The Joker is one of the most liked and acclaimed characters in contemporary artistic discourse, from his depiction in graphic novels to a variety of interpretations on screen. His worldview is nihilistic, devoid of any real ‘end goal’, rather relinquishing the psychological and physical processes he and others must endure in order to reach new philosophical clarity. He’s a villain, a bad guy. So, why does everyone love him?
Undeniably, the vision of the Joker was shaken to its core when he was unexpectedly adapted from part-clown comic hero antagonist to a gritty, dark psychopath by heartthrob Heath Ledger, whose Joker’s sole purpose is the destruction of Gotham City and Batman. Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight managed to immerse an audience in this charismatic vision of chaos, capturing the angst and disillusioned zeitgeist whose anti-capitalistic undertones shot through the heart of Hollywood’s vulgar elite in the post-2008 economic era.
With only 25 minutes of screentime, Ledger’s character usurps what we see as order, like the snake in the Garden of Eden, manifesting as evil itself and planting a seed of doubt - for seemingly no other reason than a belief that good and evil cannot exist independently - in both the mind’s of the Gotham’s citizens and ours. Here’s a Joker that made us stop and think, that revealed to us parts of how we wanted to be. Here’s a Joker who not only had ideas that felt revolutionarily developed for a ‘comic book’ character, but whose aesthetic felt real.
Creating a sort of greasy-cool clown, influenced by musician Tom Waits and Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, this Joker had a hard-boiled appeal, speaking in riddles whilst keeping the audience hanging onto every word. With the ruthless swagger of Clockwork Orange’s Alex, Ledger’s paradoxically understated character has the impact of an invisible sledgehammer, indebted less to previous film interpretations and more to graphic novel versions that were willing to take the character to darker places than ever before.
Alan Moore, best known for From Hell, Watchmen and V For Vendetta, is also the creator of The Killing Joke graphic novel. What was once a menacing, yet light-hearted character, in the hand’s of Moore became something altogether darker, more hateful and besotted by chaos and vengeance. Rather than telling a character-driven story, Moore set about piecing together a cerebral portrait of the person ‘behind the mask’. Now, Joker was unpredictable and irrational, tragic more than darkly comedic, the result of childhood trauma who had finally snapped.
So, what is it we like about the Joker? It’s not just that he’s ‘cool’, or ‘interesting’, or any other fairly non-descript adjective. There must be something profound in his presence, something pertinent about us that he reflects. Is it a self-destructive desire we all possess that he connects with? There’s a fascination with the rebel, even if that is a rebel without any real discernable cause. Joker blurs the line, more than any character before him, of villain and anti-hero. Of someone hellbent on doing something bad just for the sake of it.
As a villain, Joker is a mirror-image of Batman, despite their conflicting ideals. Whenever Batman pushes, Joker pulls, an embodiment of Newton’s Third Law - that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Ledger’s Joker tested Batman’s very being more than any other antagonist in the Gotham universe.
If Batman didn’t tirelessly and endlessly seek justice, Joker could end his own monopoly on crime, nullifying the need for any character. As such, the Joker is a direct result of Batman - almost like a Jungian shadow who stalks the protagonist’s own psyche. The relationship between the two is one of the best developed in comic book-based fiction, each revealing as much about each other as themselves through their actions.
Our attraction may be as simple as a morbid curiosity that wishes to see the ‘good guy’ in Batman being challenged by a worthy adversary. Just like Fight Club’s Tyler Durden, there’s something in Joker that a lot of us can see in ourselves - a side repressed, toeing the societal line for acceptable behaviour. Not unlike Durden, the latest incarnation of Joker, as played by Joaquin Phoenix, was similarly controversial, causing commentators to worry that he too may provoke copycat acts in public. Both appeal as poster-boy to very similar demographics.
On Reddit, the internet’s space where anything can and is said, there are even theories that the two are the same person. In other threads, the two are pitted against each other. The nihilistic string that binds them seems to resonate with a particular audience; male, alienated and angry - the same people for whom Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle became an icon for four decades ago.
All of these characters are outliers in a society they have become isolated from, alienated and numb, dissociated with the ebb and flow of lives lived around them. As philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” These characters are fighting with a society they deem as monstrous and hypocritical for various reasons and have become the product of their environment. A very necessary evil. When we watch these films, absentmindedly nodding in agreement - we too are being made to stare in the abyss.
Characters of this ilk, outcasts with something to say, dangerous figures with a philosophy, sew the seeds in our minds of taking agency in a life where passivity is encouraged and homogeneity rewarded. We daydream and fantasize about taking action, long for revenge against injustice as Durden did, just like Bickle before and recently Joker.
But, in the character of Joker, he’s that one step further removed from reality - he is, after all, a clown in a fictional city. This extra logical leap tells us that our escapist fantasies are okay if they only remain in our mind. Joker gently mollycoddles our own desires to watch the world burn. We don’t need to take action if he already has. In the Joker, we have a conduit for all the rage that a disassociative society built on isolation and exploitation has accrued. In Joker, we are free.
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