Do we love to hate the villains? Or do we in fact, love them?
Isn’t Heath Ledger fascinating as the Joker in The Dark Knight? His make-up, his hair, his rasping voice, his devious plans – all scream ‘psychotic’ , and yet we are strangely drawn to him. If you ask me, and many will agree on this, he is more memorable than the Dark Knight himself. Why do we find a homicidal maniac endearing? Can this morbid attraction have larger consequences?
Movies have, since their birth, given plenty of opportunities for villains to
dazzle. So much so, that Norman Bates of Psycho remains a pop-culture icon to this day. His legacy will be continued by Hannibal Lector of Hannibal, Mr. Brooks of the movie by the same name, Anton Chigurgh of No Country for Old Men and many others who will be manufactured to continue this glorious tradition.
So, why did I root for the Joker? Firstly because I think portraying evil and menace so chillingly is no mean feat. Histrionic skills aside, the Joker was clearly sheer genius. He had a distinctive (and dark) sense of humor, no protective gadgets but a fearless persona nevertheless, he was fantastically clever (though completely evil), with a touch of sarcasm and lots of (bizarre) style. Smart, funny, brave, proud and stylish. What’s not to like? Batman himself was clearly deficient in many of these areas and having a cape, an armored car and an engineered voice didn’t exactly add to his charm.
I admit, I fell for the freak. And I imagine that I would have fallen harder if the Joker had been smarter and darker. But thankfully, I am not a Joker wannabe, and other than being good entertainment, the movie had little effect on me. What could a more innocent (or a more twisted) person learn from such movies? That the bad guys have more fun? That by terrifying people, they can make sure that the spotlight is always on them? That being sufficiently smart and wicked can guarantee them a spot on the early morning and late light news for a week?
That these movies glorify the anti-hero is apparent. But whether this portrayal is healthy or unhealthy is the subject of a long debate and a matter of personal judgment. If the makers of the movie aimed for packed crowds, they certainly got that. If they wanted their movie to be ‘most talked about’, they got that too. But remember, media effects are media effects, whether they are intended or not. We definitely don’t want such movies inspiring people to emulate psychopaths. The key is ‘detached appreciation’, something that is perhaps easier for adults to understand. In an ideal world, we would watch these movies with the awareness of the neat line that separates our world from Gotham, a line that separates reality from fantasy. We would be terrified, intrigued and even impressed by the Joker, fully aware that these emotions certain to a world and a person that does not, could not and should not exist. And at the end of the movie, we would leave the theatre with entertained minds and popcorn flavored clothes, and the Joker would take his place with Godzilla, King Kong, Shrek, Darth Vader, and Voldemort: the good and the bad in a different, non-existent world. This skill of separation and detached appreciation is what we need to pass on to our children if they are to appreciate entertainment happily and safely. Also, if they are to see the Joker for what he really is: a joker.