Ok, so a recent discussion with a friend unearthed a controversy that evolved into an all out war of words. In my last article - a review of The Dark Rises, see it here - I described Heath Ledger's incarnation of The Joker as, "the greatest cinematic villain of all time". Bold statement perhaps, but the more I've thought about, the more I've struggled to come up with any superior baddies. The obvious names spring to mind, but all of whom I promptly disqualified for one reason or another...
Anthony Hopkin's Hannibal Lecter maybe? No. While positively terrifying, Dr. Lecter isn't even the primary antagonist of The Silence of the Lambs, so surely he can't be considered the best.
Schindler List's villain Amon Goeth then? Nein. A great cinematic villain should really be spawned for cinematic purposes, whereas Amon Goeth was already a real-life villain. Saying that though, in terms of real-life villains, you can't really get much worst that a sadist Nazi known as 'Hitler's Butcher'.
There are too many great movie villains to mention now, but it would appear that there is another who stands at the forefront to challenge the Joker for the crown, and no its not Mama Fratelli from The Goonies. No, the debate that grips us is this: The Joker vs. Darth Vader.
Just to be clear, this isn't who win in a fight or anything like that, as obviously Vader would, this is simply who is the better villain. So, in the interest of fairness, let's weigh up the the candidates:
It goes without saying that if a villain isn't scary, then they cross the line into "panto baddie", and your not going to take them very seriously (yes, Willem Dafoe, I'm talking to you!). Fortunately, Joker & Vader can both be terrifying when they need to be. Lord Vader's huge frame bounding through the Death Star with the Imperial March blaring out, and his ability to crush a windpipe from across the room have haunted the nightmares of children and adults alike for over 30 years.
On the other hand, the 'Why so serious' scene..... Round 1 to the Joker!
The Evil Plan:
A great villain, must have some air-tight organisational skills. World domination just doesn't cut it in modern cinema. Galactic domination is much better. Advantage Darth Vader then? Well, actually no. I mean, yes the Sith Lord fronts what is at one point a seemingly successful galaxy takeover by the Empire (a planet exploding super-station will do that for you), but that's all he is really, a front. The evil master plan isn't his at all, it's the brainchild of The Emperor, who is essentially Vader's boss. So not only is Vader not the brains behind the operation, he's also The Emperor's whipping boy. Perhaps he should be considered for this title instead?
Meanwhile, The Joker is a veritable plan-making machine. Sure, his ambitions are ultimately more modest than ruling the galaxy, in that he just wants to destroy Batman and send Gotham into anarchy, but at least he's his own boss. The plans themselves are so intricate and complicated, they're masterpieces; from single-handedly robbing a bank in broad daylight, to the systematic corruption of Harvey Dent. It's also worth bearing in mind that The Joker does all this without the force or lightsabres, as he says himself, "Look what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets." 2-0 Joker.
The Lasting Impression:
Finally, a truly great antagonist stays with you long after the film is over. Now this last round is a tight one, I have to say. This is because of the time advantage. Darth Vader has been not only the most recognizable and memorable baddie of the last 40 years, but he is one of the most recognizable characters in general. However, Joker hasn't had 40 years. The Dark Knight only came out 4 years ago. Also, the Joker only had one film to brand himself into our memories, Vader had 3 (well technically 3 and a bit). It remains to be seen whether audiences in 2048 will hold The Joker in the same esteem as we hold Darth Vader now, but personally I think we will be talking about Ledger's villain for decades to come. Until then, he will have to concede. 2-1.
So then, 2-1 Joker. All hail the Crown Prince of Crime. This is just my humble opinion, and yes, perhaps I'm a slightly biased as an avid Batman geek. Feel free to disagree with everything I've said, I look forward to hearing other people's views, cinema is nothing if not objective. However, one last thought on this debate:
Think of the last scenes with these two villains. The Joker has had his explosive boat plan foiled by Batman, but has done enough to corrupt Gotham's 'white knight' & unleash Two-Face on the world and turned the hero into a hunted criminal. Darth Vader kills and The Emperor and saves the day. Think about it...