[Note: The following is reprinted from the book War, Politics and Superheroes]
Aside from the fact that they are all, effectively, his “subjects,” Batman’s villains are connected to him in an even more visceral, symbolic way. The vast majority of them are dark reflections of Batman himself and they frequently parody or pervert his intentions and method of operation. Indeed, their very existence is an indictment of his entire enterprise. For example, in both Batman: The Animated Series and The Dark Knight (2008), the vigilante Two-Face is portrayed as a more obsessed version of Batman who goes too far to stamp out crime, either by killing criminals, or not worrying enough about causing collateral damage as he attacks them and their businesses. His rage is fueled by the fact that criminals scarred his once handsome face and condemned him to a life without love. As a figure who suffers from multiple personality disorder, Two-Face represents Bruce Wayne’s fears that Bruce and Batman are two distinct people and that Bruce himself suffers from the same disorder.
Like Two-Face, Ra’s al Ghul is a zealot who represents the kind of warped, vigilante thinking that Batman himself could have embraced, had his life taken a darker turn. In Batman Begins, Ra’s is a zealot who has a zero-tolerance policy towards criminals and wishes to see them executed even for comparably minor infractions. He believes that criminals thrive when society’s leaders are too lenient with them and that Thomas Wayne was too softhearted in trying to rehabilitate criminals and drug addicts, as evidenced by his death at the hands of one of the people he was trying to protect. For Ra’s al Ghul the message of Thomas Wayne’s murder is clear. Gotham City is too far gone to be saved. It should be destroyed. These insane conclusions represent the ultimate end of the vigilante philosophy embodied by darker “superheroes” such as the Punisher or Charles Bronson’s character from the Death Wish films. As Nolan explained in his BoxOfficeMojo interview, his goal was to distinguish Batman from such characters and argue that Bruce Wayne is a hero because he is not motivated by revenge but by justice and altruism.
The Joker, meanwhile, represents a different kind of commentary on Batman. He counters Batman’s desire for order with a need to create chaos. His seemingly motiveless crimes are essentially the angry cries of a deranged child who is frustrated by the hypocrisies and compromises of the adult world. Also, while Batman uses “safe” weapons, the Joker enjoys killing people with lethal toys—party balloons filled with poison gas instead of helium, joy buzzers that electrocute people, teddy bears filled with explosives, and a novelty lapel flower that squirts acid instead of water. And whenever Batman is able to disable the Joker’s twisted toys with his own, more high-tech gadgets (which are, themselves, like toys because they are non-lethal, “play” weapons with Bat-logos stamped on them), the Joker expresses jealousy that Batman has access to better toys. As Jack Nicholson’s Joker wondered in Batman (1989) “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”
The Joker debuted in Batman #1 (1940) and he bore some resemblance to two iconic silent-film characters—with a personality similar to the mysterious, titular crime lord Dr. Mabuse (1922) and a physical appearance reminiscent of Paul Henreid’s rictus grin from The Man Who Laughs (1928). A Moriarty figure, the Joker could announce his high-profile crimes in advance and still succeed despite the police’s and Batman’s best efforts. The Joker’s early comic book crimes were violent and grotesque, but the character softened into a Mad Hatteresque figure in the 1950s and 1960s as the comic book lightened in tone (see Caesar Romero’s Joker from the Batman series). The Joker was re-imagined in the 1970s and 1980s in response to the emergence of celebrity serial killers such as Charles Manson and the Zodiac Killer, or the sickening pointlessness of the Cleveland Elementary School murders, in which a teenager, Brenda Ann Spencer, shot eight children and three adults with a rifle in order to “liven up” her Monday. The Joker’s logic is often similarly appalling. A figure of arrested development who enjoys goading Batman into “coming out and playing” with him by killing as many innocent people as possible, the Joker represents the greatest challenge to Batman’s anti-killing stance. In fact, in the miniseries The Joker’s Last Laugh (written by conservative comic book writer Chuck Dixon), Batman’s ally Barbara Gordon asserted that the Joker is an irredeemably evil, utterly insane mass murderer who should be put down like a mad dog.
The Dark Knight’s representation of the Joker (an Oscar-winning performance by the late Heath Ledger) is a more “realistic” one than Nicholson’s, evoking Malcolm McDowell’s role in A Clockwork Orange (1971). This Joker is also more of a force of nature than a mere man—an agent of chaos that forces Batman to use more ruthless means. The Joker’s identity is shrouded in mystery, and he lies about his past, but he repeatedly alludes to a loveless, miserable childhood. Unlike Batman, who had a fine home and loving parents, the Joker refers to a horrific father-figure, a home life marred by domestic violence, and a failure to find romantic love. Consequently, the Joker’s hatred of his father and of women causes him to lash out at authority figures and disfigure anything he perceives to be beautiful.
In The Dark Knight, Ledger’s Joker acts like a homicidal answer to the Marx Brothers; he disrupts black-tie affairs, mocks judges and policemen and American aristocrats, and points out how everything in society is really just a sick joke. Like the comic book version of the character—who has done everything from exploiting legal loopholes in U.S. patent law (The Laughing Fish) to attempting to solve famine in Ethiopia with genocide (A Death in the Family)—this Joker’s mockery of the wars in the Middle East and government corruption again resemble the manifesto of a terrorist. Consequently, Ledger’s Joker works well as a follow-up villain to Ra’s al Ghul, since both villains are striking out at a modern American society that they find morally repellent.
