Some Men Just Want To Watch The World Burn

untitled43t43t4Last year, I watched The Dark Knight and it quickly became one of my favorite movies.

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.)

Bruce Wayne:

Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. Just have to figure out what he’s after.

Alfred Pennyworth:

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.

Bruce Wayne:

So why steal them?

Alfred Pennyworth:

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.

tumblr_m5ol3bmZyn1r53l28o2_1280A few weekends ago I watched the first two series of BBC’s Sherlock and noticed, among many other awesome things, the similarity between the Joker and Jim Moriarty.

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.

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About nevillegirl

Elizabeth. University of Iowa class of 2019. Triple majoring in English & Creative Writing, Journalism, and Gender, Women's, & Sexuality Studies. Twenty-one-year-old daydreamer, introvert, voracious reader, aspiring writer, and lesbian. Passionate about feminism, mental health, comic books, and cats.
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16 Responses to Some Men Just Want To Watch The World Burn

  1. Bane says:

    I love villains like that. When they have simply no motivation and just wreak havoc just to see what will happen, or the morally gray ones. But you have to be careful with these kinds, though, but Moriarty was pulled off wonderfully. (Haven’t seen the Dark Knight yet so I can’t really say anything for the Joker.)

  2. Catherine says:

    I haven’t seen The Dark Night, but I love Sherlock. Moriarty is one of my favorite villains, and I think the writers were geniuses for crafting him the way they did. It also brings up the point that not all villains are motivated by money or daddy-issues. Some people are crazy. Some people “just want to watch the world burn.”

    • nevillegirl says:

      *nods* I can’t think of many other villains who do things out of pure craziness… I suppose Bellatrix comes close, but I also think she was in love with Voldy. (As icky is that is. xD)
      Give The Dark Knight a try; it’s really good!

      • Catherine says:

        Yeah, I don’t know about other people, but I prefer my guys with noses. Maybe Bellatrix was into that? Who knows.
        I’m definitely going to try and watch the Dark Knight soon. Another crazy villain? Yes, please.

    • nevillegirl says:

      Well, I suppose kissing is less awkward when you’re not worried about bumping noses. 😛

      Yay!

  3. matttblack42 says:

    So… how do like Sherlock? More importantly, how do you like the soundtrack? *hums the main theme*

    I think the Joker’s only motivation is to prove that humanity is inherently evil, which was his reason for rigging the ferries. When neither of the ferries blew the other up, proving that humanity isn’t that bad after all, I thought the Joker seemed genuinely upset, although he did his best to hide it. Maybe I’m just looking too far into this.

  4. Miss Alexandrina says:

    I’ll start by quoting you. 😉 “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.” Interesting. I don’t disagree at all. I think writers are split on the motivation v non motivation point. I was told by a Beta that I should make my antagonist (though I’m not sure if I’d call him a ‘villain’, as such. Definition?) more 3D [in terms of motivation], even though, in my mind, he just craves chaos like the Joker does (and I created him before I saw the Dark Knight, so I win xD). In the end, though, I had to give him a backstory…and, in terms of canon, it spiralled out of control. I think you’d like him. He’s my only gay character. Not that that’s relevant.
    Actually, it would be interesting to see what sort of interpretation you get from my antagonist.

    Literarily unrelated, but I love Alfred. He’s one of those British actors/characters that has even British people swooning over his accent. Well…me.

    I also laughed out loud at this statement: “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.)” Having read the Reichenbach Falls before Sherlock was even out, I can wholeheartedly agree – though, I’m trying to keep the laughing in Doyle’s face to a minimum. xD

    • nevillegirl says:

      Yay, I’m glad you agree! Some people are just purely insane and don’t NEED a reason to do anything bad.
      Interesting. I would love to see more queer villains – the only problem is that, of course, some people would say they’re evil because they’re queer. But it would be good to see more LGBTQ+ characters in all kinds of roles. The only one I can think of is Moriarty, and that’s just in BBC Sherlock, and I’m not really even sure if he is gay? Or just pretending? Or whatever is going on there.
      Send me an excerpt with your villain and I’ll tell you what I think! 🙂

      Haha, he is a cool actor. I kept giggling during his scenes, though, because he also plays a stylist character in Miss Congeniality and I was thinking of his funny lines.

      Teehee, I’m glad it amused you. Reichenbach backfired SO much on Doyle… oh well, as I’ve heard: the Sherlock fandom has always been a little crazy. If they demanded Holmes back…

      • Miss Alexandrina says:

        Yeah, but that’s bound to happen all the time. (I may have said this on FB before, but) I just find it difficult to have a character be obviously gay without that invading the storyline. He does like guys, but that doesn’t change (or does it?) his hate/emotions against the MC. That’s just how he is in canon and I never need to mention it. Urg. Call me JK or not…

        “Send me an excerpt with your villain and I’ll tell you what I think!” Ooh, now which to send? (And how much??) To where do you want me to send it?

    • nevillegirl says:

      So he /is/ canonically gay, or not? I don’t think it really serves the purpose of representation if it’s only canon in one’s head. *sighs in J.K.’s direction* Even if its just a throwaway line about gOSH I AM SO VILLAINOUS ALSO I LIKE GUYS, that helps. 😛

      Hmm, how much indeed. I don’t know. Just a medium-length section that shows off your villain well?

      And you can send it on FB message, if you can get that to work. (Isn’t there some email function thingy? It’s too hard to read large chunks on Facebook IMing.)

      • Miss Alexandrina says:

        (Lost the first comment I posted, so here’s just a short rewrite)
        Oh, he is.
        I know, I know, I got annoyed at JK, too. It’s just that I don’t think he accepts/admits it himself, since it’s not talked about in their culture. In the third book, he even has a villainous wife, though they do travel back to the time when MC [of the first book] accidentally killed his boyfriend (even though the scene isn’t shown then).

        I’ll see what I can find. It’ll probably be in the Easter holidays, though.

        There was, but they changed it back to the IM function. I’ll look into that.

    • nevillegirl says:

      OK, that makes sense. And that’s quite different from not having a canon sexuality – some characters just struggle more with the sexualities, as do some people.

      All right, thanks!

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