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"You Can Call Me Joker": How I See Tim Burton's Batman Today
Man, I feel old.
The year was 1989. I was five years old. I don’t know that my parents realized what they were taking me to see when the family piled into the car and headed to a local theater to catch Batman. I have to give them a pass considering the Batman they knew was the campy kids version of the ‘60s. Boy, were they in for a surprise…
In the movie,(spoilers abound beyond this point!) Gotham City mob boss Carl Grissom assigns his second-in-command Jack Napier(played by Jack Nicholson) to destroy records damaging to the criminal enterprises of the organization. These incriminating records are supposedly locked in a safe at a chemical plant. When Napier arrives he realizes the records were a hoax. He had been set up by Grissom. Why? Because Grissom found out Napier was having an affair with his girlfriend. Grissom had previously called a corrupt cop on his payroll and given this cop the orders to shoot Napier on sight.
Having discovered the plot, Napier shoots the corrupt cop, killing him. In a confrontation with Batman, Napier is overwhelmed in a fight and falls into a vat of deadly chemicals. In typical comic book movie fashion, Napier lives through the ordeal. The movie is less about the Bruce Wayne/Batman character and more about the terrifying transformation of Jack Napier into the Joker.
This movie was my first real exposure to violence that I can remember, staged and fictional though it was. I wasn’t concerned with the violence itself at the time. Certainly I was too young to realize the complexities and nuances of the plot and characters. In short, all of that went over my head for years until I grew old enough to process these things. I just saw Batman, the good guy, defeating Joker, the bad guy. I had Batman action figures, trading cards, and finally the movie on Christmas morning--on VHS. Maybe the cliché is most appropriate—life was simpler then.
Rewinding a bit, seeing the movie for the first time was a watershed moment for me. It was my first real favorite. I will always say it is the movie that caused me to love movies. As I have said, I was too young and naïve to truly comprehend the film’s darker content. As a kid I clung to the safe, fictionalized world the movie presented—a world where the “good guy” always wins out in the end.
Returning to the plot, Napier survives his fall only to be, in a sense, reborn. It is then that his Joker persona is fully realized. Having been given what he sees as a clean slate, a new lease on life, whatever inhibitions he did have are now gone forever.
He is now the Joker.
He has become not someone new, but what he always was under the surface. Eager to take revenge on the man who plotted to kill him, he goes to his boss’s office and, with sheer joy, murders him in cold blood. He is a killer without the slightest trace of conscience or moral apprehension. He is accountable to himself only. He has declared himself God and Gotham is his playground.
It is not my intention to rehash every single plot point of the film, but those who have seen it know that the Joker’s plan is truly diabolical.
How My Views Have Changed
If it sounds like I’m taking the movie too seriously, I have my reasons.
I used to think this movie was about Bruce Wayne/Batman. In a sense, every Batman movie is about that character and the dichotomy between his two identities. The producers were wrong...this movie should have been called Joker.
The Batman character will always have his time to shine on screen, because it will always be his movie. But the villain has one shot to steal the spotlight, and Nicholson as Joker stole the show.
Question for those who have seen the movie: Is the Joker right in what he does? Before you burn me at the stake, realize I’m trying to make a point. The answer, of course, is no. But, and think about this, the answer is no only if there is an absolute standard of right and wrong—of good and evil. If there is no absolute moral standard, then there is no good or evil. We can do what we want. If absolutes do not exist, then what the Joker did is of no consequence whatsoever.
Looking back, I realize what I was exposed to as a five year-old boy—the reality of sin. Not that I thought I was sinless, but I finally understood that sin was in us all. I cannot divorce my worldview from my entertainment, so this is how I see it now, 25 years later. I believe in a just God who must punish sin—He is the giver of absolute moral law. I believe the human heart is totally sinful. As Jeremiah 17:9 says:
The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?
To me, the Joker represents the depravity in us all. Jack Napier was already a murderous thug before his “transformation” into the Joker. In this incarnation of the origins of Batman, he is the one who mercilessly guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents.
The “Joker” was simply Napier’s true nature uninhibited.
Thus, I believe Batman was, in essence, about the darkness within the sin-sick human heart.
The Joker represents us all.