NEAL CONAN, host:
This weekend, hundred of thousands of people flocked to the movies to see the latest Batman epic, "The Dark Knight." All told they spent more than 150 million dollars domestically on tickets and that is a record, the biggest three-day take in history. In the movie, Batman, played by Christian Bale, battles the Joker, played by Heath Ledger, the Australian actor who died just a few months ago of a drug overdose. Critics heap praise on his performance as the green-haired, white-faced villain who steals every scene he's in.
But whether it's Cesar Romero from the old TV show or Jack Nicholson from another movie several years back, Washington Post writer Hank Stuever notes that the Joker seems to be more interesting than the Dark Knight himself. Writers and artists and filmmakers and actors, Stuever writes, adore the Joker because the narrative dynamic is so arresting as a pure visual.
The guy in the black leather getup who lurks around parapets at night is the good one and the clown is the bad one?
So what, if anything, do you find appealing about the Joker in general, this Joker in particular? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Hank Stuever of the Washington Post is with us here in the studio today. Nice having you with us on the program.
Mr. HANK STUEVER (Staff Writer, Washington Post): Good afternoon.
CONAN: And you also take us through a history of the Joker and find that it does not originate with the Batman saga.
Mr. STUEVER: No. I guess it doesn't. Comic book lore has Bob Cain and the people he was working with in 1940 on an early Batman adventure. They wanted to have a killer on the loose in Gotham and their inspiration when they started to draw him, they wanted a scary clown, which was kind of vanguard back then. Clowns weren't scary. But there's all sorts of scary clowns now and people are really afraid of clowns and they'll sit on the couch and tell you about it for hours, about how afraid they are of everyday clowns.
But they picked - they were fascinated by a movie, a silent movie from 1928 called "The Man Who Laughs," starring an actor named Conrad Veidt, and...
CONAN: You will have seen him as a Nazi in a thousand movies.
Mr. STUEVER: Right. In this one, he plays an unfortunate sort of "Phantom of the Opera" type who is hideous and hides from people because he has a smile permanently plastered on his face. And to see pictures of him, it's actually quite scary. You can go online and just Google him and get pictures of "The Man Who Laughs." And when you look at the first Joker adventure in the old "Batman" comics, he looks exactly like Conrad Veidt. And he was disturbing and they really thought he was too disturbing and they'd kill him off.
And as legend has it, they redrew the last panel of that issue to show him possibly escaping so that maybe the Joker would return. He has been returning for 68 years and it's evolved into this really psychotic relationship that Batman and the Joker have.
CONAN: You know that he's been killed off a few times, but then again, so has Batman, so...
Mr. STUEVER: Everyone in comic books has been killed off. I always tell people, don't get too drawn in by the hype of so and so is dying, Captain America is dying, Superman is dead, and all the villains. They always come back.
CONAN: The character, though, that original character was terrifying because his purpose was not to pull a bank job, not to pull a heist. His purpose was anarchy. His purpose was terror.
Mr. STUEVER: Right. Because he - he - you know, every permutation of Batman is full of villains' soliloquies in which they sort of describe their grand scheme, the thing they're working toward. And Joker just has pretty much always said, you know, he does like to rob banks and he robs a bank quite spectacularly at the beginning of this new Batman movie. But he has always just preferred to state his case as pure and simple anarchy.
CONAN: And you also note that in the sequence of creators of Batman that we got to the point where Frank Miller, who's the author of this particular scenario, I guess, really has come to understand the relationship between the Joker and Batman in that they're both wacko.
Mr. STUEVER: Right. Right, like to understand the relationship most completely. And when Batman and Joker have had some conversations in graphic novels about their co-dependence, they both acknowledge that the relationship is messed up.
CONAN: And they're both freaks.
Mr. STUEVER: They're both freaks, yes. Batman is a vigilante freak. Joker is far more appropriate to our times, I think, just by - simply by being an evildoer, a terrorist.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on this conversation now.
Mr. STUEVER: Absolutely.
CONAN: What fascinates you about the Joker, or not, maybe?
Mr. STUEVER: Well, what fascinates me about the Joker, real quickly, is that, you know, I grew up watching "Batman" reruns from the TV show, and it was like ha-ha-ha, Batman, hu-hu-hu, Batman. And it was just sort of this goony, Carnaby Street clown and then, you know, over time, in my lifetime, as I grew up and continued to keep an eye on what was going on in comic books, it seemed like our world needed him to get more and more scary, more and more psychotic, until you get to this movie in which he's unbelievably psychotic and the character is reduced and whittled down to just being terrifying in a way that Cesar Romero never would have dreamed of.
CONAN: And Jack definitely didn't get to, I mean...
Mr. STUEVER: No, even Jack Nicholson treated it as a (unintelligible)
CONAN: It was, where do you get those marvelous toys? I mean, it was... Anyway.
Mr. STUEVER: Yeah, yeah.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in, 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. We're talking with Hank Stuever of the Washington Post. Let's start with Chris, Chris with us from Athens, Ohio.
