“This town deserves a better class of criminal.” – The Joker, The Dark Knight
“Crime cannot be tolerated.” – Ra’s al Ghul, Batman Begins
I come not to tar and feather The Joker, but to sing the hosanas of Ra’s al Ghul who, it seems to me, in the roaring wake of Heath Ledger’s mesmerizing turn as the flamboyantly deranged villain of The Dark Knight, has been seriously in lack of the proper love.
The first time we see The Joker (Heath Ledger) he is robbing a bank, blasting bullets into the backs of his accomplices, and riding off into the figurative sunset aboard a school bus which means he, you know, STOLE A SCHOOL BUS and likely left children of Gotham City standing forlornly on dangerous street corners. The first time we see Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) in Batman Begins he is pawning himself as Henri Ducard and getting one Bruce Wayne out of prison in Bhutan and advising that if he seeks true justice to pick a blue flower and carry it to the top of a nearby mountain, a blue flower that represents desire, love and the metaphysical striving for the infinite and unreachable. (This is a long way from the Joker’s lapel flower spraying laughing gas.) Perhaps it goes without saying then that these are two men not born of the same bad guy costumes.
Back in the winter of ’08 a few of my friends and I watched The Dark Knight shortly after its release on DVD and upon its conclusion a humongous argument erupted over whether it or Batman Begins was the superior film. I was firmly in the Batman Begins camp. This is not to meant to imply that I think The Dark Knight is a lesser movie, not at all, merely that Batman Begins is much more my box of jujubes. And I think upon examination the reasoning for this can be attributed to the difference in each film’s villain.
“Their morals, their code…it’s a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble.” – The Joker
“The League Of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance.” – Ra’s al Ghul
The Joker is an agent of chaos, an emissary of evil, selling himself out to the highest bidder and then burning all the money he earns for doing so. He has no grand plan other than offing the Batman and bringing the whole of Gotham down to his appalling level. I used to think The Joker’s last scene – in which he is LITERALLY left hanging – was lazy storytelling (or supremely black humor on Nolan’s part, which would be a little brilliant), robbing the character of a proper conclusion, but now I see that the character as presented had no beginning (“the Joker arrives in Gotham abruptly, as if he’d been hiding up someone’s sleeve,” wrote the esteemed Manohla Dargis for The New York Times) and no end. Yet, that also strips him of a true arc – he is on a straight line of wickedness, an express elevator to hell, goin’ down.
On the other hand, Ra’s al Ghul is a complete character – morphing from the Henri Ducard, mentor of Bruce Wayne, to his true self, a man of steep, vibrant contradictions (and, in fact, the concealment of his true identity functions as an illumination of those contradictions) and enemy of Bruce Wayne, willingly unleashing a toxin on Gotham so it can destroy itself and doing it all in the name of his own brand of integrity. He has, strange as it may seem, morals and a code, none of which he treats as a joke, and which he holds on to come hell or fisticuffs. Oh, some may argue his leaving of Bruce Wayne to burn alive in his own mansion when he simply could have shot him in the face was storytelling artifice to ensure they could square off mano-a-mano later, but REALLY it’s the character adhering to that self-styled code: “You burned my house and left me for dead. Consider us even.” And when they do square off at the end, the battle (regardless of the hyper editing) comes from somewhere pure because of the mentor/protégé relationship.
“Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about making yourself better.” – Katie Holmes-ized Rachel Dawes
“If someone stands in the way of true justice, you simply walk up behind them and stab them in the heart.” – Ra’s al Ghul
Villains, to me, are so often most interesting when working as mirrors of the Heroes. Ra’s al Ghul’s necessary bit of backstory involves a love one lost long ago resulting in an anger that nearly destroyed him. This, of course, is essentially identical to Bruce Wayne’s backstory, losing his parents long ago resulting in an anger that nearly destroyed him. This is precisely what has led these two men to cross paths. Thus, Bruce asks Ra’s what prevented his anger from destroying him. “Vengeance,” Ra’s replies clinically. Ah, but his version of vengeance differs from Rachel Dawes’ black and white reading of the term, because he chooses to channel his desire of vengeance specifically by seeking justice for all – just really, really unconventionally. And that is exactly what Bruce Wayne seeks, too.
Ra’s al Ghul wants to save Gotham by destroying it. Bruce Wayne wants to save Gotham by preventing it from being destroyed. The same goal, different means of achieving it. The Joker, meanwhile, as Alfred so eloquently puts it, just wants to watch the world burn. He is an anarchist. Ra’s al Ghul is a harmonist. And if they had been in Gotham at the same time, The Joker would have barely lasted his 15 minutes.
Ra’s simply would have walked up behind him and stabbed him in the heart.
SO, WHAT SAY YOU? RA’S AL GHUL OR THE JOKER? OR NONE OF THE ABOVE? SOUND OFF BELOW!