A tale of Two Batmans
If you were to ask, “Who is the most memorable recent movie villain?” most people would point to Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. If you were to ask, “Who is a decent villain in a Superman film?” the answer would probably be Zod from Man of Steel. And if you were to ask “What makes no sense as a villain?” it would be Superman in Batman vs Superman.
I’m going to look at what makes a good antagonist vs. what makes a bad antagonist.
Antagonism is Opposition
The more powerful and complex the forces of antagonism opposing the character, the more completely realized character and story must become. “Forces of antagonism” doesn’t necessarily refer to a specific antagonist or villain. In appropriate genres arch-villains, like the Terminator, are a delight, but by “forces of antagonism” we mean the sum total of all forces that oppose the character’s will and desire. If we study a protagonist at the moment of the Inciting Incident and weigh the sum of his willpower along with his intellectual, emotional, social, and physical capacities against the total forces of antagonism from within his humanity, plus his personal conflicts, antagonistic institutions, and environment, we should see clearly that he’s an underdog. He has a chance to achieve what he wants—but only a chance. Although conflict from one aspect of his life may seem solvable, the totality of all levels should seem overwhelming as he begins his quest.
McKee, Robert (2010-09-28). Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting (pp. 317-318). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
The “Inciting Incident” is what happens that moves the story forward and puts the protagonist on their quest.
In Awaken Online, the inciting incident is when the protagonist (Jason) tells off the faculty after being assaulted at the school by the main antagonist (Alex). He’s offered a temporary suspension, but his outrage at the way the faculty and students treat him changes him. He decides he’s had enough and tells the faculty off, leading to his expulsion. This then leads to him being kicked out of his house, forced to live with his aunt, and his decision to start playing Awaken Online to earn money.
A story tracks what a person wants, what he’ll do to get it, and what costs he’ll have to pay along the way.
Truby, John (2008-10-14). The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (p. 5). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.
The term “beat” here means each event in the story.
- Jason tells off the faculty.
- Therefore, he gets kicked out of school.
- Therefore, his parents kick him out of the house.
- Therefore, he moves in with his Aunt.
- Therefore, he starts playing games to try to make money through online auctions.
Trey/Stone get to the heart of the dilemma of many of the novels I review poorly. One person called them “make-it-up-as-you-go” plots, but there is no “therefore” and “but” clauses between each event. Something happens, and then something else happens, and then something else happens, ad infinitum.
In Delvers LLC, there are actually two inciting incidents. The first occurs at the very beginning. They get transported to a mystical land where a crazy/malevolent god(ish) creature explains that they’re his test subjects and he’ll be using them as he sees fit. They can either accept his quest or die. Of course, they accept.
The real inciting incident is when the two protagonists (Henry and Jason again, so I may say Delvers Jason vs. Awaken’s Jason) are captured after an obvious trap. Delver’s Jason has to rally Henry and make him realize that by not listening to others and attempting to do everything on his own, he’s endangered himself and his friend. He has to start listening to other people and making choices based on that trust. At that point, the characters move from being reacted upon and move to creating actions that affect the novel.
But what about Batman and Superman, you clickbait-loving hack fraud?
I’m circling back to it. We’re looking the sin Creating a real villain: Or Don’t Kick The Puppy
If this guy reviews Batman V. Superman and Man of Steel, I am screwed. This is a long-form essay that covers the same topic he does, extended edition.
The Joker in Dark Knight is the best antagonist for a simple reason.
Create an opponent who wants the same goal as the hero and who is exceptionally good at attacking your hero’s greatest weakness.
Truby, John (2008-10-14). The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (p. 52). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.
Just adding the Joker to a story doesn’t automatically make it a great story, nor does having the Joker vs. Batman automatically make it a great story.
In The Dark Knight, the forces against Batman are that he’s trying to purify the soul of Gotham and root out corruption. Unfortunately, his vigilantism is having a disastrous effect. People are imitating Batman and breaking one of his cardinal rules: No killing. The corruption is still there because Batman lives in a World Clausewitz would have been proud of, “War is the continuation of politics by other means”.
In order to truly purify Gotham, Batman needs to clean up the endemic corruption that’s taken hold of Gotham. In Batman Begins, the argument between Ra’s al Ghul and Batman was whether or not Gotham could be changed. Ra’s believes that Gotham cannot be saved, only purged. Batman believes that there is still good in Gotham.