CHRIS (Caller): Yes, hi.
CONAN: Go ahead, Chris.
CHRIS: So you're talking about the Joker, and the reason I really like the Joker is that he's just a character that changes over time and so different writers can use him in such a way that they can just drape new ideas over the character. Like, I guess - Hank, is the gentleman's name?
Mr. STUEVER: Yeah.
CHRIS: Was saying, the characters change quite a bit. One thing that I'd recommend reading is "Arkham Asylum" by the writer, Grant Morrison, and he puts forward the idea that the Joker is just more evolved than other people. He is more mentally capable of dealing with the sort of chaos that is being created in modern society and so he's actually just ahead of us.
CONAN: Arkham Asylum, by the way, is located in Gotham and it's where the arch-villains are kept under the care of Scarecrow, also an arch-villain. But go ahead.
STUEVER: Right, right. Arkham Asylum is a great Gothic mental hospital on the edge of town. The Arkham Asylum graphic novel was really, you know, it came out in the late '80s and it really was terrifying. It was one of those comic books that you didn't really want to sleep in the same room with. It was painted. It wasn't drawn in a traditional comic book fashion and the Joker in it is really terrifying. And it was all leading, I think, to this point, to when you put the Joker on the big screen now, he really has to be - you know, this is a world that has seem Hannibal Lecter and any number of serial killers every night on "CSI," you know. It just takes more to take us to that horrible place.
CONAN: Chris, thanks very much for the call.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go now to Zach(ph), and Zach with us from Provo, Utah.
ZACH (Caller): Hi.
ZACH: The reason why I think this Joker, especially in this film, in Heath Ledger's performance is so interesting is because I think he embodies this sort of recognition that the philosophers, I think, have grappled with for a long time, that what do you define morality and goodness as, you know, and is it just a socially constructed thing that falls apart once society falls apart?
You know, I think he embodies, especially now with terrorism and then our government trying to be good but we're doing all these things that we see as wrong, you know, there's a lot of questions about what's moral, what's good, what's the cost? And I think he embodies that sense of - you know, he's not interested in winning, either. He doesn't care. He doesn't want to win. He just wants to disrupt.
CONAN: And observe. He likes to watch.
Mr. STUEVER: He likes to see what people do when they're pressed to the limits. And one terrific thing about this film without spoiling it is, you know, there's a wonderful scene where everybody has to - Joker wants to put everybody in a situation where they have to make a terrible decision.
CONAN: Zach, your terrible decision was apparently to call us.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ZACH: I just think - there's a Nora Smith character called Defender's Wolf(ph), they just sort of - it's like endrophy(ph), it just eats everything and destroys everything, and this character reminds me of that. It actually also reminds me of Cormac McCartney's writing in "No Country For Old Men."
Mr. STUEVER: Oh, yeah.
ZACH: That same - it's the same as Anton Chigurh, it's how humans trying to exist in the world and trying to be good and survive, deal with unbelievable chaos.
CONAN: I see that part, but this - those were sort of elemental characters and the Joker is - well, he is not so much elemental as carried away with himself and with his strange mission in life.
Mr. STUEVER: Well, and his strangeness. And one thing that everyone who's done either a graphic novel or a movie about the Joker in the last 20 years has picked up on is the Joker loves the media and he is a media creation. And you know, one thing I like about this new Batman movie is that they sort of dispensed with the origin story of the Joker, which always involved him falling in a vat of chemicals or being permanently altered. This guy just wears make up, you know, and that's almost more twisted than having a reason why you are white and your hair is green and your smile is plastered on your face.
CONAN: It's not a revenge.
Mr. STUEVER: He's just - you know, again, he's just messed up and he craves media attention at the same time, which just makes him perfect.
CONAN: Perfect for an actor, too. Anyway, Zach, thank you very much.
ZACH: You're welcome.
CONAN: Let's go to Doug. Doug is calling us from Dayton in Ohio.
DOUG (Caller): Hi, how are you guys doing?
CONAN: All right.
DOUG: Great. I wanted to talk real quick about Alan Moore's "The Killing Joke," which I think is my favorite portrayal of the Joker if for no other reason than even though the Joker admits that the back story presented in that comic may or may not be true, it presents us with sort of a simultaneously sympathetic and extremely terrifying character. And that is very rarely done with the Joker, I think.
Mr. STUEVER: I love "The Killing Joke," too, and in my piece in the Post which ran a week ago, I opened with the scene where Batman thinks he's talking to the Joker and says, where is this all going, what is it between you and me, I think we're going to kill each other one day and I'm here to try to avoid that. And the funny part about that is that he discovers that it's a Joker impostor in the cell and that the Joker is actually out in the world.
And you know, "The Killing Joke" is great because the Joker winds up, you know, getting the you-know-what kicked out of him by Batman and he seems to love it. There's this whole sadomasochistic element to Batman and the Joker. Hit the Joker, he loves it. He loves being beat up by Batman.
