Say what you want about Todd Phillips‘ Joker, but curiosity and fandom don’t power you to over a billion dollars. It takes a character who taps into the zeitgeist, and as time has gone on, Batman’s arch-nemesis has constantly threatened to overshadow the Caped Crusader. Like Batman, Joker is a pretty malleable figure. There are some baseline rules in terms of his appearance and demeanor just like modern Batman needs a cape and a cave, but recent popular iterations have seized on how he reflects times of crisis (The Dark Knight) or the shortcomings of society (Joker). But I was floored with how 2017-2018’s video game Batman: The Telltale Series – The Enemy Within found a completely new angle on the character to render him sympathetic and test the limits of Batman’s empathy.
The most popular conflict between Batman and Joker is that Batman represents order while Joker represents chaos. The way The Enemy Within turns this on its head is that Joker wants to befriend Bruce Wayne (in the game and Telltale’s 2016 entry, you play as both Batman or Bruce Wayne at various points in the story; the player’s decisions affect the outcome of the overall narrative). The Joker we meet here is not “Joker” but plays as an origin story. We, as the audience, know this is Joker from his green hair, white skin, and frequent laughing, but in this story, he’s just “John Doe”, a former patient at Arkham Asylum who flirts with the criminal underworld and very much wants to be Bruce Wayne’s friend.
To let the story work, you need to upend your previous notions of Joker, which is what strong adaptations do. You can see various influences like how Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth impacted Heath Ledger’s Joker, but good writers know how to take bold swings with the character while still keeping him in Batman’s orbit. What the Telltale writers did is rather than put Batman and Joker in conflict immediately, they pose an interesting conundrum: if this “John Doe” is not yet “Joker”, and if he’s not the murdering psychopath we’ve come to expect, then is it possible to save him? Can you stop John Doe from becoming Joker based on your choices?
Instead of weakening Batman/Bruce Wayne or Joker, it strengthens both characters because the Telltale writers found a unique way to test how players see Batman. If you see Batman as a vigilante who punishes criminals no matter what and if you see Joker as fated to be evil, then you’ll simply make choices that guide that direction. But if you think Joker can be saved, then you see Batman more as a savior figure whose job is helping people rather than harming criminals. Batman has been around long enough that both takes are valid (the Telltale writers did their homework), but the more you push to try and save Joker, the more interesting that character becomes.
For example, in trying to turn Joker’s story upside down, the writers tapped into his vulnerabilities while not losing sight of his rage. Sure, this makes him less “chaotic”, but he’s still unpredictable and every time he does something bad, it’s far more dramatic that this is a person who quite possibly can’t be saved no matter what Batman does. It’s one thing to rescue citizens from a burglar, but this is Batman trying to fight mental illness, and it doesn’t really matter how many gadgets you have when that’s the enemy. The question is if you can show enough compassion and make other personal sacrifices to help someone who possibly is beyond saving.
When rendered in these choices, Joker moves from being an “agent of chaos” or a grim reflection on society and into a wounded, tragic figure. At no point in my playthrough (and I should note that because my choices guided the outcome of the story, other players may have a different experience) did I hate Joker or think he was “the enemy.” Instead, the way he’s depicted is deeply sympathetic. The writers made brilliant choices like having Harley Quinn be the dominant figure in the relationship so that Joker was looking for her approval. If you’re looking for a typical Joker story, this may seem blasphemous, but I respected this decision because the character clearly is “The Joker” but taken on a different path.
The grim-dark Joker is a bit played out. This approach to the character, influenced by the work of Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and others, reached its zenith in Heath Ledger’s unforgettable performance. Where the writers at Telltale deserve immense credit was in taking major risks to what people believe about the character—his sadism, his cruelty, his murderousness—and trying to discard those elements while still showing Joker as dangerous and unhinged. It makes for one of the most fascinating depictions of the character in recent memory, and one that’s well worth your time if you’re a fan of the Batman mythos.
Batman: The Telltale Series – The Enemy Within is currently available for free to Xbox Gold subscribers through March 31, 2020.