“…destined to do this forever…”
One of the undeniable truths lying at the center of the The Dark Knight: The acknowledgement that the battle between the Joker and Batman will never truly end. A bitter rivalry that promises to continue until the end of time. Be it on comic page or silver screen, the two icons have been battling for decades. There’s isn’t the perfect combination of right and wrong. There’s a clear right and wrong, but there’s a better way to explain the dynamic. Protagonist and Antagonist.
Most everyone agrees the Joker’s most important job is to antagonize the Caped Crusader. A job he takes very seriously. He’s actually made a career out of it.
As Heath Ledger’s interpretations once put it, “You won’t kill me because of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun.” No matter the stage these two perform on, their theatrics are always fun to watch. Their rivalry is the most important villain and hero relationship in Comic history. That history has evolved and expanded into many other mediums. Over the years, many artists have been inspired to put their mark on this eternal battle.
Many stories include the two, but only the best pit them against one another: Joker and Batman in battles of principle, virtue, entertainment, and death. It’s never quite the same, but always a little familiar. But which are the best of the best? The most exemplary battles between the Clown Prince of Crime and the Darkest of Knights?
In no particular order, these are the Top 10 Showdowns between Batman and the Joker.
Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker
Without getting into spoilers, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker is certainly the greatest Batman and Joker story that doesn’t technically contain the Joker. Oh, he has a presence, voiced perfectly by the ever-talented Mark Hamill, but he isn’t really around. Watch and you’ll see. The film served as his cameo in Bruce Timm’s Batman Beyond Universe, but it was much more than that. Evolving into an incredibly original DC narrative, and quite possibly the most interesting use of the Joker toxin ever. The revenge the Joker unleashes on his elder-foe is solely from Beyond the grave, but he was just as menacing as ever.
A Death in the Family
A Death in the Family gets weird sometimes. But hey, the Joker gets weird sometimes. He may or may not be a representative for the Iranian Government at the United Nations in the same comic that contains the fan-decided death of Batman’s then-Robin, Jason Todd. Like all comic characters, Todd didn’t remain in the afterlife, but his death left a permanent hole in Bruce. A crowbar will never look the same to Bruce or his former ward. That same impression will be left on any reader. It should come as no surprise that the creator of Thanos, Jim Starlin, was the writer on this story. His willingness to kill important characters seems to span multiple comic publishers!
Batman: Zero Year
Zero Year sounds like a take on Year One – it’s not. Scott Snyder’s year-long Batman event is a remarkable creation story for both modern day Gotham and Batman. It included nods to many of Batman’s future foes, but none moreso than the Joker. The Red Hood Gang was an interesting way to spin the mythology. The idea is that the Joker was basically ruling an entire town by way of fashionably organized crime. But it becomes unclear just who the leader of the Red Hood Gang was, as their supposed leader is found dead. A clever idea by a clever writer.
Tim Burton took quite a few liberties with the Batman story. But he created a dark and serious superhero film that changed the genre and portrayed the Bat as the badass he is, that’s what matters. Jack Nicholson brought the Joker to life in his own way, one that plays on the murderous and violent nature of the Clown Prince of Crime. The film includes the entire Joker story, from origin to ultimate demise. One of the few times the Joker took up as much of the story as his heroic counterpart. Christopher Nolan may have upped the ante, but Batman(1989) is the first serious superhero film.
Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth
Grant Morrison and Dave McKean are legends. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth is just one of the many reasons for that. One of the most important novels to feature either character, Arkham Asylum is an existential and psychedelic look at the minds of Bat’s many enemies. This isn’t just the Joker, but it features an fascinating look at the Batman and Joker dynamic. This was Grant Morrison’s first Batman work, and it’s one of the best of all time. The amazing work of Dave Mckean helps with that. A gloriously crazed art style that only further helps Grant Morrison in his brilliant madness.
