A few months ago, I wrote a post examining the mythology of Batman and his relationship to the villains he faces. Through the duality of Batman and his villains, we are able to clearly see the noble, heroic virtues of Batman twisted and taken to the extreme. I examined all of the villains portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy in that post. This last month, writer Scott Snyder wrapped up his Batman/Joker story, “Death of the Family,” in the pages of the current Batman comic book (issues #13-17). This story was one of the best examinations of the relationship between the Joker and Batman ever and evolved their rivalry into unknown and exciting territory. With this redefinition, I’d like to focus directly on the Joker/Batman relationship and examine identity through the lens of that relationship. Obviously, if you haven’t read “Death of the Family,” spoiler alert.
The Joker has a long and storied relationship with Batman. The earliest portrayals of the Joker were fairly straight forward–a homicidal maniac who had no personal connection to Batman. That relationship becomes much more personal when the Joker paralyzes Barbara Gordon–Batgirl–and kills Jason Todd–the second Robin. From then on, their relationship has grown more and more personal but still within the framework of chaos vs. order. In this most recent Batman/Joker story, their relationship is examined at it’s most personal and intelligent level.
In “Death of the Family,” the Joker uses the members of the Bat-family (Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl) as pawns in his plans. During the climax of the story, the Joker makes a claim about Batman’s identity that changes everything we knew about their relationship. The Joker believes that Batman’s identity is found through his conflict with the Joker, that Batman loves the Joker more than anyone else. Batman will do anything to continue their conflict, even if it means putting those he cares about at risk. Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger nail it in The Dark Knight when the Joker says to Batman, “You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”
There is a flashback scene in issue #17 where Bruce Wayne is shown visiting the Joker in Arkham Asylum. He wants to know for certain whether or not the Joker knew Batman’s alter ego. When he confronts him, The Joker couldn’t care less about Bruce Wayne. The only identity that mattered to the Joker was the Batman. His conflict was with him alone. He couldn’t care less about Batman’s alter ego because the Joker derived his own identity from their conflict as well.
To a certain extent, the Joker has seen the truth, but that insight cuts both ways. As Batman holds the Joker over a cliff edge he makes a claim of his own. Batman believes he has deduced the secret identity of the Joker. Whether or not Batman has actually knows who the Joker is doesn’t really matter. We don’t find out either way though it is hinted that Batman was playing a bluff. What is most interesting about this revelation is the way the Joker reacts to it. He is unable to cope with the knowledge of his previous identity. He is completely consumed by his identity as the Joker he has completely forgotten his previous life. Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger use this tension to enhance the Joker character in The Dark Knight. That version of the Joker uses his origin to enrich his chaotic identity, “You wanna know how I got these scars…”
This sort of examination of identity brings up a number of thoughts about our own lives. How do we identify ourselves? In “Death of the Family,” the Joker literally wears his own face as a mask (it had been cut off recently). The identity he was presenting to the world was the Joker but when confronted with a different identity, his original identity, he cannot cope with that sort of tension. How do we let others create identities for us? For everything that Batman stands for, he was drawn into the conflict with the Joker and let it become a defining aspect of his identity. The story ends with Batman telling Alfred, “I truly believe that if I did it, if I killed Joker, Gotham would just send me someone worse. Maybe even send him back, but worse than before.” That is where writer Scott Snyder succeeds, he deepens the relationship between Batman and the Joker while showing us the perils of allowing others to define who we are.