Watch: 'The Dark Knight' and How to Craft the Ultimate Antagonist
This video essay shows how and why The Joker is the perfect antagonist.
The Joker's power doesn't come from his insane laugh or even his makeup. Lessons from the Screenplay argues that it's the story—and, more specifically, the conflict in the story—that made the 2008 film the most powerful entry in the Batman franchise. The below video essay shows how The Joker constitutes the perfect antagonist for Bruce Wayne's alter-ego, and how you can use these lessons in your own work.
A great antagonist isn't just a villain; it's the obverse of the hero.
Here are three things you can learn from the struggle of creating the perfect antagonist.
1. The hero's only opponent
As is noted in the video, "putting The Joker in a Batman movie clearly does not automatically make it great." This is true. In The Dark Knight, The Joker is so powerful because he's crafted as not just an opponent, but the only opponent who could successfully battle Batman. A great antagonist isn't just a villain; it's the obverse of the hero.
Quoting Robert McKee, who wrote that "a protagonist...can only be as intellectually fascinating and intellectually compelling as the forces of antagonism," the video argues that it doesn't matter if your opposition is a super-villain or the hero's own internal demons; the perfect antagonist for any story needs to know how to make the character reveal its true self. But how?
2. Capturing the hero's Achilles Heel
The Joker is the perfect antagonist for Batman because, more than anything, he is exceptionally good at exploiting Batman's weaknesses. Batman's strength is physical; his antagonist sets about nullifying this strength by forcing the Caped Crusader into a series of insoluble choices, such as whether to save either Rachel or Harvey. By increasing the pressure on the protagonist and multiplying the choices he must face, the perfect antagonist forces the protagonist's hand; by forcing a choice, the protagonist reveals their character.
The Joker is a mirror that shows Batman his worst self; he doesn't let Batman smash the glass, but instead makes him watch his increasingly powerless reflection.
To make matters worse, at their lowest point, the protagonist of any story will realize that almost all of their choices are the result of the antagonist's will. (The video, in fact, notes the similarity between The Joker and Se7en's Jon Doe.) Every good protagonist needs the ability to effect change, and when it's denied them, they lose. And this is as true of the quietest literary short story as it is of an action thriller or superhero film.
3. Opposites competing for the same goal
Lessons from the Script notes that "Batman and the Joker aren't competing for the soul of humanity. They're competing for the soul of Gotham City." This is crucial in two ways: first, it means that "a specific and measured crisis can be just as compelling as a world-ending event." Here, it's the soul, not just of the city, but of the protagonist, that are in danger; the ferry boat's passengers are in peril, but the fate of the earth is not, an oddity in a superhero film.
But that's not the point, as far as The Joker is concerned. What is important is that he knows Batman's moral code forbids him from killing, and, therefore, he sets about making Batman need to kill him—to do the one thing the Batman cannot do. When Batman doesn't, the Joker begins randomly killing citizens, which is a consequence of the protagonist's choice (a choice forced by the antagonist, and one which moves the story forward). Gotham turns on Batman, who is forced to reveal himself (to the city, in the proxy of Dent, who soon turns on him over the death of Rachel Dawes); he also reveals himself to himself, facing his weaknesses.
Bruce Wayne/Batman wants law and order for the city, while The Joker just "wants to watch the world burn." When these two opposites come into conflict, character is revealed, and limitations are discovered. The video essay concludes with the excellent point that, without The Joker, Batman would not even have been able to become "The Dark Knight" that he is at the film's end. The Joker is a mirror that shows Batman his worst self; he doesn't let Batman smash the glass (as he would usually do, utilizing his strength), but instead makes him watch his increasingly powerless reflection. Why? In this case, it's as simple as The Joker's belief that he and Batman "are destined to do this forever."
What is it that motivates your antagonist, and what is it that they make your protagonist reveal? Find the answer to that and the other questions raised by this essay, and your story can't lose.