(Welcome to The Dark Knight Legacy, a series of articles that explore Christopher Nolan’s superhero masterpiece in celebration of its 10th anniversary.)

There has always been a strange appeal to Heath Ledger’s The Joker in The Dark Knight, a playful yet formidable villain capable of making you laugh uncomfortably just as easily as he could throw you off a roof and skip away without so much of a second glance. It’s a fascination propelled by the fact that he not only walks around in a wrinkled purple suit and a face caked with melted clown makeup, but he has a long jagged red scar where his smile is supposed to be. Because as absurd as his maquillage and attire are, The Joker’s scars hide something far more sinister and tell a story about him that, until The Dark Knight, we hadn’t heard before.

But The Joker doesn’t simply recall a haunting tale from his past to appease his curious victims. Rather, he captivates them with the comforting sense that his maniacal behavior is not ungrounded — right before he turns that on its head in the most brutal way.

The First Story

If it’s true that all “freaks” have a tragic story to tell, than The Joker is more than happy to oblige with several so disturbing that they rattle even his toughest enemies. That’s exactly what happens when he confronts Gambol (Michael Jai White), a criminal who tries and fails to put a hit out on him. Assuming he’s finally put an end to “the clown,” Gambol is shocked when The Joker pops out of a body bag with a knife in his hand that he quickly places in his opponent’s mouth. With Gambol frozen in fear, The Joker takes the opportunity to tell him the story we’ve all wanted to know for some time — where he got those scars. In this scene, they’re from his father, who he describes as a drunk who beat up on his mother. As this particular story goes, a young Joker watches in fear as his dad has another violent episode. His dad sees him cowering off to the side and decides to taunt him with a knife in his mouth, the same way The Joker is doing in the present scene. The Joker recalls that his dad then asked him, “Why so serious?” before slicing his mouth open on both sides. Then he maliciously turns to Gambol and asks him the same question before disfiguring him like his dad did to him.

It’s unsettling to hear this story for the first time, because you don’t really know whether to pity The Joker or fear him — which is exactly his point. Now that you know this story, does it make him any less threatening? Does it provide a sense of comfort knowing that there may be a motivation to his madness? That’s exactly what The Joker preys upon; this idea of rationalization. He gets off on the fact that most people want to be able to relate to another’s tragedy, which in and of itself is also a twisted desire.

The Second Story

So, The Joker tries it again at Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) fundraiser at Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) home. He’s there to go after Harvey but encounters a silver-haired man who refuses to flinch despite The Joker’s demands. The Joker takes the moment to tell him that he reminds him of his dad, and of course he hated his dad. Is the old man a trigger for him? We never find out because just before he presumably evokes that ominous story again, out comes Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who also confronts The Joker and tries to placate him. But one look at her and The Joker becomes a different person. He slicks his greasy green strands back and saunters over to her with a swagger that even startles her. It’s an ever so slight reaction that compels The Joker to immediately pull out his knife again. In this split-second transition, from a wannabe bachelor to a dangerous lunatic, we catch a glimpse of a man who knows he’s the freak who could never win over a woman like Rachel and is enraged by that.

So, he begins to tell her how he got these scars, the very things she is trying not to stare at as he grasps onto her. We think we’re going to hear about his dad again, but it’s not that story at all. It’s a tale that starts with his ex-wife telling him he should smile more. She gets into trouble with gambling sharks wo end up scarring her so badly that she thinks her husband isn’t going to want her anymore. He tries to prove to her that that’s not the case by disfiguring his own mouth in solidarity, giving him a permanent smile. But she’s so turned off by that that she leaves him. “Now I see the funny side. Now I’m always smiling!” he exclaims.

A Man Untethered to Logic

It’s a stark contrast from the story he told Gambol. In this one, he deforms himself and is in total control of his actions. He’s also very intentional about wanting her to know that he once had a wife, that he was once loved — that he wasn’t always like this. But then again, that supposition could be inspired by a need to see him for what he is not rather than the frightening nature of who he truly is — a man distinctly untethered to any form of logic.

The Joker doesn’t care how we think he got his scars. He’s more interested in the fact that we do care, the fact that his victims are terrified by them without any knowledge of how he got them. He feeds off that. Even when he begins to concoct another tormented tale for Batman (Bale), who finally clenches his longtime nemesis toward the end of the film, he wants to see him shiver. He wants the Caped Crusader to know that he’s not the only one who can walk around Gotham City cloaked in duplicity and using it to his advantage. Because Batman ends up flinging him over a ledge, we never get to hear which narrative he chooses to give him, and it doesn’t even really matter at this point. The stories about The Joker’s scars become more about our persistent need to pinpoint, in his words, “an immovable object” rather than force ourselves to reckon with the notion of unwarranted cruelty.

In the dark, merciless world of Gotham, there is no room for such deceptive reasoning.

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