From Joker (2019) to the TV series Gotham (2014-19), videogame Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009) and cartoons like Super Friends (1973-85), Bruce Wayne’s parents have died over 10 times on-screen. The first live action interpretation of this Batman legend happens in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). It’s the standard stuff – Thomas and Martha Wayne head down a dark alley with young Bruce after a show, they’re confronted by muggers, pearls tumble slow-mo and Bruce cradles his dying parents and/or screams at the heavens/sobs. But there’s a big difference in Burton’s treatment of the mythos. In his version, before pulling the trigger, gangster Jack Napier delivers the cryptic, sinister line: “Have you ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight?”
And so was uttered one the most famous lines in comic-book movie history, which also foreshadows the events about to unfold around the grown-up Bruce Wayne/Batman (Michael Keaton). It’s this iconic linguistic puzzle that ties Jack Napier/Joker (Jack Nicholson) and Bruce Wayne/Batman together, acting as a plot device that not only sounds cool (and has inspired many tattoos), but also belies the relationship between the villain and hero.
The line is again used when Bruce Wayne and the Joker face-off mid-way through the film. Before putting a bullet in Wayne, the Joker recites the line, albeit slightly differently, in that he says, “Have you every danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
The substitution of by for in has caused much chatter in YouTube comment sections, but the idea remains the same. After shooting Wayne, Joker tells him that he says that to all his prey, and that he just likes the sound of it. While it may be just a throw-away line for the Joker, there are countless message boards on the internet dedicated to deciphering this philosophical sounding question. Theories range from whether, the Joker “is basically asking Bruce if he’s ever tangled with fate” or, like the movie suggest, “he just likes the sound of it.”
Whatever it means to pop culture aficionados may be uncertain, but what it means to Bruce Wayne in the movie is certain: the Joker killed his parents in that alleyway years before. And it becomes incredibly important to the conclusion of the film. When Batman and the Joker square off in the finale, Batman turns the question back on the Joker before knocking him out, letting the Joker know that he is Bruce Wayne, and that vengeance is his.
It’s since become inspiration for a bad song, and a good song from Prince, while also being remixed by fans and put into later Batman properties like the Arkham Asylum game and as a meme drawing a connection between Batman (1989) and The Dark Knight (2008). Other memes have overlaid the line on Hilary Clinton, Jared Leto and Margot Robbie, and even Jeffrey Epstein, showing how the meaning can shift from proposing a political agenda to basic fan art.
The line is so iconic, it’s even crossed comic book rivalries and appears in Uncanny X-Men #258, when Wolverine uses it alongside “Do you feel lucky?” from Dirty Harry (1972), demonstrating its status alongside one of the most quoted lines in movie history.