Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Psychological Depth of a Bat-Villain

**Note-- I will NOT have Dark Knight spoilers in this post***

Okay, it's official. I am obsessed with "The Dark Knight." I've been trying to think of a new post to put up and I keep going back to TDK. I think the reason the movie is sticking with me is because the characters have such great psychological depth to them. After I saw the movie I found myself wanting to know more about the Joker and Two Face. We already know Batman's back-story but I don't know as much about what makes a Bat-villain tick.

And that's what's so great about the Batman saga. It's more than a comic book, more than a graphic novel and much more than a Hollywood blockbuster. It's the human psyche printed out in graphic-novel form. All the villains represent psychological archetypes that we see in real life; the psychopath (the Joker); the narcissist (the Riddler); the split personality (Two-Face); and the sadist (the Scarecrow). I'm not a psychologist, so I'm not qualified to say whether or not the psychological assessments of the Bat-villains I've listed here are accurate. In fact, I totally stole the diagnosis' from The History Channel. That's right, they had a great special on The Psychology of the Dark Knight. I only caught about half of it, so I have it scheduled on my Tivo for the next showing on Saturday.

But don't you love that The History Channel has a special on the psychology of Batman? I think it's great. I didn't take notes or anything, so I have to kind of paraphrase what I recall from the show. What they did was have a group of psychologists actually analyze Batman and the various villains from the graphic novels and discuss why these characters are so fascinating to us and how they relate to real people who terrify us; like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy.

Because I didn't catch the whole show I missed some of what they had to say about the Joker, which is the main reason I have to catch the whole thing. Before watching TDK I always had the Jack Nicholson version of the Joker in my head. I mentioned in my previous post about TDK that Nicholson's portrayal was more like the story we had seen in graphic novels in which the Joker is disfigured by a fall into a vat of chemicals. What I don't recall about Nicholson's Joker is the complete craziness that Heath Ledger brought to the character. So which portrayal is more true to the character? From what I've been able to glean from the net, and what I saw on The History Channel, is that Ledger was closer to what the original creators of Batman had in mind. According to Wikipedia (accuracy not guaranteed), the Joker first appeared in 1940 and was a mass murderer. But during the 50's and 60's, due to censorship, was turned into a far less menacing character. It wasn't until the 70's and 80's that the Joker was brought back to his sociopathic roots.

The Joker was kind of sidelined during the 50's and 60's when the character lost some of his edge. In fact, he almost disappeared. But I'm glad he came roaring back the way he did. I've been so fascinated by Ledger's performance in TDK that I've been wanting to go hunt down some graphic novels that show the story between Batman and the Joker. Why? I'm not sure. I think it's because the Joker is so inexplicable. You can label him a psychopath or a sociopath, but does that make him any more understandable? One of the psychologists interviewed for The History Channel special said (paraphrasing here) you don't know if the Joker would shoot you or give you a thousand dollar bill. He'd probably shoot you, but you don't really know... And that's what makes him such a great villain. I mean, he's terrifying.

But why is the Joker crazy? That's kind of the ultimate comic-book enigma. According to Wikipedia one comic book says one thing: As he says in The Killing Joke: "Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another... if I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!" While another claims he was an engineer at a chemical plant whose wife and child are kidnapped and killed to force him into committing a crime. But the thing is, there are several different versions of what happened to make the Joker into the madman he is and chances are, we'll never have a definitive explanation.

And then you have a character like Two-Face. I've been scanning the net to see what I can find out about Harvey Dent, and he's quite a bit more developed than the Joker as far as his history is concerned. One rumor I've run into is that the next Batman movie is going to focus more heavily on Two-Face and I kind of hope that is the case. I think TDK did a pretty good job of laying down the foundation for further development of Two-Face's character, but I don't think the depths of his psyche have even begun to show.

