The Philosophy of The Joker
In preparation for Suicide Squad, we created this special Wisecrack Edition diving into the philosophy of THE JOKER. We highlight some of the most lasting incarnations of the Clown Prince of Crime, including Alan Moore’s origin story in The Killing Joke, Christopher Nolan’s interpretation in The Dark Knight (starring Heath Ledger, RIP), and portrayals by Jack Nicholson (1989) and Cesar Romero (1966). The episode explores similarities and connections between The Joker and his rival-slash-muse, Batman.
Written by: Tom Head
Directed by: Jared Bauer
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon
The Philosophy of The Joker
Hey Wisecrack. This is Jared, clown prince of Wisecrack and today we’re talking about the guy people have in mind when they say Batman has all the best villains: everyone’s favorite nihilist- the Joker. Making his first appearance in 1940’s Batman #1, the world’s busiest evil clown has been featured in hundreds of comics and cartoons, dozens of video games, and four live-action films.
Inspired by Victor Hugo’s hero Gwynplaine in the 1928 film adaptation of The Man Who Laughs, the Joker’s motives have ranged from the sadistic…to the mercenary…to the downright inexplicable. But despite the fact that hundreds of creative minds have worked on the Joker, his outlook on the world has been surprisingly consistent and it represents an extreme version of a reaction we’ve all felt towards the world, at some time or another.
So put a smile on that face and enjoy this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of the Joker. There are a lot of explanations for just how the Joker got to be the Joker. The first account of the Joker’s origin was revealed in Detective Comics #168 back in 1951, and over the past six decades most versions have followed more or less the same plotline: a two-bit villain known as the Red Hood loses a fight to Batman, falls into a vat of skinbleaching and hair-brightening chemicals, and emerges as something entirely new.
Over time, DC built on this origin story. Alan Moore’s 1986 magnum opus The Killing Joke made the Joker’s origin a lot more tragic, making him a reluctant villain who lost his humanity after “One Bad Day” where he failed as a stand-up comic, was informed of the death of his pregnant wife, got framed by the mob, and only then fell into a vat of disfiguring chemicals.
The entire premise of The Killing Joke was that the Joker had hoped to turn Commissioner Gordon into another version of himself by giving Gordon a similarly bad day to prove that even the best of us are never more than one bad day away from becoming, well, whatever the Joker is. More on that later. While The Killing Joke is technically not a canonical story, and the Joker gives a strong indication that he has no idea whether this version of his history is accurate anyway, the comics and animated series have mostly stuck by Alan Moore’s breathtakingly depressing version of the Joker’s origins ever since.
Batman and the Joker have something in common: Both live their lives as responses to traumatic, world-view-shattering events, events that represent an existential crisis most people have to deal with sooner or later: How do you respond when life destroys your sense of meaning? Batman reacts to his parents’ death by forcing meaning upon the world- AKA: dressing up in a bat-eared leotard and battering criminals, which seems reasonable enough by comic book standards. But the Joker’s One Bad Day led him, with equal passion, to embrace meaninglessness and violence- after all, if moral nihilism is correct, then nothing is right or wrong.
According to the French existentialist philosopher Jean- Paul Sartre, recognizing the meaninglessness of existence forces us to realize that we are responsible for creating our own meaning. Choosing how to deal with this loss of meaning animates the entire Batman universe. Batman decides to uphold some form of conventional morality as a
vigilante; the Joker chooses to abandon it entirely; and the villain Two-Face splits the difference, literally flipping a coin to decide whether he’ll uphold conventional morality or rebel against it.
Although the Batman persona is usually presented as a response to personal trauma, not nihilism, more recent versions of the character have begun to sound more and more existential. The Joker is aware of this distinction between himself and The Dark Knight and in recent iterations of the character, he even feels a kinship with him. This places Batman and the Joker in an existential struggle: Batman is trying to convince the Joker to accept conventional morality, while the Joker is trying to seduce Batman into abandoning it.
1989’s Batman connected the characters even more directly, making two-bit mobster Jack Napier the original killer of Batman’s parents. And it was Batman who later sent Napier tumbling into a chemical vat, turning him into the Joker. They gave birth to each other. In Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2005), Batman and the Joker are already fully-formed by the time they meet. Heath Ledger’s Joker was different from any version that preceded him different from any other villain in cinema, really.
As an elemental force of chaos with supernatural charisma, planning, and dumb luck, he didn’t have or need a consistent origin story. He was more of a demon summoned by Batman’s enemies to fight him. A demon they soon learned that they couldn’t control.
In other words, in the world of The Dark Knight, the Joker’s presence in Gotham City is entirely Batman’s fault. By introducing oppressive justice and order, he has thrown the moral universe of Gotham out of balance and created opportunity for a new kind of chaos and evil to emerge. This idea of a society without balance is central to the philosophy of French sociologist Jean Baudrillard. In The Transparency of Evil, he argues that the kind of moral progress Batman seeks would be impossiblebecause even as he seeks to uphold justice by making criminals his bitch, he creates a more extreme version of order for criminals to challenge and subvert this giving birth to a radically antithetical version of Batman’s brand of justice- The Joker.