CONAN: And Batman loves to do it.
Mr. STUEVER: Oh, of course.
CONAN: Doug, thanks very much for the caller. Alan Moore, by the way, the author of among many other things, of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and many other wonderful comics.
Mr. STUEVER: Yes.
CONAN: You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let me reintroduce our guest is Hank Stuever, he is staff writer of the Washington Post. We're talking about his piece, "The Joker's Onto Us." What does it all mean when Batman's enemy is more interesting than the Dark Knight himself? And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Erica, Erica with us from Phoenix, Arizona.
ERICA (Caller): Hi.
ERICA: I just wanted to say that this Joker, in particular, was my favorite because he truly, truly represented the wild card. Every time someone thought they had the better hand or the upper hand and it was all over, he would just blow them away in this one.
Mr. STUEVER: I agree. I agree. The movies where the Joker is concerned - and let me give the caveat, you know, the magic fairy has not come down from the sky and anointed me ever a film critic.
(Soundbite of laughter)
But I did see the movie a couple of weeks in advance and I came away kind of worried about the movie's plot but totally over the top in love with Heath Ledger's performance as this Joker, and also the way that Joker is written. It gets to everything you're talking about.
ERICA: Definitely. Definitely he will be missed and it's sad to say that he won't be coming back as the Joker, regardless of what the plot had in mind for him.
Mr. STUEVER: Yep.
CONAN: Erica, let me ask you and Hank, as well, since we know that Heath Ledger is not coming back to play anybody, does that not add a certain resonance to his performance as the Joker?
Mr. STUEVER: Oh, I think so. I think it's a Jim Morrison kind of quality that, you know, you sell more of records or tickets or whatever because people are drawn into - in a very macabre way but also in a very respectful way, this idea that a creepy thing is made more unsettling by the end of Heath Ledger.
CONAN: And Erica, how did it play into your ways you watched the movie?
ERICA: Well, I'm a big fan of Heath Ledger's movies and this was definitely a defining moment in his career, although this is a different character from anything he's ever done before. So he will be missed.
Mr. STUEVER: Yeah.
CONAN: Thank you. Appreciate the phone call. Let's see if we can go now to - this is Tony. Tony is with us from Anchorage in Alaska.
TONY (Caller): Hi.
Mr. STUEVER: Hello.
TONY: Hi. First, I want to say I absolutely loved this film. I've seen it three times since it came out.
TONY: So I've gone once a day.
CONAN: You haven't done much else.
TONY: I haven't done much else, no. I want to bring up two kind of antithetical points between Batman and the Joker, the first being that they are both free for very different reasons. Bruce Wayne is free because he has everything. He's a multi-billionaire and he has the resources to take off as much time as he wants and he can have any equipment he needs, et cetera. The Joker is free because he has nothing and he has absolutely nothing to lose. There's no loved ones, he has no house, no property, what are you going to take from him?
There's a wonderful scene in the film where Batman is trying to interrogate the Joker and the Joker would love for Batman to just kill him because that would prove that Batman was not infallible. So I really like that antithesis.
And the other was between Batman and Joker again. Batman lives his life, especially in this most recent series of Batman movies we've seen, according to a very strict moral code and rules and ethics and the way things should be done. And Joker, by comparison, has absolutely no rules and will break a rule simply for the sake of demonstrating that it doesn't really exist. So I think those two elements really help to give the Batman and Joker a really dynamic field of play.
CONAN: I would only quibble with one thing, Tony, and that's the Joker having nothing to lose. He is so often, in all of these stories, going back to the Bob Cain days, so frustrated when he is captured and held, usually in Arkham Asylum, and that is intolerable to him and that is what he is at risk. That's what he puts at risk.
Mr. STUEVER: Yeah. I agree that what's alluring in this movie is that the Joker has a lot less to lose. And that's again by getting rid of so much - this new Batman series gets rid of so much of the folderal(ph) that got us to this point. I mean, you know, the Joker used to show up in green and purple helicopters and I mean - so he obviously had a job or some resources.
CONAN: An ATM card.
Mr. STUEVER: Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Tony, thanks very much for the call.
TONY: Thank you.
CONAN: And what does it say, finally, Hank Stuever, about this franchise, which has died and been revived any number of times, and in its darkest, I think it's fair to say, maybe except for that cartoon version, the darkest version yet seems to be doing so extraordinarily well?
Mr. STUEVER: The consumer has spoken. And when - and you know, you think that there's not a whole lot of people out there thinking about what the next Batman movie should be from a consumer perspective, but if you look at the fact that 150,000 people are going to Comic-Con this week, there are a lot of people out there thinking about Batman movies. And the darker they get, the better. That's how the readers like him. That's how the readers like this whole story and obviously they keep adding to it.
CONAN: Hank Stuever, thanks very much for your time. Appreciate it.
Mr. STUEVER: Thank you.
CONAN: Hank Stuever is staff writer for the Washington Post and we were talking about - what else is everybody talking about? The Joker and Batman. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.