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While the portrayal of the Joker has changed a lot over the years, there are basic elements of his character that make him recognizable. The Jokers of Batman and The Dark Knight undoubtedly share these characteristics. Both are known as psychotic, a claim which can be supported by the fact that both Jokers have symptoms of Psychosis. Lack of empathy, for instance, is one symptom, which is evident from the way they kill without remorse and destroy things without any consideration. When in serious or dangerous situations, they both maintain a careless or even lighthearted attitude, which one might say it’s because he’s “crazy,” but it has no direct logical connection to psychosis, besides maybe the symptom of lack of empathy. Both Nicholson’s and Ledger’s Jokers wear makeup and dress a specific way for certain practical purposes, not just because they like to. Although they have different tones of voice, the way they speak is similar because they both put a pause after each sentence. This creates tension, puts you on the edge of your seat, and leaves you waiting for what they say next. Both Jokers are independent, and tend to have only their own interests in mind. For example, in the beginning of The Dark Knight, the Joker has the men on the job kill each other, until he is the only person left to take the money. An example in Batman would be how he scars his lover Alicia to practice his “art.”
There are some differences between the Jokers of Batman and The Dark Knight that are obvious, while others take careful observation to really see clearly. One of the biggest differences between these two versions of the Joker is the tone that they give off. Burton’s Joker is very clown like and his face is stuck in a permanent smile. His voice and obnoxiously colored clothes might weird you out, but he isn’t really scary until he threatens you. Ledger’s Joker on the other hand comes off as very creepy and intimidating. His face is deformed with scars, his makeup makes him look like he’s deteriorating, and he never smiles. Another obvious difference is their attitude towards Batman. In the 1989 version, the Joker wants revenge against Batman because he capturing the press’ attention, when Joker wants to be center stage. He wants to kill him so he can gain complete control over the city. The Dark Knight’s Joker is the complete opposite; he’s like the Dr. Moriarty to Batman’s Sherlock Holmes. He needs someone who is strong enough to be his match, and that person is Batman. While in the interrogation room, the Joker tells him, “I don’t want to kill you! What would I do without you?…You complete me.” In addition, the two Jokers are dangerous for different reasons, have different levels of intelligence, and have different methods of committing crimes. Tim Burton’s Joker held a lot of power over the city. After he killed Carl Grissom and poisoned shiploads of products with smilex gas, he seemed unstoppable until Batman outsmarted him. Even so, he never seemed to be prepared for Batman’s fancy “gadgets” like the Batpod, which carried all of his balloons away. His crimes are always planned first, and can best be described as organized chaos, like when he tried to kill the people in the streets of Gotham with smilex gas. Heath Ledger’s Joker is much more dangerous, because not only is he unpredictable, but extremely intelligent as well. As he tells Harvey, he doesn’t makes plans, and yet he always seems to be five steps ahead of everyone else. I think this proves his ability to think and act on the spot. In addition to this, he has the ability to manipulate people in order to get what he wants, like how he provokes the police officer who is in the holding cell with him by talking about why he kills with knives instead of guns; “In a way, I know your friends better than you ever did. Would you like to know which of them were cowards?” This makes the officer attack him, and Joker is able to overtake him so he can ask for his phone call, which causes an explosion inside the prison. His way of committing crimes is a lot less straightforward but he is much more dedicated and willing to go through complicated procedures in order to do what he wants to. Jack’s Joker kills for a specific reason, but Ledger’s Joker kills just because he can.
Another set of differences that you need to look a bit closer to see, is the reason why each Joker wears makeup and a costume. Jack’s joker does it mainly because it’s a part of the brand he had made for himself, and it is how he wants to be seen by the public. He also uses it to manipulate the public, and for certain periods acts “normal,” saying that he’s taking the makeup off. This is so the public will let their guard down and think that the crazy and obnoxious side of him is just an act. Ledger’s Joker uses his makeup and clothes for his public image as well, but he also uses them to make him harder to identify as a real person. Like they mentioned in the movie, the custom clothes made it much harder for them to find the Joker’s true identity. The makeup he wears and the way he wears it makes him more frightening, and he knows this. Seeing his makeup immediately gives you a sense of chaos and carelessness.
The final difference I want to talk about is their attitude towards themselves. Jack Nicholson’s Joker cared about his own well being. He took precautions, planned escape routes, and had people to fight for him. Heath Ledger’s Joker didn’t care about himself at all, which is clear from both his unkempt appearance and the way he yells at batman as he is speeding towards him on his bat bike, telling him to “do it,” meaning run him over.
