Why is the Joker more interesting than Batman?

Or why is Milton’s Satan more interesting as a character than his God? Or why is Dante’s Inferno more entertaining than his Paradiso? Why, in general, are villains more compelling in literature, while the good guys tend to seem stereotyped and bland? (Though, as C. S. Lewis points out, the opposite is the case in real life, with bad people tending to be monotonous and uninteresting in their self-possessed solipsism, while good people tend to be varied and enjoyable to be around.) The answer to these questions tells us much about the human condition.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Brother Laurence

    Add Darth Vader to your list.
    As a kid, I remember seeing him walk onto the big screen through that smoke and thinking he was really, really cool. My mom was horrified. She said something like “That’s like thinking Satan is cool.”

  • Brother Laurence

    Add Darth Vader to your list.
    As a kid, I remember seeing him walk onto the big screen through that smoke and thinking he was really, really cool. My mom was horrified. She said something like “That’s like thinking Satan is cool.”

  • Brother Laurence

    The current interest in the joker, though, probably has more to do with the actor’s demise than anything else.

  • Brother Laurence

    The current interest in the joker, though, probably has more to do with the actor’s demise than anything else.

  • Gulliver

    In literature, tension is one chief factor in creating interest. Satan, evil (Dr. No), and sin create such tensions which can be used as a foil. Evil has inherent tension, good is often described as it relates against evil.
    My problem with other Batman movies is that he is not only fighting the Jocker, he is fighting his own dark side (demons), which is why past movies are so “dark.” Maybe some people prefer this to some of the stupid Superman movies.

  • Gulliver

    In literature, tension is one chief factor in creating interest. Satan, evil (Dr. No), and sin create such tensions which can be used as a foil. Evil has inherent tension, good is often described as it relates against evil.
    My problem with other Batman movies is that he is not only fighting the Jocker, he is fighting his own dark side (demons), which is why past movies are so “dark.” Maybe some people prefer this to some of the stupid Superman movies.

  • http://jdueck.net Joel Dueck

    shooting from the hip here…I think that in our imaginations we tend to fuse our villains with the best parts of our nature as well as the worst. We give our villains free rein to their creativity, boldness, exaltation, total zeal, self-control and single-mindedness. These are the fruits of a life devoted to higher things than oneself, and we instinctively know that they are a source of power – and a truely great villain must of course exemplify power.

    So when we hypothesize (fantasize?) about ultimate evil, we unwittingly allow that evil the use of the fruits of ultimate good and self-sacrifice as well. Which makes for a more full and interesting character than the “simply good,” but is almost never encountered in real life.

    As a sidenote, I can think of only one “real life villain” – Hitler – who seems to match this literary ideal of a truly evil person.

    In real life, criminal personalities are shrunken by secret shame, inner conflict and a forfeiture of any substance beyond immediate self-interest.

  • http://jdueck.net Joel Dueck

    shooting from the hip here…I think that in our imaginations we tend to fuse our villains with the best parts of our nature as well as the worst. We give our villains free rein to their creativity, boldness, exaltation, total zeal, self-control and single-mindedness. These are the fruits of a life devoted to higher things than oneself, and we instinctively know that they are a source of power – and a truely great villain must of course exemplify power.

    So when we hypothesize (fantasize?) about ultimate evil, we unwittingly allow that evil the use of the fruits of ultimate good and self-sacrifice as well. Which makes for a more full and interesting character than the “simply good,” but is almost never encountered in real life.

    As a sidenote, I can think of only one “real life villain” – Hitler – who seems to match this literary ideal of a truly evil person.

    In real life, criminal personalities are shrunken by secret shame, inner conflict and a forfeiture of any substance beyond immediate self-interest.

  • http://puttingoutthefire.blogspot.com Frank Gillespie

    The Batman represents a very ordered mind albeit twisted in it’s own right. The Joker is the Batman’s opposite who represents total anarchy that no mind, sane or otherwise, can figure out. Right there is the beginning of the answer to your question.

    The Joker might be considered more interesting because he defines who the Batman has become. Just as with Superman and all other heroes in the comic book medium, it is the archenemy who defines the hero and thereby becomes more interesting.

  • http://puttingoutthefire.blogspot.com Frank Gillespie

    The Batman represents a very ordered mind albeit twisted in it’s own right. The Joker is the Batman’s opposite who represents total anarchy that no mind, sane or otherwise, can figure out. Right there is the beginning of the answer to your question.

