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What would have happened if Gothamites on one of the ferries had pressed the detonator before the other? The question might look trivial but considering the vile, twisted and sharp witted mind of the Joker, was he telling the truth that the detonator on one ferry would blow up the other ferry. Or were the Gothamites holding their own detonators and in a haste of selfishness to save themselves, they would have ended up blowing themselves up. And then the Joker could blow up the other ferry as well.

Was that his plan all along or am I just working my mind harder than The Joker?

  • It would have gone boom. Then the Joker would have blown up the other ferry for a laff. – Valorum Jun 21 '16 at 7:31
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For my part, I think this really was an "honest" psychological experiment by the Joker. It's not exactly the kind of thing that psychology post-docs can perform on the Psych 101 undergrads that have to participate for credit, so the underlying premise remains one of those open questions of human decision-making. The Joker obviously has no ethical compunction, so why not run the experiment in the realest way possible?

The way I always heard this experiment posited, the decision to make was not to commit murder, but suicide. The one I know prior to Dark Knight:

You and your soulmate are put in isolated, escape-proof cells where you can't see or communicate with each other. In each person's cell is a button. If the person in that cell presses their button, their cell will be flooded/gassed/immolated, killing them. If neither person presses the button in a specific time, they both die. If both press the button, they both die. If only one presses the button, the other person lives and is set free (but of course lives the rest of their life without their true love).

Do you press the button?

This wouldn't have worked as well in the movie because the people on the other boat are perfect strangers (and one boat was full of convicted violent criminals to boot). The choice for the civilian passengers is obvious, but it might be interesting to see if the hardened criminals show the better angels of their nature and opt for heroic sacrifice to save the civvies. But, the way the Joker set it up, they get that same chance, and it's now on the "sweet and innocent civilians" to show they're really fine upstanding moral people.

To answer your actual question, if one boat's passengers had pressed their detonator, I think the Joker would have been true enough to his word and left the other boat alone (though probably still adrift and helpless in the channel). He'd have gotten what he wanted out of the experiment; a big boom. It honestly wouldn't have mattered which boat did it. The ideal for the Joker would have been for the civilian passengers to do it, proving you don't have to be a career criminal to be a mass murderer. The second-best scenario would have been for the fine upstanding citizens of Gotham to be killed by the criminals on the boat because the civvies were too noble; pour encourager les autres.

As it turned out, neither side was sucked into the Joker's game. They instead were willing to let the Joker kill them all; it would be tragic, but it's on his head, not any of his victims. The look on the face of the civilian passenger who had the detonator in his hands says it all; had he actually done it, he could try to justify it all he wanted (they were convicts, he was saving people who'd done nothing wrong, he had no other choice but to kill or die), but the bare naked truth of it is that he would have played judge, jury and executioner of the lives of hundreds of other people (not all of which were convicted violent felons; remember the guards, and the ferry crew), just to save his own skin.

  • When you look at it, it references his idea that Gotham would turn on Batman when the chips were down (which they did, demanding that he be turned over to the Joker). – Michael Brown Jul 11 '13 at 21:08
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At a guess, from the way the Joker's mind works?

Pushing either detonator would trip both bombs. Possibly with a slight delay so that the group that pushed the trigger gets a few seconds to reflect on the atrocity they just willingly committed before they go up.

After all, he never says that the detonator in either ferry only detonates the bomb in the other one.

Note: Getting into the Joker's head for a given scenario isn't actually all that hard. Just ask yourself "what would be the most cruelly ironic thing to do that inflicts the maximum amount of suffering on the victims and the highest amount of guilt and self-hatred on the survivors?"

Not pleasant. But not hard.

  • 10
    He does say in his spiel to the two boats that if anyone on either boat presses their detonator, he'll let that boat live. While he generally does do what he says he will, I agree that he may not let the triggering boat live for very long. – KeithS Jul 11 '13 at 16:31
  • 3
    Besides, he only says he will let the boat live -- meaning that he won't press the master kill switch on his own board. But what happens after the civilians push that button, well... That was their doing, not his, after all... – Shadur Jul 12 '13 at 7:47
  • It is also very possible that pulling the trigger blows up your own boat, in a kind of ironic justice... – oɔɯǝɹ Oct 24 '13 at 21:24
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What we know:

  • Pushing neither button would obviously not blow up anyone

  • However, Joker had prepared for this outcome by carrying a third detonator which would almost certainly blow up both ships, and he intended to push the button if neither ferry did so first. Thus, the only way to avoid explosions altogether was for neither ferry to push the button, while Batman threw the Joker off a building, preventing him from using his own detonator.


What we might assume:

Everything the Joker does is convoluted and designed to reveal the ugly side of human nature. He doesn't just blow up a hospital, he says "I'll blow up a hospital unless people murder some random schmuck for me right now". He robs all the gangsters in town just so he can pile their money up with the mob banker on top and set the whole mess on fire.

My guess is that Joker was lying as always:

If one ferry pushed the button, it would blow up their own ship. Thus, the remaining ferry would know that the people on the other ferry just tried to kill them. The dead couldn't really be mourned properly because everyone would know that they had chosen to save themselves by killing strangers.

I suspect that the Joker believed the civilians would chose to push the button, ostensibly to blow up the prisoners, and reveal to the public that criminals were more moral than average citizens.

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I think that the Joker was telling the truth. After all, he says more than once that he is a "man of his word." Batman says at the conclusive scene in which we see the Joker being defeated, "You wanted to prove that, deep down, everyone is as ugly as you." Perhaps that was the motive. Alfred also says at the beginning that "Some men aren't out to get anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, or reasoned with. Some men just want to watch the world burn." I think that that was ultimately the motive of the Joker. I think he was telling the truth in hopes that he could prove that the world is evil and cause Gotham to lose hope. Needless to say, he did not prove that, so we will never know for sure.

  • Relevant Trope: Exact Words (WARNING: TV Tropes link) – Shadur Jun 21 '16 at 9:51

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