Picture a typical Batman story featuring the Joker. Something awful will happen, people
will either die, get mutilated (sometimes both) or loose something important to them. Joker will make a joke out of what he’s been doing, then Batman will stop him, beat him severely and send him to Arkham.
Job done, right? Batman can move on to the next threat, secure in his knowledge that the Joker will be locked away until either his rehabilitation or until he dies behind bars. It sounds pretty simple, and in an ideal world that’s the way things would work.
But Batman isn’t in an ideal world.
Joker will escape, he will kill more people – maybe even somebody that’s close to Bruce, before he’s caught again and the cycle repeats itself.
Aside from the editorial decision to keep Joker alive and psychotic because as Batman’s greatest and most recognizable enemy, his appearance in an issue will sell comics. Although Batman is very capable of killing the Joker, taking a life is something that he refuses to allow himself to do, so despite the lives he would save by killing the Joker, he won’t do it because it goes against his strict no killing rule.
Even though taking the Joker’s life would save countless lives in the future.
Thematically, however, it goes deeper than that. Batman and the Joker represent two sides of the same coin. They are Yin and Yang. Where one is colourful the other is shadows and darkness. When you stand the two next to each other I’ve always seen the Dark Knight as a pillar of order standing against the agent of chaos that is the Clown Prince of Crime. For Batman to kill the Joker, it would mean that order has given in to chaos – even if only for a moment – and lost a part of itself. It would mean Batman has had his unbreakable moral code broken.
Are there other options?
In his classic story, The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller has Batman finally reach his breaking point with the Joker after the clown goes one step too far. Batman catches him and breaks his neck just enough to paralyze him, saying that he should have done this years ago. The Joker, realizing that he’s finally pushed Batman far enough, laughs and finishes the job. He snaps his own neck because in his mind he’s won; he’s finally found Batman’s breaking point. While The Dark Knight Returns is an excellent story, it’s also set toward the end of Batman’s career.
Batman will catch Joker eventually, and he will have him locked away in Arkham Asylum. But although order can stop chaos for a time, the Joker will break free.
For a time, chaos will rule and people will die.
Which brings me to my question: if Batman had reached his breaking point sooner, if he’d have paralyzed Joker years before, could his reputation have recovered in anyway, or would he always be seen as the hero who crossed a line he shouldn’t have crossed (as opposed to the man who, some would say, hasn’t gone far enough)?
Either way, even in death, the Joker will have already won.