"Ha ha ha ahoo ahoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo"
Something is very wrong when a joker laughs. Jokers were not meant to laugh. They were meant to stand there, stone-faced or bewildered, and make you laugh. When the joker laughs, it's never good. Because that means the joke is on you. So what happens if one joker wants to be taken seriously…very seriously? When it was decided Heath Ledger would play the Joker in The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan is said to have given him a copy of The Killing Joke and told him that was the Joker he wanted. The film, too, draws heavily from that particular comic…the comic which Batman fans describe as the one which defines Joker's character. And all of a sudden, the Joker seems more interesting, more intriguing, than Batman himself. In April this year, DC Comics brought out Lovers and Madmen, which said it would trace the Joker's origins. The Killing Joke itself hints at his origins, but is the story real or was it a version the Joker had created?
When the confrontation between him and Batman takes place, he says "You had a bad day…and it drove you as crazy as everybody else! Something like that…something like that happened to me, you know. I…I'm not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another…If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it multiple choice! Ha ha ha!" So did the Joker have a pregnant wife who died the day he was playing the Red Hood and committing a crime so he would have enough money to support her and his child? Did Batman chase him into a chemical tank which left him with ruby lips, a white face and green hair? Or was he making up versions of the bad day that drove him crazy? A version that would justify hating Batman? Does the Joker have a sense of justice and a compulsion to reason things out logically after all? But how amusing!
In The Dark Knight, the Joker has two versions of his past too. Both of them involve women leaving their men. In one, his mother wants to leave his father, but his father, his father didn't like that sort of thing, y'see, so he turned the knife on his mother. Then his father saw him, and he came up to his son and shoved the knife into his mouth, like this, and asked, "why so serious? Let's put a smile on that face!" and then the Joker, all grown up, tells the shivering man in his grip, "now, I ask you…why so serious? Let's put a smile on that face!" In another version, the Joker's wife, whom he says was a pretty girl, just like Rachel Dawes, would not smile after she had her cheeks cut, so he decided to make her laugh by cutting his own cheeks with a razor blade, and would you believe it, she left him?
Both The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight see a death from Smilex towards the beginning. The central theme is the same – "all it takes is one bad day to drive the sanest man alive to lunacy. That is how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day." And the procedure to prove the hypothesis is: pluck out the best, most law-abiding citizen of all, and drive him crazy by striking where it hurts. What does it do to you when you lose the person you love most, and know whom to blame for it? His experiment is successful in one case, where District Attorney Harvey Dent becomes Harvey Two-Face, and fails in the other, where Commissioner Gordon insists the Joker be brought in "by the book" despite the cruel mind game the Joker puts him through, laying him bare physically and emotionally.
But the key question both stories throw up is this – will Batman and the Joker kill each other, as Batman predicts, or do they need each other, like the Joker suggests? The end of the comic is ambiguous – it isn't clear whether the Batman is about to push the Joker off the roof or is laying a hand on his shoulder in the camaraderie of a shared joke. But the grin on Batman's face hints it is the latter. In the movie, the Joker challenges Batman to kill him by running him over…but Batman would rather skirt him and take a fall than run him over and do away with him. Does Batman desist because of his respect for the law? Or does he hold back because he knows he and the Joker are two sides of a coin? Not black and white, but with ambiguous shades complementing each other perfectly? Each gives, in fact is, the other's purpose in the world…his reason to live.
The film has two scenes which are very similar to the comic – one, where the Joker and Batman have a one-way conversation in jail, and the other, where the Joker reaches out to Batman. In the comic, Batman does the talking in the Joker's cell, trying to convince him they should negotiate a truce before they end up killing each other (a proposition he repeats towards the end) and in the movie, the Joker does the talking, while Batman watches, silent. The comic has the Joker trying to convince Batman that they both have a lot more in common…that they are not that different after all, because both of them turned crazy because of one bad day. "Why else would you dress up like a flying rat?" he asks. In the movie, Joker tells Batman in his cell that they are both outcasts, and the police force knows Batman is a freak, just like the Joker, that they will only keep him as long as they need him.
And the inevitable question is asked: "What happens when an unstoppable force hits an immovable object?" There are several theories where the physics of this possibility are concerned – one is that it could never happen, because the victor would negate the foundation of the other. If a force is stopped by an object, it was not unstoppable to begin with, and an object moved by a force would not be immovable after all. Another is that the force could pass right through the object, because who said it was in solid state? Another is that while the object itself might not move relative to its surroundings, the entity, meaning the force, the object and the system the object is in, could move as a whole. But the real answer might be what Superman says when the question is posed to him in the parallel comic series. "They surrender," is his quiet answer. So far, neither the Joker nor the Batman has killed the other. The Joker's gun shoots out flowers or notes instead of bullets when he has the chance, and Batman simply doesn't take his chances. Is that surrender, then? Will they always surrender? Will it end when the Joker finds out Batman's true identity, and has no reason to keep him alive? Will it end when Batman decides Gotham City can do without him, if he can do without the Joker… if Bruce Wayne can do without Batman?
The answer, perhaps, lies in the Joker's metaphor: "See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum. And one night, they decide they don't like living in an asylum anymore. They decide they're going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof, and there they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moonlight. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across without any problem. But his friend, his friend daren't make the leap. Y'see…y'see, he's afraid of falling. So, then, the first guy has an idea…he says 'Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I'll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk across the beam and join me!' B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says…he says 'what do you think I am? Crazy? You'd turn it off when I was half way across!' Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha haaa…"
Maybe the reason the Batman series is so popular is that it gives us so many options. We could be either of these two guys, living in our own lunatic asylums. We could make the leap or we could stay behind. We could trust the flashlight or we could stay off the beam. We could be Commissioner Jim Gordon or we could be Harvey Two Face. One bad day could make atheists out of believers or believers out of atheists; it could make vigilantes out of business tycoons, or Jokers out of failed stand-up comedians; it could make madmen out of lovers or analysts out of madmen. Maybe that is why the Joker has made us more curious than Batman has made him. Because, when the cards are laid on the table, one can argue forever about whether the Ace is lower than Two or higher than King, but everyone knows the Joker could be anything – the Joker is unpredictable.