Considering my personality, this may seem improbable. The film is serious and very violent – I’m a goof who can’t really handle goriness. I crack jokes constantly and feel faint after having a tiny amount of blood drawn (something my family never stops teasing me about). Why, then, do I love that movie?
Well, you’ve forgotten two important things about me. The first is my love of film scores – The Dark Knight has one of the best I’ve ever heard, dark and relentless and chilling. The second is my love of villains. Come on, people. I know I haven’t written for the Good-Sinful Alliance in a while, but just talk to me. Ask me about my favorite characters and pretty soon I’ll be talking your ear off about Clove. Denethor. Viserys. Bellatrix and the Malfoys. (That last one sounds like a band.)
I adore villains. I don’t want to be them, not any more than I want to be the hero of a story – I’m perfectly happy to bumble through life as a sidekick. No, what I love about villains is trying to understand them. Villains are just people, after all. They have strengths and weaknesses, things they want and things they don’t want. I want to know what makes them tick. Basically, I want to identify their character motivations.
And for this reason The Dark Knight has, in my opinion, one of the best villains. The most terrifying. Because the Joker doesn’t really have a motivation.
Below is a excerpt demonstrating just that. Bruce Wayne, AKA Batman or the Dark Knight, is discussing the Joker with his butler. (I’m sorry about the length of the quote but the whole scene really is necessary to understanding, well, how you can’t understand this villain.)
Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. Just have to figure out what he’s after.
With respect Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man that you don’t fully understand, either. A long time ago, I was in Burma. My friends and I were working for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal leaders by bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. So, we went looking for the stones. But in six months, we never met anybody who traded with him. One day, I saw a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. The bandit had been throwing them away.
So why steal them?
Well, because he thought it was good sport. Because 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.
Although the Joker’s lack of a character motivation may sound like a flaw in the writing, I think it is anything but – because most villains are looking for something and once you give them that something, they’re satisfied.
Consider Professor Quirrell. He just wants the Philosopher’s Stone, for with it he can help Voldemort to live forever. His motivation is gratitude from his master.
Or Cato. He wants all the other tributes dead. He’s motivated by bloodlust, a desire to live, and quite probably fear.
Or the Lannisters. Kill the Starks and give them the Seven Kingdoms and they’ll be happy. Yes, I know this is a tall order. I didn’t say that villains want only a little – I just said that they wanted. House Lannister is motivated by greed and once that greed is sated (ooh, look at me using those big SAT vocabulary words), I really do believe they would leave the other Houses alone. Cersei is terrorizing you? It’s only logical to give her what she wants. It’s the best way to reason with her and once you’ve done that, she’ll leave you alone.
But what does the Joker want?
Nothing, you say? Yeah. Nothing is right.
The Joker can’t be reasoned with. You can’t stop him and nothing in particular sets him off, makes him angry. So what happens? He robs a bank and kills all his accomplices along the way. He blows up a hospital and tries to do the same with two boats. He burns a huge pile of money and remarks, “It’s not about the money. It’s about sending a message. Everything burns.”
Everything burns. Everything can be destroyed. If the Joker feels like hurting someone, he well. He isn’t fighting for something. He just fights. In a quote that supplies the title of my favorite song from the score, he states:
Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just do things… I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.
The Joker doesn’t need a plan; he doesn’t make a list titled Reasons to Burn the World; he has no real character motivations. If the entire world burned he would burn with it, but does that stop him? Nope.
The Joker is terrifying.
And he fascinates me to no end, making me wonder what I would do if I were a character in Gotham City.
Notwithstanding his name – seriously, who goes “Hmm, what about ‘Jim’? That will TERRIFY them!” – Moriarty as written* by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat and acted by Andrew Scott is a fascinating villain.
*I make this distinction because evidently the original character – created by Arthur Conan Doyle – was significantly less complex. He was just a plot device to get rid of Holmes because Doyle didn’t feel like writing the stories anymore. (And it didn’t even work.)
But first, let me describe Sherlock. He’s a genius, and that is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. When you know just about everything
except that the Earth goes around the Sun then there’s not much left to learn and when there’s not much left to learn, you get bored. Sherlock Holmes is “the world’s only consulting detective” because solving cases keeps him occupied. (And when criminals don’t give him anything to do, he shoots the wall.)
Moriarty is Sherlock’s intellectual equal. He’s a genius, and this is a blessing to him and a curse to everyone else. When you can orchestrate almost anything (either by using your mind or your web of criminal connections) there’s nothing that can stop you and when there’s nothing that can stop you, you get bored. Moriarty is “the world’s only consulting criminal” because causing havoc keeps him occupied.
And when Sherlock doesn’t give him anything to do, what next? Something bigger and better and more evil, because that stops the boredom for a while. What about killing Sherlock? Or killing all his friends?
I suppose. But what happens later? This problem is quite apparent in “The Reichenbach Fall”:
Stayin’ alive! It’s so boring, isn’t it? It’s just… staying. All my life I’ve been searching for distractions. You were the best distraction and now I don’t even have you. Because I’ve beaten you. And you know what? In the end it was easy. It was easy. Now I’ve got to go back to playing with the ordinary people. And it turns out you’re ordinary just like all of them.
Like the Joker, Moriarty has no real motivations. He just does whatever strikes his fancy at the moment. So what happens later, when the excitement has worn off and Moriarty has grown bored again?
How do you deal with a man who does something merely because it distracts him, who creates havoc simply to make the world less boring?
The answer is, you can’t.