The Joker as a Satanic Character
Heath Ledger as the Joker
Laughter of the Damned
Given the myriad ways of understanding Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker one notices how difficult the character’s motivations are to discover. Alfred, played by Michael Caine, provides an anecdote of his own experiences and surmises, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Though this view may be correct it does little to deepen the audience awareness of the film’s questioning of whether human conduct is either good or evil at its root.
The best way to get to the heart of the film’s understanding of this dilemma is for the audience to view the Joker as a satanic character—not solely because of his wanton destruction but also because of his philosophical perspective. The Joker’s alluded worldview is that good behavior and civilization are the joke, and that just below the surface everyone is as brutal and vicious as himself. He is all the worst parts of the human Id without any restraints, like an Olympian god who cannot suffer mentally or physically from the crimes he commits. One sees his thesis at work in his deeds. The Joker won’t kill the hapless Wayne Enterprises accountant who will give up Batman’s identity, someone else will do it for him if put under duress which the Joker creates by threatening to bomb a hospital. The same attitude is seen in his plot with the boats. All the people have to do to survive is kill another boat full of people by turning the detonator, an event the Joker anticipates given his belief that someone will want to live so badly they will do monstrous things to each other to remain alive. Of course, the joke is on everyone else; the Joker will blow up a hospital whether or not his demands are met, and he intends to blow up both boats whether or not a dreadful choice is made to murder other people so that one might live.
A close parallel to this mindset is observable in the Book of Job where Satan’s primary argument is against human goodness. Just as the Joker’s main victim is the heroic Harvey Dent, Satan targets God’s righteous servant, Job (Job 1:1). Satan’s contention is “put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face” (1:11). Satan assumes that deep down, Job is as ungrateful and if God’s favor were taken away—if Job were under the proper duress—the essential evil of his being would emerge (2:5).
In the end, both the Joker and Satan are set back. Decency emerges in difficult times as the would-be victims refuse to blow each other up and Job maintains his innocence, refusing to curse God for his misfortunes. These parallels serve as a solid understanding for not only the otherwise mysterious motivation of the primary villain of The Dark Knight but also the question of human morality that rests at the core of the film.
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© 2009 Seth Tomko