A Retrospective on Batman: The Man Who Laughs

Updated: Nov 27, 2019

In 1928, a silent film entitled The Man Who Laughs was released to cinemas. Directed by notable German filmmaker Paul Leni, the film traversed the story of a man named Gwynplaine, who maintains a permanent smile as a result of disfigurement.

Now, the film not only established a legacy in regard to its innovative direction of melodramas and German expressionist filmmaking, the film also inspired The Joker himself through the appearance of Gwynplaine.

Consequently, Batman: The Man Who Laughs, a 2008 story from writer Ed Brubaker and artist Doug Mahnke, was named as such as a homage to the 1928 feature.

With this, Batman: The Man Who Laughs is a particularly alluring one as it explores the beginnings of Captain James Gordon, The Joker, and Batman. As a result of this setting, we witness the fallibility of these protagonists in addition to the ambiguity of a villain we may have thought we had all figured out.

The Man Who Laughs
Image Courtesy of DC Comics

The One-Man War

Batman: The Man Who Laughs begins with Captain James Gordon's discovery of a horrific crime scene. Though, despite the carnage and countless bodies, he remains stoic. Ultimately, Gordon has become desensitized to the violence that has perpetuated throughout Gotham City.

Of course, Gordon has lived a bulk of his life as a cop, abiding by processes to solve a crime and establish a motive. In this particular scenario though, and in the context of an evolving Gotham City, Gordon's methods are less applicable.

The criminals, and vigilantes, that Gotham has birthed derive from a different formula.

Thus, Gordon has surrendered himself to the unknown. He ponders the fact that individuals such as Batman and Superman, individuals with abilities and identities beyond Gordon's own comprehension, have been able to supersede the order of law and justice Gordon prescribes himself to.

Therefore, one can assume that Gordon is continuously assessing his own role in this day and age. He may wonder how much impact he can make when he is surrounded by metahumans and vigilantes. He may wonder if he can ever comprehend the depths of evil individuals are capable of succumbing to, depths that go far beyond a clear motive.

Ironically, as Gordon continues to survey the crime scene, he also ponders the theatrics of these emerging figures of Gotham City. Obviously, Batman is among these. Though, Gordon also thinks about the Red Hood, a criminal who faced off against Batman relatively recently.

Gordon thinks about how the Red Hood's physical appearance came as a sign to him, a sign that Gotham was changing. Little did Gordon know at the time though was that the sign the Red Hood granted him was actually a perilous omen.

The Man Who Laughs
Image Courtesy of DC Comics

The Threat

Following this introspection from Gordon, Batman: The Man Who Laughs segues into The Joker's first official stand. On a live television broadcast, Joker makes a threat against the life of millionaire Henry Claridge.

After the broadcasting of the threat, Gordon and Batman plan their strategy in protecting Claridge and taking The Joker down. Gordon expresses concerns that they have underestimated this new foe as he believes that The Joker is capable of things far beyond his and Batman's comprehension.

Batman on the other hand reduces Joker to just another crazed killer.

As aforementioned, Gordon is struggling to understand what Gotham has become before his eyes. Consequently, he struggles to understand criminals like The Joker, their motives, and their methods. Thus, though Gordon knows he may never obtain a holistic understanding of criminals like Joker, he does not underestimate them.

He perceives his ignorance as a means of caution.

On the other hand, Batman appears much more stubborn in this scenario. Of course, it is worth noting that Batman is still quite early in his career at this point. He still has plenty to learn. Additionally, Batman has not yet fought a criminal like The Joker yet. Therefore, his understanding of evil and crime is simplified and objective. Batman has yet to see evil as an ideal that can be perpetuated and maintain a multitude of facets.

The Man Who Laughs
Image Courtesy of DC Comics

All Part of the Plan

Unfortunately, as a result of Batman, Gordon, and GCPD's unpreparedness in regard to The Joker's unpredictability, Claridge gets killed. To put it simply, The Joker outsmarted everyone who was tasked with protecting Claridge. With this, and to compound their failures further, The Joker also breaks out the crazed inmates of Williams Medical Center.

An act such as unleashing the mentally insane throughout Gotham City while also murdering Claridge through a slow-acting poison are acts that authentically depict The Joker's nature. His persona is unfamiliar to the likes of Batman and Gordon not necessarily because of its theatricality as Gordon may have initially perceived, but because of its volatility.

Neither Batman or Gordon can define Joker's motivations or patterns because they are ambiguous amidst the chaos of his actions.

Prior to their encounters with The Joker, Batman and Gordon relied on identifying patterns in order to identify the culprit and their respective motives. This situation inverts that entire process, leaving the two at a loss.

Additionally, one struggles to pinpoint how Joker perceives his own victories in the crimes he commits. When he kills, he expresses total apathy. Thus, it appears as though The Joker kills mindlessly, without reason, making him truly unpredictable and a force to be reckoned with.

Of course, this aspect of his character is not a surprising one. In fact, we have witnessed this battle between The Joker and Batman numerous times. So, what exactly is the differentiator in Batman: The Man Who Laughs?

Well, in the context of this story, The Joker does in fact have a reason, a motive for each and every one of his actions.

The Man Who Laughs
Image Courtesy of DC Comics

Sins of the Past

Some time later, The Joker makes a threat against yet another Gotham City figure, Jay Wilde. Once again, Gordon, Batman, and GCPD fail to protect yet another one of Joker's targets.

So, Batman decides to recalibrate his methods and investigate the origins of The Joker to better understand who this villain truly is.

