How The Batman’s New Joker Spotlights Film’s Disfigured Bad Guy Trope

“You wanna know how I got these scars?” So goes one of the most memorable lines in the history of Batmanexpertly delivered by Heath Ledger’s Joker in 2008’s Dark Knight. In 2022’s batman, Joker similarly makes an appearance at the end of the narrative and in a deleted scene. Meant to add to the terrifying nature of the character, the design brings up a massive issue that permeates media: the so-called “Evil Cripple” trope.

Coming out of disability theory, the “Evil Cripple” trope essentially mandates that a person who is evil must, in some way, be a person with a disability. Whether this is the case of Long John Silver’s wooden leg or James Bond’s Safin, villains tend to have a disability or be visibly scarred, especially on their faces. The Joker is another instance of that, in spite of the success that non-scarred versions of the character demonstrate. By observing some harmful effects of these characters, one can more wisely note the trope when indicated and self-educate on the issues at hand.

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Marxist Theory Is the Basis of The Joker’s Issues


Beginning with Marx’s writings in the mid-1800s, literary critics began to work with narratives from the perspective of a power imbalance. Essentially, one group tends to have power, and one does not. Marx reserved this for money, but other theorists began to take the concept and apply it to social power and policy dynamics as related to different aspects of society, be it feminist theory, critical race theory or, most relevant here, disability theory. This theory states that people with disabilities tend to be treated as lesser by society, especially if their disability is visible.

The “Evil Cripple” trope is most easily seen in a character like It’s A Wonderful Life‘s Mr. Potter, who spends the entire movie in a wheelchair, yet serves as a major antagonist throughout the entire film because he longed for ever-increasing money and power. Less extreme (in some ways) is Peter Pan‘s Captain Hook, who sports a limb difference not only visually but also by his very name. Yet another variation, and the one employed by the vast majority of movies, is that of the scarred villain.

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The Red Skull holding the Tesseract

Scarred bad guys weren’t terribly common before the 20th century. Those who did exist, such as Captain Hook and Long John Silver, were more beholden to pirate traditions. In fact, scarring or disability was commonly applied to the hero’s love interest, essentially causing them to calm down and be humbled for marriage (a problematic trope in its own right). However, as visual media became more prominent, tricks of language were no longer sufficient to remind fans that the person in question was the bad guy, so villains became increasingly scarred.

There isn’t a form of media that has not been touched by this trope. Children’s media features it prominently, hence the antagonist of The Lion King, Scar. though The Lion King takes inspiration from Hamlet, Scar’s name and facial feature are original to the Disney picture. Comics feature him in most villains, such as Red Skull, a massively scarred man who, once again, is named after his disfigurement of him.

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Particularly problematic in the realm of movie/comic adaptation is the fact that The Joker of the comic books has no scarring around his mouth. He has been altered by Ace chemicals (and, in one case, tore his face off), but the scarring is an invention of the most recent movies. Essentially, when at a loss for any other way to cause Joker to carry his trademark look from him, movies make him scarred. In this case, even Joker’s name of him, as far as the movies are concerned, comes from his own scarring of him.

Scarring needn’t be the main aspect of the antagonist for this to count, though it certainly makes it more apparent. the Harry Potter series describes Voldemort’s snakelike features, which emerge only after he is a known villain. wonder-woman‘s 2017 film featured the villainous Dr. Isabel Maru, whose face was half-burned by the chemicals she worked with. Even Avatar: The Last Airbender had Zuko’s face severely scarred as a major character trait.

RELATED: Avatar: Did Uncle Iroh Blame Himself for Zuko’s Scar?

Some Narratives Flip the Script on Villains With Disabilities & Scarring

Zuko Uses Fire Breathing In The Coolers During

The real villain of wonder-woman is not the scarred doctor (although she is a malevolent force to be sure). Rather, it’s the unscarred evil of War itself. Zuko is a traumatized, scarred child who joins the good side and becomes a hero. His unscarred father of him is the true villain of the series. Recent stories have been taking the trope to task, essentially reminding viewers of their own biases or making clear that people with scars or a disability aren’t inherently evil.

Some, such as the movie dead pool, do this to great effect. Unfortunately, Deadpool also tends to cover his scarring completely, falling into yet another trope. Similar to the entire Bat-family and The CW’s Green Arrow, all of Deadpool’s scars are covered by his costume and easily concealed, leaving the good guy still looking unscarred for the majority of the narrative. Nimona, for example, has a villain (who is actually a hero) with a mechanical arm and scarring on his eye, but this is explained away. Similarly, Hiccup from the How to Train Your Dragon series has a limb difference that is highly visible and a significant aspect of the character, but it is a major part of the first movie. This scarring stands out in a field of unscarred protagonists without a disability, though, and scarring for heroes is almost always a defining aspect of their characters, rather than just being tangential to them, as in the case of most villains.

RELATED: My Hero Academia’s Todoroki vs. Avatar’s Zuko: Who Has the Darker Backstory?

Going even further on this trend, one need only look at Harrison Ford. Though recent movies have n’t focused on him quite so much, his early acting career was filled with explanations of how he received his scar from him. Though villains are generally scarred without the need to clarify, it is generally just part of their characterization. Any further explanation is not needed.

All in all, people just have scars, much like people are born with disabilities. However, in visual media, scarring is reserved for those who are in some way evil or malevolent. When it isn’t, it’s a major portion of the characterization of the good guys, or it is done so that it isn’t visible. This trend is so major that the British Film Institute will no longer support projects with a villain sporting a facial scar, and multiple forms of media use scarring to mislead the viewer. This is a trend that must ebb, and recognizing its problematic nature in narratives is the first step to doing something about it.

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