One thing that I really find intriguing about what I've seen on the net as far as Two-Face is concerned is how often his character has been compared to Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. If you haven't seen No Country-- and I won't spoil it for you--, the villain in that movie is fond of flipping a coin to make decisions. I'm surprised at how many people have been accusing the director of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan, of ripping off that idea from No Country for Old Men. I mean, doesn't anyone know their comic book characters anymore? But I suppose the randomness of the coin-toss sticks in people minds. As well it should. Would you like your life and death decisions left to the toss of a coin?

But why does Two-Face flip a coin? I do remember Tommy Lee Jones' portrayal of Two-Face 1995. His Two-Face would flip a coin to decide the fate of his victims (kill or don't kill), but if he didn't like what the coin toss said, he'd keep flipping until he got his desired result. But what I've been able to pick up, both from The History Channel and the net, is that Two-Face is a split personality and he is incapable of making a decision without a coin toss. The radical disfigurement of his face split Harvey Dent's personality in two (good and bad) and he has to flip a coin when faced with a decision because he isn't capable of reconciling his two sides. The old comic books apparently also go into detail about an abusive childhood, bi-polar disorder and a latent split personality. Pretty detailed stuff huh?

Why is any of this important? Why do we care what the motivations of a comic book character are?

I can't answer that for anyone but myself. But I think it's because we can relate to this characters in a strange way. They dress up in crazy costumes and act totally bizarre but they're not that unlike villains who have really existed. When we look into the motivations of people like Adolf Hitler, we want to know what motivates a man to such levels of depravity. Did he do what he did because he wasn't accepted into art school? Was he beaten as a child? We want to know these things because we hope that it isn't random circumstance that creates these monsters. We hope that by being good parents, and not beating our children, we won't raise little psychopaths.

And I think that's why The Dark Knight is still rattling around in my brain a couple of days after I saw it. Somehow, in two-and-a-half -hours, Christopher Nolan caught just enough of the essence of what the creators of Batman had in mind for the Joker and Two-Face to get me thinking about what makes a Bat-villain, or any villain for that matter.


furiousBall said...

i have to see this film this weekend. have. to.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sounds like the movie definitely had an impact. I haven't read the psychological assement but I'll get around to it. I'm sorta of interested in that area. ;)

My first experience of the Joker was in the old Batman TV show. I never read the comics.

Avery DeBow said...

Excellent post. I'll agree with Charles that it seems the movie really touched you. I haven't gotten around seeing it, yet. Hopefully I won't miss it in the theater and have to wait until it comes out on DVD. I need to check the DVR listings for that special; I'd really like to see that.

SQT said...


I hope you do.


I vaguely remember the old show. I used to watch it, but I don't find it as entertaining now. I wonder why....


It got under my skin in a good way. There aren't that many movies that do that so I really pay attention to the one's that do.

Steve Malley said...

Little known fact: (actually, a *very* quietly held operating principle among comics writers) from the late 60's through the early 80's, the unspoken idea behind the Joker was that he was gay, insane, and hopelessly infatuated with the Batman.

Hence, all those elaborate traps, etc. were really just bids for attention. Frank Miller did a plain-English parody of this in The Dark Knight in the mid-80's.

After that, I get the feeling that the fans didn't like the idea of a gay Joker but *did* like the atmosphere of all that 80's angst. Batman's world turned darker and more grim, and the Joker evolved into the heteropsycho we know and love today.

SQT said...


I love that kind of trivia. And what a great story.

Avery DeBow said...

Steve, your information on the Joker actually makes Cesar Romero's version much more understandable to me.

Heather said...

>Why is any of this important? Why do we care what the motivations of a comic book character are?

Great post. I'm just glad that today's artists (both comic book and film) are keeping Batman in the adult playing field where he belongs.

Many comic book characters are people too. They're not just for kids and I think the reason we care is because artists and writers are taking the time to render them as three dimensional characters. It'll be interesting to see where the medium goes in the next 10-20 years.