Batman: Knight of Vengeance
There’s a very good chance the Batman: Knight of Vengeance story will finds its way to the big screen sometime soon. As Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohen depicted Bruce’s parents in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, they’d be the perfect candidates for the job in a Flashpoint film. The concept is simple, nothing more than a brief spin-off from the comic version of the upcoming movie. But the tragedy in the premise is so simple yet so beautiful. In this Universe, it wasn’t the parents who were gunned down, it was Bruce. His father became a vengeful and murderous Batman, and Martha…became the Joker. It’s really, really terrible that those parents have to experience that. However, this truly is one of the most unique and inventive stories in Batman’s history. A testament to the talent of writer Brian Azzarello.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
This scene alone, the opening of the game, is one of the greatest modern exchanges between the Joker and Batman. Just why is this Batman game one of his best stories of all time? Because it was written by Paul Dini, that’s why. Seen as a continuation of Batman: The Animated Series, the game featured most of the same voice actors. Most importantly Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. Playing as Batman helped Arkham Asylum achieve the title of one of the best licensed video games of all time. The incredible story and journey through the ward of insanity makes it even more special.
The Killing Joke
Of course, the only story Alan Moore contributes to the Batman mythology ends up being one of the greatest. The Killing Joke is one of the most defining looks at the relationship between the two characters. One of the first to really delve into the idea that the Joker is constantly obsessing over his arch nemesis. Building on the origin of a failed comedian, the story is one of a joke that needs telling, and a hero who won’t hear any of it. The terror and horror that the Joker puts the Gordon family and Batman through is insane. Only the mind of someone like Alan Moore could come up with a story like The Killing Joke.
Batman: Death of the Family
Okay, so this might be the largest story to feature the two characters. Because while the central Batman: Death of the Family story was written by Scott Snyder and drawn by Greg Capullo, this was an entire event comic. One of the few that actually works. An event made special by other artists like Gail Simone, Kyle Higgins, Patrick Gleason and Peter Tomasi. Each of them had a hand in creating a horrific display of the Joker terrorizing each individual Bat Family book. It was a costly event with all of those tie-ins, but every single one was well worth it.
The Dark Knight
Oh, don’t act like you didn’t know it was coming. Aside from the fact that it’s, arguably, the best superhero film of all time, The Dark Knight serves another purpose. The Joker doesn’t “begin” in this film, actually his origin is hilariously up-in-the-air. But audiences were treated to the growing obsession and love the Joker has for the Batman. Heath Ledger did such a monumental job of bringing the villain to life that the actor posthumously won an Academy Award for it. The chemistry that Bale and Ledger had will remain legendary. And it’s an unfortunate twist on the painfully incorrect line that these two would not be adversaries “forever.” Whether Christopher Nolan planned to pit the two against one another again is unknown, but the entire world would have shown up to see it.
“I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”
The full, painful line delivered by Ledger in his final scene in The Dark Knight. A sad promise that he didn’t live long enough to fulfill. The Joker that he portrayed will live on and on though. The level of effort he gave to bringing the character to life has seen to that. The make-up looked horrible, he didn’t tell jokes, and his hair was long and greasy. But he was The Joker all the same.
When Christopher Nolan wrote that line he was speaking of the character’s long and enduring history. The Joker and Batman will always be at the opposite ends of stories. Perfectly balanced, as all things should be.
Oh wait, wrong Universe. Sorry.
But that’s exactly what it feels like. These two need one another. It’s more than the simple fact that readers will want to read Joker and Batman stories until the end of time. It’s because they have this infatuation with each other. It’s a concept that many writers have tried to tackle, most recently by Tom King. His Joker is “expressing his love” by going on a murderous rampage before Bruce’s wedding to Selina Kyle. That’s how they show their love though.
Like any toxic couple, they only serve to damage each other’s lives until there’s nothing left to damage. Scott Snyder’s Batman: Endgame arc was an interesting look at what the very end of their conflict could be. As the bodies fall lifeless on the floor, it’s Batman who has the last laugh. A rare occasion.