I have often wondered what would make a good superhero story, and it seems the best answer I can come up with is having a really good villain for the hero to go up against. For example, Batman is my favourite superhero and one of the reasons why is because of his conflict and dynamic against his arch-nemesis, the Joker. In my opinion, this relationship between the two has been what made the Batman franchise so successful; whether we are talking about Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). Both of these films are regarded to be the most famous and most impactful of any of all the Batman films. Why is that? Because in each film, Batman and the Joker are going against one another and Gotham City is caught in the cross-fire. This seems to suggest that having a Batman/Joker angle driving the plot is what audiences and fans love to see, and doing it correctly makes the film not only successful but also iconic. Which seems to beg the question: which film is the superior depiction of this relationship, Batman or The Dark Knight?
To truly judge which movie was the best in their execution of their Batman/Joker relationship, we would need to look at each of the characters and the actors who played them and then see how their onscreen interactions put their movie over on the other. Since both films are named after the hero, it would seem logical to focus on Batman. In Burton’s version, Batman was played by Michael Keaton, and both director and actor agreed to approach the character’s portrayal differently than what had been seen before. Unlike in previous films and television shows, this Batman was a very dark, brooding and serious hero who was withdrawn from the world. He did not have a sidekick nor did he have funny little fight sequences or ridiculously named gadgets. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne was a quiet, withdrawn and slightly aloof public face that had a hard time understanding what to do with his love interest in the film. This Bruce was more of a solitary and socially awkward individual who looked and acted slightly suspicious, which would seem to go against the idea of having a billionaire playboy persona to throw off suspicion of being Batman. His Batman was also quiet, but could also be menacing in how he dealt with the bad guys (going as far to kill) while also being protective and merciful at the same time. There was no real duality between Bruce and Batman, which felt like a missed opportunity in terms of characterization and acting. However, it could be that Burton wanted to make sure that there was no connection to the campy Batman/Bruce Wayne we were used to from Adam West’s time in the costume. Nonetheless, Keaton’s quiet, reserved and focused version of the character was a welcomed change, but not as psychologically interesting as it could have been nor a true depiction of the hero because he killed far more than he was supposed to.
Christian Bale’s version of the character was far more in line with the comics than we had seen in any of the other live action films. Nolan and Bale seemed to work hard at making sure the character was as realistic as possible while also being faithful to the source material. The result of which was a Bruce Wayne that had two parts to his personality, which also happened to be completely separate from the Batman persona. The Bruce Wayne seen by the public was a complete mask, where he pretended to be a flashy playboy who could be cunning in business but was really looking to enjoy all aspects of his lifestyle. Then there was the real Bruce, who was the heart of the character. He was calculating, inventive, organized and methodical, but was still focusing his anger into Batman so he could release the pain of his childhood. Also, the way he went about taking down criminals was truly terrifying and left none wondering how he gained the reputation of being an urban legend or boogeyman type figure. The real Wayne was also in love and trying to finish his ‘duty’ as Batman so that he could finally be with his love interest. Bale’s Batman was more of an angry, resourceful and moral creature who was constantly trying to keep the darkness in his life at bay, especially after the arrival of the Joker. Aside from his overly angry depiction of Batman, it would seem that Bale had a much firmer grasp of the subtleties of the character than Keaton, which made his performance far more engaging and interesting.
As interesting as Batman or Bruce Wayne is to see, what really caused audiences to enjoy both films was watching the Joker in action. Jack Nicholson took the originally crazy but not too disturbing Clown Prince of Crime and created an at times funny villain who had a strong sadistic and creepy undercurrent carried throughout his actions. Nicholson’s Joker in Batman was a gangster who was already on the verge of losing his sanity, but when he fell into the vat of chemicals he came out a disfigured monster that covered his cruel and vicious ways under a veil of humour and deadly gimmicks. Nicholson and Burton portrayed the villain in the traditional look and behaviour, but added an incredibly dark humour around him. This allowed Nicholson to be witty while also making the sick and twisted things he was doing in an oddly entertaining and funny way. So much so that one could question their own morals due to finding some of the Joker’s antics funny. He was a vain, narcissistic, clever and unorthodox villain that scared, mutilated, killed and entertained, leaving a standard by which all other depictions of the Joker would have to live up to for the next two decades.
Alternatively, Heath Ledger’s Joker was an almost completely different version than what had ever been seen in the comics or movies before. Ledger portrayed a brilliant, scary, unpredictable, mass murdering psychopath who delighted in psychologically assaulting all who he met. This Joker was no longer an almost funny, darkly twisted clown with a brightly coloured suit, and more of a deeply disturbing man who mutilated his own face and then smeared clown make-up over it to make an added impression. Also, unlike Nicholson’s performance where we knew how and where the Joker came from, Ledger’s Joker was completely shrouded in mystery. Just like the comic book character, Batman and even the audience knew next to nothing about him aside from the fact that he was dangerous and unpredictable. This allowed for his unexpected actions and plans to come across far more terrifying, as with the lack of understanding of the character and how he does things made the audience’s emotions just as at the mercy of his whims as the people of Gotham. Both Jokers were excellent and the heart of their stories and were the chief source of entertainment for their respective movies. The only way for one to truly answer which version they liked better would be to ask the individual, ‘Which do you prefer, classic Joker or realistic Joker?’ Therefore, whichever choice the person makes is the Joker they would side with.
