"Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moon light?"
Alfred Hitchcock once said that a story is only as good as its villain and Roger Ebert echoed the sentiment in his review of Star Trek II. While such a notion may be an oversimplification (some stories simply don't have conventional villains), the basic principle is essentially true: namely, that the level of involvement and emotional investment audiences have in any given story is almost directly proportional to the degree of difficulty the main character must endure in said story's central conflict (since all drama is made of conflict). In other words, the higher the stakes, the greater the obstacle, the more satisfied we are when the protagonist eventually overcomes it... or, conversely, the more saddened we are when the protagonist fails or gets defeated.
Consequently, one could just as easily say that a hero is really only as good as his/her villain. The more challenging the opponent a hero faces, the more impressed/relieved we are when that hero eventually triumphs over the adversary. This is why throughout history storytellers have wisely paid particular attention to their villains. Great care has gone into fashioning suitably formidable and sinister antagonists and the result has been some truly great fictional baddies, in literature (Dracula, Simon Legree, Bill Sykes, Professor Moriarty, Inspector Javert, Voldemort, Iago, etc), in cinema (Norman Bates, Hanibal Lecter, Darth Vader, the Wicked Witch of the West, etc) and in all other mediums... including comic books.
In less than a week, the latest big screen incarnation of that renowned comic book hero Batman hits theatres. Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight pits Gotham's guardian angel once again against that dreaded foe known as the Joker (this time payed by the late Heath Ledger) and it is sure to be a monumental battle. Joker's appearance in this new series of Batman films has been highly anticipated since the final scene of 2005's Batman Begins (I recall a very audible reaction from the crowd when Batman turned that playing card over) and I think we all know why. Batman may be known for having an impressive rogue's gallery of memorable villains such as Penguin, Riddler, Two-face and so forth, but most people would agree that the Joker is easily his most threatening, and thus most popular, enemy. Some would even posit that the Joker is the greatest of all comic book villains (beating even Superman's notorious nemesis Lex Luthor). Well, not only do I agree with these opinions, but I'm going to take it a step further. I think the Joker is one of the best villains ever conceived.
Some might disagree with that statement, but I doubt anyone will disagree with the enormous level of fascination that we all seem to have with this character. Everyone--and I mean everyone, even non-comic book fans--knows who the Joker is. In the AFI's list of 100 greatest movie heroes and villains, Jack Nicholson's Joker came in 45th place and in a recent Movifone survey Heath Ledger's Joker came in 5th. There is no denying, I think, that there is just something endlessly engaging and appealing (yet simultaneously chilling and repulsive) about this character.
So, my question is this: Why? Why is the Joker a character that we so love to hate? What is it about him that continues to attract and repel (or otherwise captivate) us so completely? Well, in an attempt to answer these questions, and in celebration of the release of The Dark Knight, I thought I would devote three lengthy posts to this iconic character, examining his origins (both inside the world of Batman and outside of it in our world) in the first part, looking at the different actors who have brought him to life in various audio-visual media in the second part and, finally, ending with an examination of the "essence" of the character itself in an attempt to hopefully ascertain just what it is precisely that makes the Joker so damned special.
So, stay tuned. Or as the Joker himself would say, "Not laughing yet? Just wait 'til I get to the punch line. It'll kill you! HaHaHaHaHaHa!"