"I Think You and I Are Destined to Do This Forever: A Reading of the Batman/Joker Comic and Film Tradition through the Combat Myth
Nichols, Michael, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture
Immensely popular since its inception more than seventy years ago, the character of Batman is an enduring American cultural icon. Comics featuring the figure have been constant bestsellers, while film versions of the character have consistently broken box office records--from Tim Burton's Batman in 1989 to the phenomenal success of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight in 2008, which grossed over $500 million domestically and over one billion dollars worldwide. (2) Those two movies, as well as much of the entire comic tradition that preceded them, are animated by the dynamic antagonism between Batman and his arch-nemesis, the Joker. Jack Nicholson's performance as the Joker in the 1989 film virtually overshadowed Michael Keaton's work in the title role, whereas Heath Ledger's interpretation of the villain in The Dark Knight electrified audiences and critics, earning the late actor an Academy Award. In this article, I suggest that the long-standing popularity of these characters is due to their evocation of deep-seated social and psychological tensions. In a recent piece focusing entirely on The Dark Knight, Charles Bellinger makes a similar suggestion by equating the Joker with Satan and reading that film as a Girardian exercise in societal scapegoating. (3) While this interpretation provides some interesting insights into the recent film, it does not adequately explain the long-lived popularity of these figures. In this article I look at how certain prominent tropes, symbols, and narrative structures in the long Batman/Joker comic and film tradition resonate with the ancient mythic paradigm known as the "combat myth." The combat myth is a type of religious narrative that, in the words of Norman Cohn, "tells how a god defended the ordered world against the onslaughts of chaos." (4) Though often associated with explanations of how the world first came into being, these myths are even more concerned with recounting how the resultant social order has been preserved "in the face of ever-recurring threats." (5) In many cultures, these warring forces of order and chaos have been personified, respectively, as a storm god and a dragon, while their perpetual antagonism is conveyed by a ritualized reading of the myth. In the following article I will present evidence that Batman and the Joker are, in some respects, iterations of these symbols of chaos and order and that their connection to these mythic themes perhaps helps explain their visceral and ongoing popularity.
Certain aspects of my claim have been anticipated in brief by Walter Wink who, in Engaging the Powers, argued that the mythic pattern of redemptive violence was the dominant theme of American culture. In his illustration of the pervasiveness of this form, Wink gives a litany of heroic popular culture figures caught in endless cycles of violence with their respective villains including the Lone Ranger, Superman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Batman. (6) Though the interconnected relationship of Batman and the Joker has been observed and their correspondence to myth has been noted (on a cursory level), this article contributes to and significantly deepens these conversations in a twofold manner. First, a sustained comparison between representations of these characters and the combat myth has not been carried out. Such a project can demonstrate that the perennial appeal of Batman and the Joker may lie in its redeployment of ancient religious paradigms. At the same time, as Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty points out, "what preserves myths is, rather, their individual details and the very different meanings that each culture brings to the basic myth." (7) With that understanding, the second goal of this article is to explore how the Batman/Joker cycle also revises the combat myth paradigm, particularly in response to specifically American situations. My primary example in this regard will be the recent film The Dark Knight, which contemporizes the ancient combat myth paradigm by critiquing post-9/11 American conceptualizations of law, order, and terrorism. …