After seeing how each movie, and actor, brought about their respective characters to life, it is easier to judge which pair did the best job of portraying the complex and iconic conflict between Batman and The Joker. Both Batman and The Dark Knight had Batman being overrun by Joker and Gotham City being terrorized in unorthodox ways that no one other than Batman could figure out. However, the dynamic between the two characters depicted in each film was fundamentally different. One was an incredibly personal battle, while the other was a battle of ideologies. In Batman, it was more of a personal battle, where Batman had helped make the Joker and, as we find out later in the movie, the Joker had actually made Batman by killing his parents. Both made one another by instilling darkness into the other; making the innocent and young Bruce Wayne overrun with vengeance, and the mentally unstable gangster Jack Napier overrun by his own madness. This caused both to have a strong urge to kill the other for personal reasons. Batman does want to protect Gotham while doing all he can to protects its citizens from the Joker’s killing spree, but his ultimate goal is to kill the man who killed his parents not arrest him. For Joker, he enjoys killing and doing it creatively and for his own amusement, but Batman is a special case. Under all his laughter and antics, I believe the Joker despises Batman for unintentionally competing for the attention of everyone in Gotham. He wants to be the ‘face on the one dollar bill’ as he said, and he can never be that with Batman constantly taking away his ‘toys’ and having better ones. Batman wants Joker dead for the pain and the darkness Joker left him in, while the Joker wants Batman dead because of his own vanity and because Batman overshadows his own infamy.
Alternatively, The Dark Knight had the Joker as the antithesis of Batman in almost every way. Bruce Wayne returned to Gotham City, in the previous film, and began work to undo the corruption plaguing the city. He became Batman to maintain order and to bring down the criminals the police could not. Batman is the Dark Knight, clothed in black and appears and disappears from the shadows. Criminals are unable to protect themselves from him because of he does not play by the usual rules and also because he is mysterious and has weapons and tactics that distract and pierce through all the traditional protection of organized crime. One could almost say the exact opposite about the Joker. Upon his arrival, the Joker does the same amount of damage as Batman did; he just did it against the good and innocent people of Gotham as opposed to the criminals. He is mysterious and brilliantly effective in his job in creating chaos, but he is colourful, flamboyant and completely without mercy or rules. None are safe with him around, and he has a terrifying ability of getting innocent people to lose their own moral compass and fall into darkness with him. The battle between Batman and Joker is not personal in The Dark Knight; it is the battle of good against evil personified. Throughout the film, the Joker devises ingenious situations that force Batman, and the rest of Gotham’s citizens, to make incredibly difficult ethical decisions. So much so that by the end, Batman’s entire moral foundation is not only in question but actually threatened.
To further illustrate the differences in Batman and Joker’s relationship from both films, I would like to focus on a specific scene that appears in Batman and The Dark Knight. Both films have a scene where Batman is coming straight at the Joker in a vehicle (either in Batwing or Batpod) and just missing him. This almost identical sequence surprisingly highlights the differences each film portrays their relationships wonderfully. In Batman, the Batwing fires all its weapons at Joker, only to miss (maybe due to inept machinery) and leaves Batman open to being shot down in retaliation. Either intentional or not, this altercation shows how revenge for personal reasons is ultimately self-defeating, as the object of your vengeance could lay standing but everything you are crashes around you. The Dark Knight’s variation of this scene has Batman speeding toward Joker at full speed on his Batpod, with the Joker daring Batman to run him down. For his own moral reason, Batman swerves to avoid him and falls off the Batpod unconscious. This, as well, can be taken literally; as if one were to stand up against the lure of evil and do the right thing, it could be painful and damaging but ultimately rewarding. Commissioner Gordon came and arrested the Joker just after Batman fell and lay defenceless, which can be a way of saying that as long as you do the right thing, you will always have people to come help you when you are down.
Therefore, after going through how the relationship is shown in both film, and seeing how each actor portrayed the character, it seems to me that The Dark Knight was the superior film in terms of characterization and interaction. Nolan’s film had both characters depicted very loyally to their comic book source material, while also performed exceptionally well. But more importantly, The Dark Knight, far more than Batman, had the two iconic characters personifying the very aspect of good and evil they were meant to. Bale was the Batman who believed in order and morality, while Ledger’s Joker wanted to create chaos for his own mysterious reasons without any regard or mercy. As said by Ledger’s Joker, “This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.” This is not to say Keaton and Nicholson did not give strong performances that stayed with the audience after watching the film, but their conflict was far more of a grudge match between two wronged parties rather than the epic ideological battle between good and evil. Thus, The Dark Knight gave the best depiction of the Batman/Joker dynamic.