How to Write an Epic Antagonist – Breaking Down The Joker
The video “The Dark Knight — Creating the Ultimate Antagonist” from Lessons from the Screenplay (Listen to Michael from LFTS here) is about the real struggle between the Batman and the Joker. This battle is not so much a battle to the death like most protagonist/antagonist relationships as much as it is a battle to reveal each’s true nature. We will explore the nature of this battle in-depth to find what the Joker is really after in Batman.
So how does an antagonist like the Joker get what he really wants from the, so far, undefeatable Batman? Well, there are several steps the Joker employs throughout the movie. First is the reversal of Batman’s strength as a weakness. The Joker knows that Batman has vowed to himself that he will not kill a person he will only apprehend and leave as a gift for the police to arrest. This has been what made Batman who he is. It has been his defining strength throughout time. He will not kill, no matter what the circumstances are. Christopher Nolan plays this very heavily in The Dark Night movie and allows for the Joker to also play with this aspect of Batman.
Second, the Joker steadily applies more and more pressure to Batman throughout the movie. This is not in an attempt to break Batman as much as it is to get Batman to reveal more about his own character. Joker will then use that information to beat Batman later on in the movie. Knowing where and when to apply more pressure to Batman is what makes the Joker Batman’s dark soul mate in some way. Joker is the only villain in the history of Batman to make this oddly satisfying bond with Batman. With enough pressure, the Joker gets what he is after but it is only the audience who sees Batman’s true character as someone else stands up for Gotham and claims to be Batman.
This happens when the Joker calls for Batman to turn himself in and take off his mask. Now we as the audience know that Bruce Wayne is Batman but no one else in Gotham is aware including the Joker. The mask has always been his way of showing that Batman is a symbol. However being a fan of chaos the Joker is looking to throw that symbol away and prove that Batman is like everyone else, just a man. This is illustrated to the audience and to Gordan by the final choice the Joker pushes onto Batman. Who will he save? Harvey or Rachel. Batman does what Bruce would have done and chooses to save the love of his life Rachel. This proves what Batman will not give up to save Gotham.
Finally, the Joker and Batman are in a mortal fight, not only for the truths about each other but also for the very essence of Gotham. They are both trying to realize their own personal visions of Gotham. Batman in the fight and struggle for good and law, and the Joker in the fight to bring anarchy and chaos. The common goal of all of this play, so to speak, back and forth between the two is to win Gotham for their respective sides. This is what truly sets the Joker as Batman’s greatest antagonist. Christopher Nolan shows this battle in a series of smaller battles of wits and physicality but ultimately The Dark Knight rises and saves Gotham for at least another day.
Throughout the movie, there are lessons to be learned by both Batman and Bruce Wayne about who they really are. As a result of this we see that the Joker really shapes Batman into a better man and a better hero. Bruce is reminded throughout by his butler and best friend Alfred, that he has limits, that Batman can not save everyone, and that sometimes crime and/or the criminal has no real logic or reason to them. Sometimes a man just wants to see the world burn, this is the line Alfred uses to catch Bruce’s attention to the lack of logic in the Joker’s tricks.
Bruce is forced then to take a long hard look at himself and Batman to see the true nature of each. Can he still be Batman if he wants as Bruce creep in? Can Bruce really still be the playboy millionaire we all love without taking responsibility for Batman too? Can he and Batman work together to save the very soul of Gotham from total destruction? All of these questions are brought to light inside of Bruce and Batman by the Joker. His relentless pressure, his search for Batman’s weaknesses, and his side of the fight for the same city are all parts of what makes the Joker Batman’s greatest antagonist.
At the end of the movie the Joker has really gotten what he wants, Batman has been declared a bad guy, the Bat-signal is destroyed, and Batman has lost what he once held dear to him. But because of these things Batman is able to become even more of a symbol in the following movie when Gotham needs him the most. Batman says to Gordon at one point “ I will be whatever Gotham needs me to be” this shows that through all of the torture the Joker has put him through he still believes that Gotham can and will be saved. His resolve to do what is right is strengthened by the Joker and Batman will be whatever is needed. He will be the villain, the hero, or the silent justice but he will save Gotham at any point he is needed. He is Batman!
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