Society and our expectations of film are definitely partially responsible for the change in the Joker. As time goes on, we as an audience want or even need to see the subject matter in film and TV get darker and darker, because we become immune to seeing it. We keep needing more in order to give us that shock value that we need to keep us interested. As a result of this, we needed a darker and much more menacing version of the Joker which would stray from the character’s past versions that were much less serious and less frightening.
In the video “The Sound of Anarchy,” Hans Zimmer discusses how he created the musical score for The Dark Knight, and specifically how he captured the sound of anarchy in his music. He really thought about what anarchy is, and how it makes you feel. Hans wanted to find a way to define the Joker’s character in the music by using the anarchy, what it does to a person, and the fearlessness that it instills, because the Joker’s character is very much defined by the philosophy of anarchy. He did thousands of sound tests, experimenting with different objects and instruments in order to get the sound that would capture certain feelings including tension and suspense, fear and mystery. He used everything from like razor blades on piano strings to pencils tapping on desks. At one point he said he wanted to be able to define the Joker with one note, which ended up being two notes on the Cello that “clashed beautifully.” These notes made a haunting sound that gave you the impression of danger or chaos. Hans Zimmer’s dedication to capturing the idea of anarchy and turning it into music truly made the musical score of The Dark Knight special.
To answer the question of whether Heath Ledger’s description of the Joker as a “psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy” is correct, we have to take the statement piece by piece. Beginning with, is the Joker a psychopath? A psychopath refers to someone who has Psychosis. Psychopathy has many symptoms, several of which the Joker clearly has. These include a lack of empathy, which is clearly demonstrated when he shows no hesitation towards blowing up a hospital, or a ferry boat full of innocent civilians. Psychotic people also show a lack of emotion, nor do they show a differential brain response between emotional terms and neutral terms. Throughout the film the Joker maintains stoic, besides maybe a few moments of annoyance or anger. Even when the Joker laughs and smiles, it doesn’t communicate as happiness, but rather instability. You could plead and cry, asking him not to kill you, because you have a family, and it would elicit no different reaction from him than if you had said nothing at all. Another symptom is “blame externalization,” or blaming others for events that are their fault. This is evident in the Joker when he is talking to Harvey Dent in the hospital, and to Batman in the interrogation room. Instead of continuing on the topic of what he did wrong, he’ll go on to blame society and its rules. I could continue on with two more symptoms, but the answer is clear. Yes, the Joker is psychopathic.
The next question is, is the Joker a mass murderer? Well, mass murder is the act of murdering a number of people, usually simultaneously or over a short period of time and in a small geographical area. Although not all his attempts of murder actually succeed, the ferry boats, for instance, he still kills several people within Gotham (small area) within the period of a few days (short period of time). So, based on its definition, the answer to the question would be yes, he is a mass murderer.
Ledger describes the Joker as schizophrenic, but I have to disagree slightly. Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder characterized by emotional blunting, intellectual deterioration, social isolation, disorganized speech and behavior, delusions, and hallucinations, and displacement from reality. Based off of the information we gain about the Joker from the movie, there isn’t enough evidence to support the suggestion that has Schizophrenia. He does show emotional blunting (lack of empathy and emotion), social isolation, and possibly displacement from reality, but the first is also a symptom of psychosis. We can’t know if the Joker has symptoms like hallucinations and delusions unless he tells us, or we see the world from his point of view. Schizophrenic can also mean that something is contradictory or has inconsistent elements, and is characterized by unusual disparity. I find that this definition doesn’t fit the Joker either, because he is not shown to contradict himself.
Heath Ledger’s Joker doesn’t fit the definition of clown in the traditional sense, as he isn’t a comic performer in a circus or theatrical production, nor does he wear an (extremely) outlandish costume and makeup or entertain people with jokes and tricks. However, another definition of clown is a prankster or practical joker, and although the rest of us may not agree with his dangerous sense of humor, he does like to mess with people and their emotions, not to mention he literally named himself the Joker.
The question of whether or not the Joker has zero empathy has already been answered several times in this test through the discussion of his psychosis and suggested schizophrenia. He kills without hesitation for the sake of simply causing chaos or for what he would call a social experiment. Not once did he show a hint of sorrow or guilt as a result of his violence, because he simply does not care.
Ledger’s Joker fits with the tone of the film very well, because you just don’t know what’s going to happen next, similar to the unpredictability of the character. Earlier I discussed the way the Joker causes suspense with the way he talks, which corresponds with this films fair share of suspenseful moments. One of the most suspenseful scenes would have to be when the people on the two ferry boats are deciding whether they should blow the other one up, and the clock is ticking. Finally, Heath’s Joker is dark and truly frightening, just like the way the movie shows dark subject matter like murder, robbery, gangs, and violence.
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