It is worth noting that though Batman previously maintained a staunch mindset regarding criminals, he is not an arrogant person. In this scenario, Batman recognizes the failures of his methods thus far. He recognizes that he needs to change his mode of operation in order to stop Joker.

Thus, Batman takes a few steps back and regroups. He recognizes that he too can evolve with the nature of Gotham City and adapt.

To that end, Batman's next steps feature him visiting Ace Chemical Processing facility and questioning its employees, posing as a reporter in the process to maintain anonymity.

Now, it is always exciting to see Batman in full-on detective mode. It is especially exciting to witness that in the context of a Batman who is early in career. Because of this, we are ultimately witnessing Batman develop the skills that would drive him to become the World's Greatest Detective.

In regard to his investigation of Ace, Batman comes to discover that both Wild and Claridge were investors. Additionally, many of Ace's employees maintain disfigurements as a result of encounters with the chemicals handled there.

Consequently, Batman comes to a conclusion regarding Joker's motives. Though, to Batman this conclusion appears to be far too glaring, and, thus, asks himself,

"Could it be this simple?"
The Man Who Laughs
Image Courtesy of DC Comics

The Art of Revenge

Batman comes to the conclusion that Red Hood and The Joker are one in the same, despite the blatant differences between the two personas. Batman deduces that after Red Hood fell into a vat of chemicals at Ace, he became gravely disfigured and insane. As a result, his attacks on Claridge, Wild, and individuals associated with Ace's existence all stem from revenge due to his disfigurement.

Though, Batman struggles to predict what exactly Joker's next steps are in regard to his motive. Additionally, Batman acknowledges that he is still greatly unprepared for what happens next. In all his training to become Batman, he never expected to face off against someone like The Joker.

Later, The Joker broadcasts yet another threat, against various Gotham City figures, including Bruce Wayne. Thus, an army of Gotham City police arrive at Wayne Manor with the intention of protecting Bruce Wayne.

Ironically, Bruce needs to get out of this situation as to allow Batman to find Joker and stop him from committing further harm. So, to promote a diversion, he administers the Joker toxin to himself.

As Alfred administers the antidote, Bruce experiences an array of visions that provoke feelings of rage and bloodlust against Gotham City. In this frenzied state of mind, Bruce blames Gotham for the death of his parents.

Thus, when the antidote fends off the toxins from Bruce's system and he awakens, he claims to finally understand who The Joker is, having been in the foe's head.

The Man Who Laughs
Image Courtesy of DC Comics

Kill the City

Batman believes that the attacks on Claridge and Wilde were a direct consequence of Joker enacting revenge on those who contributed to his disfigurement. Now, Batman has deduced that Joker plans to poison the city's reservoir with his toxin in an effort to have the city

"Follow his fall...

so that

...everyone dies laughing".

Batman acknowledges that Joker is certainly a genius, but his continuous hate will lead to his downfall.

In a turn of events, Batman moves one step ahead of The Joker. Before The Joker can release his poison into the reservoir, Batman destroys the viaduct.

This, of course, leaves Gotham City without a continuous supply of water for some time, but it also allows each and every citizen to live.

Batman and The Joker proceed to engage in a fistfight, one that ends with Batman gaining the upper hand.

In this moment, Batman considers killing The Joker. He thinks about the lives Joker has taken and the malicious plans to poison all of Gotham's citizens.

However, Batman cannot bring himself to follow through on the kill as it would contradict his nature. Sure, Batman is evolving with the changes Gotham's underbelly produces. Though, to kill The Joker would be a betrayal of the symbol Batman has worked to create as a vow to his parents.

The Man Who Laughs
Image Courtesy of DC Comics

The Beginning

So, Batman defeats The Joker, and the GCPD throw him behind bars. Despite its relatively grim nature, Batman: The Man Who Laughs concludes on a hopeful note as it depicts Gordon revealing the Bat-Signal, a beacon upon which Gothamites look to for hope.

Now, the war between Batman and Joker is a story we have witnessed numerous times throughout comic book history. So, what exactly differentiates Batman: The Man Who Laughs?

Well, for one, this particular story gives Joker a motive for his crimes: revenge.

Revenge certainly seems uncharacteristic for a villain like The Joker as his motives throughout his history have been a tendency to be more layered. However, there is always more than meets the eye. Like Batman, Joker is subject to evolution as well, and this story is only the beginning of his.

Perhaps Batman was wrong, maybe The Joker had a greater motive than revenge.

Perhaps Batman was right, and Joker's hatred towards Gotham City was born in revenge and will fester into even more chaos and complex premeditation in their future battles.

The Man Who Laughs
Image Courtesy of DC Comics

The Last Laugh

As aforementioned, much of the content in Batman: The Man Who Laughs has been seen before. In fact, there are numerous parallels to Batman #1 (1940), which features the first appearance of The Joker in comics.

Now, what truly and successfully sets this story apart is the humanization of Gordon and Batman, particularly through the failures they experience. As a result this tale develops these characters in an authentic and even relatable manner. Sure, we have known these characters for generations, but it is compelling to see them develop in response to something unknown to them.

Also, this story showcases the descent of Gotham City as it begins to produce figures such as The Joker. I always enjoy reading a Batman tale that establishes Gotham as its own character with its own, complicated nature. This story succeeds in doing so.

With this, Gotham City almost plays a tragic character in Batman: The Man Who Laughs, as we come to understand that this instance of The Joker is only the beginning. Gotham City is about to face even greater threats and sink further into the darkness.

Ultimately, Batman: The Man Who Laughs is a succinct tale that provides a fresh perspective on characters and events we may have thought we had all figured out.