Archive for July, 2008

The face of evil

July 19, 2008


In The Dark Knight, the Joker gives two explanations for how he got his scars:

(1) When he was a child, after his extremely abusive father brutalized his mother, he turned to the boy, said, “Why so serious?” and then cut his cheeks into a permanently disfigured grin.

(2) His wife’s face was disfigured in an accident, and in an act of twisted solidarity, he cut his face with a knife so it would match hers. But after he did, she couldn’t bear to look at him.

Instinctively, we want one (if not both) of these stories to be true. We want to understand and quantify what it is that makes him so terrifying.

But why? Why do we want our monsters to have a backstory?

Is it just our fascination with tragedy? Our desire to be able to explain everything we see, no matter how gruesome (or beautiful, for that matter) it is? I think the second question points to the answer, though the truth is simpler than that.

We want monsters to come equipped with motives and explanations, with particularities of suffering and perceived injustice packed into their characters, because it enables us to have distance from them. It gives us something to point at and say, “That’s not me, thank God!”

This is why I imagine some will react to Harvey Dent’s transformation into Two-Face in a way that is stronger and more immediate: The man he thought was his closest ally steals the woman he loves by allowing to die, and his reaction is a relentless desire for revenge. It’s a very human scenario, one that, unfortunately, many viewers will easily relate to.

But what about the Joker? How do we compartmentalize someone who simply wants to watch the world burn? Who chases after destruction because everything else is too boring to hold his attention? When his real motives and experiences could be anything, that means they could be the same as mine, or yours, or all of ours. That is what makes him so terrifying; we don’t get a concrete explanation, a fatal flaw, to set up as a fence between his horror and our lives, or to count off the distance from one to the other.

Like the Joker’s wife, we don’t want to look into his face and see a reflection of our own staring back.