The opening of The Dark Knight shows us that crime is still a problem. It starts off with a bank robbery orchestrated by a group of men in clown masks. The bank is under the control of a criminal syndicate run by Falcone.
The opening shows us that Batman’s job is far from over and introduces us to the Joker. He’s smart, ruthless, and insane. The ending scene features the bank manager that one of the clowns shot asking the Joker “What do you believe in?” And the Joker never answers him. Because that’s the question of The Dark Knight. What sort of Gotham does the Joker want to see?
Both the Joker and Batman are fighting for the soul of Gotham.
Batman’s greatest assets are his mythical status as a symbol, since Bruce Wayne has vulnerabilities (family, friends, businesses) that Batman doesn’t. He has physical strength and power. He has a keen intellect and the ability to outmaneuver his opponents. He has tons of wealth and the ability to use gadgets to protect himself and subdue opponents. He has the support of the public.
Joker’s first attack is the obvious one to nullify Batman’s advantage. He gets a huge amount of money by robbing Falcone’s bank.
The political situation is unresolved though, as the next scene shows the mayor giving a speech saying that Batman is a vigilante who needs to be brought to justice. The police have a sketch board that shows potential Batman suspects: The Abominable Snowman, Elvis, and Abraham Lincoln. This shows that even though Batman is still a wanted man and hasn’t cleaned up all the corruption, the police office isn’t as corrupt as it used to be. Batman is winning over Gotham.
Gordon is shining the Bat Signal out over Gotham. The younger police officers ask him if that works. Gordon says that Batman usually doesn’t show up, but he likes to shine the light to remind criminals that he’s out there. This reinforces Batman’s lore as a mythical figure and as a symbol.
The next scene shows a fight where Batman prevails, with fake Batman’s running around. One of them tells Batman that he’s just one man, and that it’s a war out on the streets. Again, this is the motif of the story. It also establishes that Batman can handle regular criminals just fine, and demonstrates his strength and gadgetry via him bending a shotgun in half and using his Batmobile and grappling hooks to subdue the villains.
The next scene is Bruce Wayne with Alfred, heavily bruised and mauled from a dog bite that he suffered while fending off the drug dealers. Alfred tells Bruce that he needs to know his limits. Bruce responds that Batman has no limits, and Alfred tells him that Bruce Wayne does, and on the day Bruce finds his limits, Alfred won’t feel like telling him he told him so.
The next scene is in a courthouse where Maroni walks from a crime because one of his guys takes the fall for him, and attempts to assassinate Harvey Dent. Harvey Dent punches him and Maroni walks away from the crime.
The next scene Harvey meets up with Gordon and discusses the sting operation they’re using on Maroni’s money. Harvey warns Gordon that the cops he’s working with are the same ones he investigated while he worked Internal Affairs. Gordon responds that if he only worked with cops who weren’t investigated, he would be by himself. Gordon remarks that Dent is now known as the White Knight of Gotham, an obvious contrast to Batman, The Dark Knight. Dent tells Harvey that wasn’t his old nickname, setting up the scene for later on in the film.
If you ever hear about Chekhov’s Gun, here it is.
The next scene is the weakest in the screenplay. Bruce Wayne attends the same restaurant as Dent and Rachel. Rachel is the love interest of Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent. Bruce walks in with two women and sit with Dent and Rachel. Dent explains his admiration for Batman, and that during extraordinary times in Rome, democracy would be suspended and a single man would rise up to rule the Republic until the threat was quelled.
Rachel points out that the last time this happened, it was Caesar and it ended the Republic. Dent quotes that, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Wayne is so impressed by Dent that he offers to throw him a fundraiser at his mansion.
The reason why it’s the weakest scene in the screenplay goes back to Aristotle. In describing the Odyssey, Aristotle remarks that Homer chose the stories that mattered most to the overall plot. He did not tell every single story about every single hero that was known. Instead, the stories that mattered most for the Odyssey are in the Odyssey, the stories that matter the most for the Illiad are in the Illiad.