Perhaps the most interesting character trait of the Joker is his secret death wish. At least three times in the film, the Joker tries to goad Batman into killing him, both to free himself of his own inner turmoil and to prove, conclusively, that Batman is a hypocrite and his vow not to kill will be broken during its first real test. But the Joker is surprised to learn that Batman is “incorruptible” and won’t rise to take the bait, even after the Joker kills Batman’s childhood sweetheart, Rachel Dawes. The other test of Batman’s character comes in the form of the high-tech device he creates to monitor the private phone calls of every person in Gotham City. The device proves essential in finally tracking down and apprehending the Joker, but the scientist who inadvertently inspired Batman to create it, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), believes that it is fundamentally “unethical” and “dangerous,” as it provides the user the ability to spy on thirty million people, affording “too much power for one person.” Even though capturing the Joker is essential to preserving public safety, Fox feels that the device represents Batman’s choosing to sacrifice freedom for security. Vowing not to work for a fascist, Fox threatens his resignation, but his faith in Batman is restored when Batman destroys the device the moment the Joker is captured.
The implication of this decision is that, ultimately, the Joker fails to push Batman into becoming a full-fledged, permanent Fascist or a Technocrat. He just pushes Batman into briefly becoming a tyrant. Sadly, as Edward Snowden has revealed, the NSA does not show this level of restraint.
Despite Batman’s occasional questionable acts during the course of the film, he impresses the audience with his selflessness when he goes to great lengths to save the life of a man bent on revealing his true identity to the world. Furthermore, he ultimately assumes responsibility for crimes he did not commit in an effort to preserve the good name of his friend Harvey Dent, and to prevent the morale of the people of Gotham from being destroyed should they learn of Harvey’s transformation into Two-Face.
However, Two-Face and the Joker are not the only Batman villains who act as shadowy reflections of Batman, and who cause the people of Gotham City to second-guess their champion, both in his roles as Batman and Bruce Wayne. Oswald Cobblepot, or “The Penguin,” serves a similar function in the Batman comic books, cartoons, and films. Penguin is a rich, cultured enemy with ambitions to be the one true feudal lord of Gotham City.
Unlike Bruce Wayne, however, Penguin wishes to use his wealth and privilege for his own personal gain, not for the good of the people. He persistently attacks Wayne’s reputation and attempts to orchestrate hostile takeovers of Wayne Enterprises. Perhaps most interestingly, he is the villain who most often tries to sabotage Batman’s weapons by removing their safety features. In doing so, he hopes that Batman might one day accidentally kill an innocent person with the sabotaged weapons, and end his career as Batman out of a sense of guilt. If that ever came to pass, Batman would be removed as an obstacle to Penguin’s plans, and Penguin’s ascent to domination over Gotham would be assured. “The Penguin” works well as an avatar for Cobblepot because it is an animal that seems to be wearing a tuxedo. Therefore, cartoonists often render it as a ridiculous figure with delusions of grandeur (ie: the stumbling maître d’ penguins from Mary Poppins who try and fail to behave in a formal manner). Hence the reason why the Penguin featured in Batman Returns (1992) is dressed in a tuxedo, but is sometimes distracted by his quest for gentility when he sees a tasty-looking raw fish. It is also why he alternates between declaring “A penguin is a bird that cannot fly. I am a man.” and “I am not a man! I am an animal!” He wants to be larger than he is, but is frustrated and feels worthless every time Batman foils his plans to regain his lost aristocratic title and wealth.
Significantly, artist Joe Staton drew the Penguin as the spitting image of Richard Nixon in Penguin Triumphant (1992). The script by John Ostrander involves Penguin striving to escape his humble beginnings through Gordon Gekko–style insider trading, so it appears to have more in common with Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) than with the details of the Watergate scandal. However, Penguin’s sleazy criminal activities, delusions of grandeur, and hatred and jealousy of the privileged, Ivy League smart set, has echoes in the rise and fall of the 37th President of the United States. Like the simultaneously released Batman Returns, which saw Penguin manipulating the American political system, Penguin Triumphant transformed Penguin from the gentlemen gangster created by Bob Kane into a figure who satirizes class-division in American society, and the fundamentally corrupt “Old Boys Network” found in Wall Street and Washington D.C.
A thug and a thief with a veneer of respectability, Penguin eternally fails to ingratiate himself with the members of the American oligarchy, who are arguably far more evil, and far more successful in their criminal endeavors than Penguin will ever be. After all, Richard Nixon was successfully removed from office, but the corporate machine that had backed his candidacy, and that has been consistently undermining democracy in America for generations, remained all-but untouched.
With villains such as the Joker and Penguin constantly menacing its citizens, Gotham City is undeniably an appalling place to live. It is corrupt on all levels, its architecture is a Gothic nightmare, and it seems as if the sun stopped shining over its rooftops twenty years ago. But it is Bruce Wayne’s home—and he feels that it can still be saved.