There are characters in literature who wish to wash away the sins of the world through a
baptism of fire, and then there are the villains who want to watch the world burn, for the
simple reason that they can. But what motivates the Joker to wreak havoc on Gotham City? It isn’t riches, or fame, or even the cat-and-mouse chase with Batman, though I suspect this is part of it. Thinking of the Joker in literature, between petty crimes and murder, there seems to be no line he is unwilling to cross in his pursuit of anarchy. Not much else is different on the silver screen, whether it’s the now iconic Heath Ledger portrayal of the unhinged maniac complete with war paint, or Jared Leto’s questionable glam gangster. Ledger’s portrayal in particular, seems to draw heavily from the anarchistic origins of the Joker, as explored in, The Killing Joke. While John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, may have created the idea of the anarchist rebelling against the regime, characters like the Joker, Tyler Durden, and V have perfected it.
Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel, Fight Club introduces us to the equally charismatic
and unhinged, Tyler Durden, an anti-consumerist who seeks to reset the world through his
master plan: Project Mayhem. But what does Tyler Durden hope to gain by demolishing
empty buildings so spectacularly? What could drive a character to walk such a reckless path
of destruction? Is it, like the Joker, the chaos which Tyler relishes? Well, yes and no. The
anarchist seeks to completely destroy the world so a better one can be born from its ashes.
Like the Joker, Tyler is okay with the world burning if it means consumerist America can die
and his new world can take its rightful place.
The anarchist in literature strives for freedom above all else, evidenced by their complete
rejection of government and societal norms. In Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother reigns supreme
over the citizens of a dystopian England. Bombarding them with propaganda, training
citizen’s children to spy on them, and even outfitting each television set with a camera,
through which they can guarantee twenty-four-hour surveillance. Big Brother has remade the world entirely in his own image, and anything that doesn’t conform with this image must be destroyed.
Alan Moore’s 1982 comic book, V for Vendetta depicts an England similarly oppressed by an
all-powerful party, Norsefire. However, unlike 1984, the England of V for Vendetta gives rise to the enigmatic ‘V’, a masked anarchist determined to bring down the regime. V is an interesting case in that, it is left up to the audience whether he is ultimately a hero fighting to bring down a corrupt government, or, like the Joker, simply a madman bent on causing
havoc. Moore’s complex portrait of the anarchist in literature, through his creation of V, has sparked a revolution in and of itself. An antithesis to the Joker, V’s ends justify his means in
creating a better world through blowing up parliament. In contrast to the traditional view of
the anarchist as a society destroyer, V’s use of anarchy ironically makes him the saviour of
But then we are brought back to the age-old question: What is it that makes these characters so appealing? One could argue that the villain is purposely designed to be detestable in their actions, but it is the motives behind these actions that make them relatable characters. Just as the audience must connect on some level with the protagonist, they must also feel some sort of resonance with the antagonist, in order for the narrative to succeed. Thus, the audience needs to connect with both hero and villain for the dynamic between the two to be complete.
Villains bring a certain quality to the page that heroes just don’t possess. Maybe it’s their flair for the dramatic or the high stakes they bring to a story. A villain may want to watch the world burn, but you can bet that the reader, caught up in their dark charisma, will be watching alongside them just as enthusiastically.