There isn’t an arch-nemesis as exciting and more perfect for their hero than the Joker. Maybe it’s because he’s the ideal opposite and foil visually, or perhaps it’s just because he embodies the craziness in us all. Either way, he’s undoubtedly one of the most despicable villains out there, especially when you consider his acts in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke or in Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo’s Death in the Family. But what if those acts weren’t in the name of evil, but for the greater good? The greater good in the Joker’s mind is the perfect Batman.
It’s often noted the Joker pushes Batman in various ways to become the best version of himself, or at the very least, some larger lesson for Batman to consider. It’s never more obvious than in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which featured Heath Ledger portraying Joker as an agent of chaos, but also a man who sees Batman similar to himself. The Dark Knight‘s entire purpose is to show Batman a better way to be a vigilante by making Joker the hero. If Ledger didn’t tragically pass away, The Dark Knight Rises would have shown how Joker continues to push Batman (Christian Bale) and make him a better hero for an unfair world.
When viewing The Dark Knight through the lens of Joker as the hero, it’s rather obvious he’s attempting to do good things in a not so moral way. His acts of terror end up getting people killed, but on the flip side, Batman’s exploits end up getting buildings blown up, and by the film’s end he’s lying to an entire population about their “White Knight” Harvey Dent, all for the greater good. That’s a “good” not up to Batman to decide — even Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) hates what Bruce is doing with his tech — whereas the Joker creates situations for people to make the right and wrong decisions. You see it with the two ferries at the end of the film. The people can decide to do the wrong thing and murder, or do the right thing and die together. While his tactics are deplorable, he’s teaching the people a valuable lesson and ultimately doing good for the entire community as they find the salvation of their morality and ethical value.
By the end of the film, Joker has effectively cleaned up the streets, reducing the various mobs to nothing, proving to the hundreds of folks on the ferry what they truly are inside, and making a point that we’re all in this together. He’s brought Gotham together. It requires Batman to lie to reverse it all. Some hero.
Joker is also a guy who isn’t actively involved in his schemes but gets others to do them. At Harvey’s hospital bedside, Joker tells Harvey he didn’t rig the charges and was in Commissioner Gordon’s “cage” after all. Batman, on the other hand, is literally breaking legs. By this account, Joker is a leader doing his best to show people what they are, and on the flip side, Batman is using physical force to enact change and make criminals reform. By the end of the film, Batman and Gordon (Gary Oldman) join forces to actively lie to the people of Gotham. Keeping up this lie is only going to lead to failure, and ultimately a corruption of the very people who held their decision-making abilities over the populace.
A ton has been said about Nolan not wanting to do a third Batman film, or that there was no plan before Heath Ledger passed away, but it’s quite apparent there was a track Batman was placed on that would’ve required the Crown Prince of Crime to reemerge. Certainly the movie studios wanted him back thanks to all the hype, and the fact that Joker brings in bucko bucks. You can see it in the two-act structure that was set up with The Dark Knight. This film established Joker and his point of view and the idea of a morally bankrupt Batman willing to use Harvey Dent as a symbol for good and never believing the people of Gotham could get to a better place on their own. That’s a road he can’t come back from unless, of course, there’s a purple suit wearing villain ready to take him a bit further along his journey.
In a capitalist society like our own, Joker is the true hero for everyone. He doesn’t let politicians or mobsters decide our fate, but gives us all the opportunity to fight or swim with the sharks and die. I truly believe the third Batman film would have been different if Heath Ledger hadn’t passed away. Likely Batman would have woken up from his self-exile, broken physically and perhaps more so emotionally, only to discover Joker stronger and more justified than ever. Batman is a blunt instrument who enacts violence to create some sense of justice on a person-to-person scale, whereas Joker is fixing the system from within via his schemes and big ideas. A third film could have explored Joker’s rise from two-bit criminal to a hero of the people — possibly taking a route similar to Sean Murphy’s Batman: White Knight — while Batman watches in disgust and misery. It’s in that muck of misery that he would rise up, blend his physical vigilantism with Joker’s master planning, and become a greater hero in the process.
The Dark Knight Rises certainly took this approach to Batman but had to do so with an underdeveloped and boring villain in Bane. Tom Hardy did a good enough job, but the film felt rushed, overstuffed, and conflicted with its premise. How can Batman overcome his greatest failure when the Joker was the man who put him there and now is nowhere to be seen? Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan may have had no plan in place for the third film, but it’s evident from the deeper meaning within Dark Knight that a logical path needed to be taken to make a perfect trilogy. Heath Ledger’s passing meant that perfection couldn’t be achieved, but when you consider Joker was the hero of the second film working to better ol’ Batsy, it’s obvious the third film would have been the period on Joker’s greatest scheme yet. And that’s no joke.