    The Joker might be considered more interesting because he defines who the Batman has become. Just as with Superman and all other heroes in the comic book medium, it is the archenemy who defines the hero and thereby becomes more interesting.

  • ssmith

    What #5 said – Frank Gillespie said it better than I could so I’ll just leave it at that. I think this idea of “the archenemy defining the hero” is captured really well in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable”. And I am looking forward to seeing “Dark Knight” (though I have to admit having a more wicked delight in the forthcoming X-Files movie). In comparison to the 1989 Keaton/Nicholson Batman, I think the Bales version looks far more interesting than the stylized Tim Burton flick.

  • ssmith

    What #5 said – Frank Gillespie said it better than I could so I’ll just leave it at that. I think this idea of “the archenemy defining the hero” is captured really well in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable”. And I am looking forward to seeing “Dark Knight” (though I have to admit having a more wicked delight in the forthcoming X-Files movie). In comparison to the 1989 Keaton/Nicholson Batman, I think the Bales version looks far more interesting than the stylized Tim Burton flick.

  • jlarson

    One answer could be that people connect with those like themselves more than with those with no flaws. No one is interested in a perfect character doing perfect things–in fact, conflict is what drives a story. (“Johnny went to school and was really good and then came home and obeyed his parents” is a really boring story if there’s nothing to overcome.) But as always, I’d rather hear your answer, Dr. Veith. You left us hanging.

  • jlarson

    One answer could be that people connect with those like themselves more than with those with no flaws. No one is interested in a perfect character doing perfect things–in fact, conflict is what drives a story. (“Johnny went to school and was really good and then came home and obeyed his parents” is a really boring story if there’s nothing to overcome.) But as always, I’d rather hear your answer, Dr. Veith. You left us hanging.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I’ve always thought that one reason for this phenomenon is that evil characters are simply easier to write than good ones. We all know much about the most depraved depths of evil, at least in our secret hearts. Few of us have experienced the heights of virtue.

    Currently I’m reading Andrew Klavan’s newest thriller, EMPIRE OF LIES. A lot of Christians won’t like this book, because the narrator/hero, a confessed Christian, tells us what he’s really thinking and saying all the time, unfiltered and uncensored. It’s riveting writing, but very, very troubling.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I’ve always thought that one reason for this phenomenon is that evil characters are simply easier to write than good ones. We all know much about the most depraved depths of evil, at least in our secret hearts. Few of us have experienced the heights of virtue.

    Currently I’m reading Andrew Klavan’s newest thriller, EMPIRE OF LIES. A lot of Christians won’t like this book, because the narrator/hero, a confessed Christian, tells us what he’s really thinking and saying all the time, unfiltered and uncensored. It’s riveting writing, but very, very troubling.

  • http://www.oldsolar.com/currentblog.php Rick Ritchie

    In Tim Burton’s Batman, I didn’t find the Joker more interesting than Batman. I agree with Lewis. The evil of villains is dull. But it is often a spectacle.

    Good characters are often dull, as said above, because writers don’t know how to write about their conflicts well. It requires good observation to know what kinds of conflicts could exist. I like Jean Valjean’s conflict of being able to continue being mayor and raising Cosette, or turning himself in to clear someone from a false charge which will get that person executed. That was a convincing dilemma. (Though otherwise, Jean Valjean was often a bit dull!) The good is interesting when it is heroic.

  • http://www.oldsolar.com/currentblog.php Rick Ritchie

    In Tim Burton’s Batman, I didn’t find the Joker more interesting than Batman. I agree with Lewis. The evil of villains is dull. But it is often a spectacle.

    Good characters are often dull, as said above, because writers don’t know how to write about their conflicts well. It requires good observation to know what kinds of conflicts could exist. I like Jean Valjean’s conflict of being able to continue being mayor and raising Cosette, or turning himself in to clear someone from a false charge which will get that person executed. That was a convincing dilemma. (Though otherwise, Jean Valjean was often a bit dull!) The good is interesting when it is heroic.

  • The Jones

    ****SPOILER ALERT****
    The only people who should read this are those who have seen the movie. Basically, I’m talking about the major stuff that gets revealed at the end and which gives away the whole story. So, reader beware.
    ****SPOILER ALERT****

    Okay, I just watched The Dark Knight for the second time, and I think I have a reason why the joker is so interesting in this one. He’s a schemer. But more importantly, he’s the CORRUPTER. At one point, the Joker asks, “Do I look like a guy with a plan?” He asks it as a rhetorical question, but he definitely does have a plan and a purpose. The Joker’s purpose, as Michael Caine’s Alfred puts it, is to watch the world burn. He wants buildings to blow up and people to eat each other. He loves it. He wants to watch the chaos and feed his sadism. He destroys everything people have built and tears down the best of the world. The character who represents the best of the world is Harvey Dent.