In writing an Odyssey, he did not make the poem cover all that ever befell his hero— it befell him, for instance, to get wounded on Parnassus and also to feign madness at the time of the call to arms, but the two incidents had no probable or necessary connexion with one another— instead of doing that, he took an action with a Unity of the kind we are describing as the subject of the Odyssey, as also of the Iliad. — Aristotle
Aristotle divides two types of action that can occur. Those that are probable and those that are necessary. A necessary sequence is one where Action A will always cause Response B. A probable sequence is when Action A may cause Response B or Response C, etc. The less probable a sequence of events, the more it stretches audiences’ credulous.
The problem with this scene in Batman is that it’s necessary for the plot. Harvey Dent, Rachel, and Bruce Wayne all need to be located in the same area. Bruce Wayne also needs to vet Harvey Dent to make sure he’s the right guy to hang the future hopes of Gotham on.
But storywise, everything here is a just-so happens sequence. Or there is very little relation between how probable any of these events are to what happens. It just so happens that Bruce Wayne knows that Rachel is into ballet, even though he barely knows her. She was just his childhood friend initially, and they never pursued a relationship after Batman Begins.
He just so happens to know that Rachel and Dent are going to be going to a future ballet. He just so happens to know the women who are going to be in the ballet. He just so happens to know exactly where Rachel and Dent are going to be eating and at what time.
To set this up, Batman would have to engage in some massive stalking, and Christopher Nolan didn’t want Christian Bale to reprise his role from American Psycho.
This would have been a completely different film.
He needs to set up the idea that Rachel is one of Bruce Wayne’s vulnerabilities that Joker can exploit, but he doesn’t want Batman to come off as a creepy stalker. So he sets up a scene out of nowhere to get everyone together, instead of just having Bruce Wayne call up DA Dent and meet him at a restaurant. He does hint at this later on when Dent shows up to the fundraiser and asks Alfred if Rachel has any psychotic ex-boyfriends he should know about. Alfred responds with “Sir, you have no idea.”
The next sequences aren’t important for this analysis, but the Joker kills off one of the mob bosses, tells the others that he can kill the Batman for half the money, Dent and Gordon find out that there’s a mole in the organization because the mob family already knows about the market bills they used to track the money from the bank, and the financier has fled to Hong Kong.
Batman kidnaps the financier using a plot device that will come in later, a cellphone that can ping and map out locations, Batman kidnaps the financier. Dent and Rachel flip the financier so they can charge all the criminals in Gotham under the RICO act. The mob bosses call in the Joker to help them with their Batman problem. The mayor warns Dent that charging all the criminals in Gotham has put a huge price tag on his head from every criminal and politician working with them.
One of the fake Batmen that we saw in the beginning is dead, with clown paint and a lipstick smile on his face. He has a joker card stabbed through his chest with a knife and a note Will The Real Batman Please Stand Up?
This is the Joker’s first attack on Batman’s main weakness. Batman has an identity, there’s someone behind the mask. So long as Batman has the mask, part of Joker’s speech to the criminals, he’s a symbol, not a man. Remove the mask and you can attack the man.
The next scene is the fund raiser for Harvey Dent. Bruce Wayne sees the video footage of the Joker with the dead man. The Joker says that every day that Batman doesn’t take off his mask, someone will die.
The Joker wrote the note with three pieces of DNA, the Commissioner Loeb, the judge who put away the criminals (Surrillo), and Harvey Dent.
Let’s now take a look at what the Joker is doing.
The single biggest mistake writers make when creating characters is that they think of the hero and all other characters as separate individuals. Their hero is alone, in a vacuum, unconnected to others. The result is not only a weak hero but also cardboard opponents and minor characters who are even weaker.
This great mistake is exacerbated in scriptwriting because of the huge emphasis placed on the high-concept premise. In these stories, the hero seems to be the only person who matters.
But ironically, this intense spotlight on the hero, instead of defining him more clearly, only makes him seem like a one-note marketing tool. To create great characters, think of all your characters as part of a web in which each helps define the others. To put it another way, a character is often defined by who he is not.
Truby, John (2008-10-14). The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (p. 55). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.
If you want my analysis, I call this flaw side characters matter. The Joker is fighting Batman for the heart of the city, as well as the criminal elements in the city. Each character from Marcone, Batman, Rachel, and Dent each have their own idea of what Gotham should look like. Each is trying to fulfill their goal of what the city should look like. Joker is targeting the people that will create Batman’s future for Gotham.