In trying to completely sanitize Gotham of evil, Batman essentially created a supergerm, a kind of autoimmunity disease in the form of The Joker. In Baudrillard’s words: —evil isn’t the opposite of good. If something unpleasant happens to you, that doesn’t mean its evil. Evil is characterized by a radical indifference to good. This is essentially The Joker. Instead of merely making bad things happen to people like other supervillains, the Joker has a more sinister goal: to completely destroy the concept of what “good” even means. Nobody ever labels themselves as “evil,” everybody considers themselves to be good. So the Joker tries to seduce Batman, Gordon, and others in to abandoning their moral foundations and do something they’d never see themselves doing, thereby corrupting their understanding of “goodness.”
His mischevious passion for breaking down people’s confidence in the division between good and evil is EXACTLY what makes the Joker so intriguing. Most other villains combat good with the opposite. The Joker destroys good. The question of The Dark Knight is not what motivates the Joker it’s how everybody responds to him. In the universe of the film, he’s the devil incarnate. He exists to tempt Batman, and everyone else in the city, into violating their own moral boundaries, thereby showing how shaky their concept of “good” really is.
In the end, Batman wins the fight, but the Joker wins the argument: The once idealistic Harvey Dent is now completely indifferent to the distinction between good and evil. Whether he’s trying to leave his deadly imprint on the world around him or just break down one character’s moral compass, the Joker’s objective seems to be to show us that our pretenses to love and morality are phony, and that we’re a lot more self-serving than we let on. But I suppose the question still remains: why does he bother?
It’s a cop-out to say the Joker is mentally ill. The common classification of the Joker as insane seems to just be a way of demonstrating how little we understand how his mind works, and why it takes a similarly dark and eccentric character to figure him out. What makes the Joker violent, in other words, isn’t a psychiatric problem; it’s an existential one. He is pathologically sane, and he has seen how fragile conventional morality is. He believes that no one is more than one sufficiently bad day away from total depravity. But the Joker doesn’t just abandon traditional moral codes. He subverts them with a sinister kind of humor.
The Joker is a joker, just like it says on the tin. He resembles a clown, he has a huge permanent grin, and he’s been known to use elaborate, slapstick-based murder weapons. It’s his gimmick. For much of the character’s history, it’s been just a gimmick. But starting with the publication of The Killing Joke in 1988, and continuing through the release of The Dark Knight in 2005, there’s been a darker undertone to it. He enjoys doing wretched, horrifying stuff. It’s funny to him. The Joker jokes because, from his point of view, everything is trivial. And while it’s easy to write him off as a sadist, his regular attempts to tempt people into doing things that upset their own sense of right and wrongand reveal their hypocrisy may speak to the very heart of what humor is.
In Book I of his masterpiece The World as Will and Representation, German Philosopher and Prodigy “Firestarter” hair model Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that: The idea of finding humor in nihilism isn’t really new, and in smaller doses it can be a great survival mechanism. In Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism, the contemporary American philosopher John Marmysz argues that laughing at the void can be a really healthy thing to do:
Because the Joker is an active and even joyfully fanatical nihilist who sees it as his duty to confront imposed moral order with the reality of chaos, his entire life revolves around identifying incongruities between what we say we are (moral, righetous, GOOD citizens) and what we actually are (selfish, savage creatures) and he’s having a great time doing it. According to the Joker, conventional morality and the social structures built around those ideas are flimsy and weak. He believes nobody is ever more than one bad day away from abandoning it. His entire career as a villain centers on giving people that one bad day he thinks they need to end up just like him.
The Joker’s signature weapon, Joker venom, is a deadly gas that kills its victims by forcing them to laugh themselves to death while their face contorts into a rictus grin just like his own. And Joker venom is as old as the character; he used it in his debut appearance in 1940’s Batman #1, and most versions of the Joker use some version of it. Proving everybody’s capable of becoming what he is, both morally and physically, is the Joker’s greatest pleasure and obsession. And it has made the character terrifying and relevant for most of the past century. It’s his killing joke.
It’s hard to resist the temptation to glamorize the Joker a little bit, partly because he’s been around so long that we’ve developed a certain amount of affection for the guy. And when you look at the scale of human suffering, injustice, hypocrisy, and greed, it’s easy to relate to the Joker’s commitment to proving we’re not as noble as we pretend to be.
But he isn’t heroic, and he isn’t supposed to be. There have been stories where the Joker did seemingly heroic things that were consistent with his character. In the 1996 Marvel/DC crossover Batman & Captain America, he turned against the Red Skull and refused to join the Third Reich. And in the 2006 conclusion of DC’s Infinite Crisis, he brutally executed the near-omnipotent Lex Luthor for being too much of a control freak. But in both cases writers cleverly avoided having him turn over a new leaf, giving him plausible selfish motives that justified his uncharacteristic helpfulness.
His affection for his archnemesis also isn’t much of a redeeming quality. While there have been numerous instances where he saved Batman’s life or gave up opportunities to kill him, we’ve already established that he wants to turn Batman into another version of himself——and is willing to kill innocent people, or even die himself, to do it. He’s trying to prove a point.
But the Joker wouldn’t make a very effective villain if we didn’t all have a little bit of him in us. We’re suspicious of other people’s moral codes, we’re liable to fixate on their hypocrisy at the expense of our own, and we all have moments where we kind of want to watch the world burn. He’s still smiling at us. And we’re still smiling back.