    Harvey Dent becomes the second villain of the movie, and he is the corrupted. He was once good, but brought down by his anger, pain, and the ever present push of the Corrupter, he becomes an agent of malice, violence, and chaos. The corruption of Harvey Dent is a big deal in this movie. The two faces show the shining knight on the one hand and the evil wretch of revenge, anger, and violence on the other. As the DA cleaning up the streets, the fall of Harvey Dent means the end of the newfound order and justice in Gotham. The corruption of Dent represents the corruption of all people.

    And this is the fix we’re in, both in the movie and in life. The corrupter has come, and despite humanity’s best efforts, the game is spoiled, and sin has destroyed the best of everything. Like Dent’s case in Gotham and like humankind’s case on earth, redemption from our predicament is not possible with the guilt that has become so very apparent. What do we need? We need someone to take on our guilt and pay the price for all the wrongdoing that has been done. That’s what Batman does at the end of the movie with Harvey’s crimes. Batman can take that kind of hit, because hey, he’s Batman! He’s the only guy for the job. Not the one Gotham deserves, but the one Gotham needs. Only through him can justice and peace reign in the city.

    All good stories have a tie to the gospel. If you look hard enough, you can even find it in The Dark Knight. Oh, and back to the original question: Why is the Joker so interesting? He is just the focal point of the whole story. He’s the foil to Batman. By being his opposite, he shows who Batman really is. So I guess it’s unfair: he gets the biggest explosions and he hold the character development of both himself and Batman. No wonder he’s interesting.

  • The Jones

    ****SPOILER ALERT****
    The only people who should read this are those who have seen the movie. Basically, I’m talking about the major stuff that gets revealed at the end and which gives away the whole story. So, reader beware.
    ****SPOILER ALERT****

    Okay, I just watched The Dark Knight for the second time, and I think I have a reason why the joker is so interesting in this one. He’s a schemer. But more importantly, he’s the CORRUPTER. At one point, the Joker asks, “Do I look like a guy with a plan?” He asks it as a rhetorical question, but he definitely does have a plan and a purpose. The Joker’s purpose, as Michael Caine’s Alfred puts it, is to watch the world burn. He wants buildings to blow up and people to eat each other. He loves it. He wants to watch the chaos and feed his sadism. He destroys everything people have built and tears down the best of the world. The character who represents the best of the world is Harvey Dent.

    Harvey Dent becomes the second villain of the movie, and he is the corrupted. He was once good, but brought down by his anger, pain, and the ever present push of the Corrupter, he becomes an agent of malice, violence, and chaos. The corruption of Harvey Dent is a big deal in this movie. The two faces show the shining knight on the one hand and the evil wretch of revenge, anger, and violence on the other. As the DA cleaning up the streets, the fall of Harvey Dent means the end of the newfound order and justice in Gotham. The corruption of Dent represents the corruption of all people.

    And this is the fix we’re in, both in the movie and in life. The corrupter has come, and despite humanity’s best efforts, the game is spoiled, and sin has destroyed the best of everything. Like Dent’s case in Gotham and like humankind’s case on earth, redemption from our predicament is not possible with the guilt that has become so very apparent. What do we need? We need someone to take on our guilt and pay the price for all the wrongdoing that has been done. That’s what Batman does at the end of the movie with Harvey’s crimes. Batman can take that kind of hit, because hey, he’s Batman! He’s the only guy for the job. Not the one Gotham deserves, but the one Gotham needs. Only through him can justice and peace reign in the city.

    All good stories have a tie to the gospel. If you look hard enough, you can even find it in The Dark Knight. Oh, and back to the original question: Why is the Joker so interesting? He is just the focal point of the whole story. He’s the foil to Batman. By being his opposite, he shows who Batman really is. So I guess it’s unfair: he gets the biggest explosions and he hold the character development of both himself and Batman. No wonder he’s interesting.

  • CRB

    The Jones,
    Just saw it yesterday and I think you’re “right on!” Thanks for the “tie in to the gospel.” May I have your permission to pass your insights on to friends who have seen the movie? Thanks!

  • CRB

    The Jones,
    Just saw it yesterday and I think you’re “right on!” Thanks for the “tie in to the gospel.” May I have your permission to pass your insights on to friends who have seen the movie? Thanks!


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