In my review for Delver’s LLC, I point out that the characters play off each other, while other novels already get it either partially right like Otherlife Dreams or completely wrong like Soulstone Awakening. But all of these books have a problem with their antagonist. None of them have an antagonist like the Joker who demonstrates where they are most vulnerable. Instead, the antagonists are either not in the same league as the protagonists (Delver’s, Otherlife) or introduced at the wrong time (Otherlife) or non-existent (Soulstone).
Back to The Dark Knight, the Joker kills off two of the characters, the judge and Commissioner. He goes for Harvey Dent at the Wayne Penthouse, but Batman stops him after Dent proposes to Rachel.
This sets up the next dialogue between Alfred and Wayne. Wayne looks at the Joker’s attack and says that the criminals have crossed a line. Alfred points out that Batman’s actions have squeezed the criminals into a corner, and they’re turning to someone they don’t understand to make it stop.
Wayne replies that criminals aren’t complicated. He was one in Batman Begins and says it can all be chased back to money. Alfred replies with a story about chasing a bandit that the local government was trying to bribe with rare stones. When Alfred investigated, he finally found a child playing with the rare stones. Some men, he tells Wayne, can’t be bullied, bribed, or negotiated with. They just want to watch the World burn.
This goes back to the moral conflict of Batman/Joker. Batman won’t kill anyone. But the Joker can’t be stopped except by killing him.
TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature…
Choices made when nothing is at risk mean little. If a character chooses to tell the truth in a situation where telling a lie would gain him nothing, the choice is trivial, the moment expresses nothing. But if the same character insists on telling the truth when a lie would save his life, then we sense that honesty is at the core of his nature.
McKee, Robert (2010-09-28). Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting (p. 101). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
The Joker wants to test Batman’s principle. He puts it under pressure. By raising the stakes by killing people, attacking Dent in Wayne’s home, he’s put intense pressure on Batman.
Joker kills a few more people with licenses that spell Harvey Dent, before they hold a public funeral for the slain Commissioner. We learn that he plans to go after Rachel Dawes as well.
Batman kidnaps Maroni and holds him over a rail. Maroni tells him that he’s not far enough up to die from falling from that height. Batman tells him he’s counting on that and throws Maroni off. Maroni laughs at Batman and tells him that no one is scared of him anymore, they’re scared of the Joker. The reason is everyone knows that the Batman has rules, the Joker has none.
Dent finds one of the Joker’s thugs and puts a gun to his head, flipping heads to let him live, tails to die. Batman interrupts him and tells Dent that he’s going to turn himself in and leave Gotham up to Dent. Dent is the real hero that Gotham needs. Dent tries to tell Batman that he can’t do that, but Batman leaves.
Bruce Wayne meets up with Alfred as they start burning all of his files. Alfred tells him that Batman has to keep enduring, but Wayne responds that he can’t take what the Joker is putting him through. Alfred tells Wayne, “I told you that I wouldn’t want to say I told you so when the day comes. But I did bloody well tell you so.”
Harvey holds a press conference and tries to persuade the crowd that giving up Batman is wrong, but the crowd won’t relent. This takes away one of Batman’s other weapons. Batman is based upon Gotham rallying around him. But the Joker has made the crowd turn against him.
Alfred and Rachel discuss Harvey taking the fall, and Alfred says again that the Batman symbol is greater than any one man.
Dent gets escorted into custody and reveals the coin he’s been flipping has two heads, so every scene where he flips it to make a decision is already rigged. You make your own luck. Then the Joker tries to kidnap Dent from police custody while Batman tries to stop him.
At the climax, the Joker is shooting at random vehicles in traffic and saying, “Come on, get me. Get me.” This reveals the Joker’s plan, he wants Batman to break his moral code and kill him. Batman brakes instead and slams into a wall, but Gordon arrests the Joker.
The Joker waits in his cell while Gordon finds out that Harvey Dent has been kidnapped. He asks the Joker where Harvey Dent is and the Joker asks him if he realizes how alone he is, that he can’t trust anyone. Again, the Joker’s strength is knowing where other people are vulnerable, and Commissioner Gordon’s strength is from having the city support him and the support of other officers.
