–Face’s character, and makes any decision to controvert the coin later completely pointless.
But it is an accurate reflection of the prevailing social attitudes of the 1990s, when we learned that even the definition of the word “is” is flexible. If you just want to play games of semantics, then nothing is outside the scope. In fact, rules themselves would appear to become completely meaningless then, if all you did was ignore them when convenient. This Two–Face was more 1960s Joker than anything else. Which, given the sensibilities of the director, makes sense; unable to use the Joker, he approximated a stand–in.
Then once again, the character was brought back by Nolan and ironically enough, tied to the Joker. Interestingly this time, he served as a very important foil.
The Joker’s anarchy creates Two–Face, who is too rigid in his pursuit of fairness. After his tragedy, he sees only one result or another, with no room for mercy or hope; still the lawyer, he has justice that’s either enforced or not. It’s just that his rules have become simpler.
Dent becomes an expression of the old school vigilante at that point. I invite you to watch Death Wish, a film rooted in the frustration with crime. Personal vengeance becomes the motivation; this is where Batman has always been set apart. He’s not seeking revenge on those who have wronged him; he’s seeking to change lives and spare suffering. He carries a code of ethics – his own legal system – with him; by contrast, Dent’s legal code merely shrinks. There are no more bargains, no more deals and no more appeals. There is only Either/Or. And the judgment is brutally enforced.
And here’s where Harvey becomes a reflection on us. Broken by tragedy, it’s easy for someone to turn to despair, to lose faith and hope and treat the world as nothing more than a random series of unfortunate incidents. As Nietzche said, looking into the Abyss carries a price.
Maybe that’s why I see the character as so valid. I think he’s the most understandable, the most human. He’s not motivated by pride, but by pain. We’re all still scarred by September 11, and how hard has it been not to rationalize torching the world for the sake of our hurt?
So I guess I realize also that I picked Two–Face and Joker because they were always my favorite Batman villains growing up. I can say that I’m interested to see what happens with Bane in the next film, since so far as I’m concerned he hasn’t really existed before on film. What happened in 1997 was a mass hallucination.
Here’s hoping 2012 carries a little more of a dream come true.