Batman appears in the Joker’s cell. The Joker tells him that he and Batman are the same and that Batman completes him. Freaks. When the police and Gotham don’t need him anymore, they’ll cast Batman out. Their moral code is fake. When the chips are down, they’ll all eat each other. This is the Joker’s play for the soul of Gotham, he thinks that civilization is a facade and wants to unmask it.
Batman tells Joker he only has one rule, and the Joker tells him that’s the one rule he’s going to have to break. Batman asks him where Dent is and Joker tells him that it’s not just Dent. He’ll have to make a choice who to save, Rachel or Dent. Batman tries to beat the information out of the Joker, but that just makes him laugh. “You have nothing. All your strength, all your power. Means nothing.”
The Joker has neutralized all of Batman’s advantages and gone after his weakness, Rachel. This is the part of the story most people miss, so pay attention here.
The Joker gives him two addresses, one with Rachel and one with Dent. When Gordon asks Batman which he chooses, he says Rachel. Given a choice between saving Gotham or Rachel, Batman chooses Rachel.
But Joker already knew that Batman was going to save Rachel and puts Harvey there instead. The police go to the address that the Joker gave them for Dent, but it’s the wrong address. Both buildings get lit on fire, Dent gets his face scarred and Rachel gets blown up.
The Joker also lies about the origin of his smiley face, giving two versions. One in which he says his Dad carved him up, another in which he says that he did it to himself to make his wife happy. The point being that just like in this scene, the Joker is a liar.
Why’s that important? The next scene with Harvey in the hospital has him ask Gordon what his name in the Internal Affairs department was. Harvey “Two-Faced” Dent. The Joker goes into the room and tells Dent that it’s not his fault that Rachel died and that his face is mangled. He says it’s the fault of all the schemers out there. The Joker says that he’s not a schemer.
Most people trust the Joker on that, but the movie makes it abundantly clear that the Joker always has a plan. He’s a schemer.
His first introduction is a massive bank robbery that requires a huge amount of planning. Every step of the way he beats Batman, the Commissioner, and Dent. Even getting captured was part of his plan, as he used it as a chance to parley with Batman, had a man waiting with an explosive device in his gut while he escaped, etc.
The reason he gives the speech is his greatest threat: The Joker finds people’s weaknesses and exploits them. Dent had a huge series of plans in place, from arresting the crime bosses to marrying Rachel. Every one of his plans has been destroyed. Instead of planning, he decides to leave it to fate, opposite of what he said about creating his own luck. The Joker’s speech is designed to make Dent betray his own value system, proving the Joker right.
This analysis can skip ahead, because the next scene relevant is when Batman and the Joker fight again. The Joker reveals that this is another plot of his. “You didn’t think I’d risk losing the soul of Gotham in a fist fight with you?” The Joker already knows he’s physically inferior to the Batman, but that’s not his strength. Or his plan.
His plan is to put two boats in a Prisoner’s Dilemma situation. One is filled with regular people, the other with criminals. If one of them doesn’t blow up the other, they both die. The end is neither ship blows each other up, and the bomb never goes off. The point was to see if Batman was right or the Joker, if Gotham was corrupt or if it could be redeemed.
In the final scene, Batman becomes the Dark Knight by sacrificing Batman for Harvey Dent. He doesn’t let Harvey Dent fall so he can be the new symbol of hope for saving Gotham.
The reason why the Joker is the best enemy/antagonist for Batman is because he goes after each character’s greatest weaknesses. The problem in most movies is that the antagonist isn’t matched up to the hero.
Most stories will pit a villain who has the same strengths against a hero who has the same strengths. The Joker and Batman do not have the same strengths, but the strengths he has are the ones that hurt Batman the most.
Additionally, most villains do not really have the same goal as the protagonist. Batman and Joker are fighting over the soul of a city. They have the same goal, so they must always be in opposition to each other. “We’re destined to do this forever” is the climactic line from the Joker, which is sadly the last time we’ll see that be true for Heath Ledger.
The next blog post will look at Man of Steel and see why Zod is only a mediocre villain. The spoiler reason is that Zod and Superman have only a tangential relation to the same goal and the conflict between the two is strength vs. strength instead of greatest weakness vs. greatest strength.
This is where I’ll cover what I see as the fundamental weakness in most books I’ve reviewed up to this point.