Can The Joker Prove That Society is Meaningless?

Jack Parkos | @laissez_faire76

On April 3rd, Warner Brothers released the trailer for the new movie JOKER starring Joaquin Phoenix as the titular character. Fans are thrilled to have the Clown Prince of Crime back on the big screen and for good reason. The Joker is not just one of the most beloved villains in DC history, but in all of pop culture. Why is an insane criminal one of society’s most loved villains?

The Joker’s Popularity

The Joker is well loved by both comic book fans and mainstream audiences. He has been portrayed amongst countless comics, films, games, shows and more. Perhaps the most loved adaptation was Heath Ledger’s portrayal in The Dark Knight. This film gave us a deep insight into the Joker’s philosophy. This philosophy is different than other villains, he does not care about ruling the world or about money. His lack of clear motive makes him more of a force of nature than a villain and this makes him scarier and in turn, more loved. As Alfred says in The Dark Knight, “Some men just wanna watch the world burn.”

The Motivation of a Murderer

Though his motives are not as clear as revenge or money, the Joker’s motive is much deeper than any other and deals with philosophical and psychological issues. Though there are many adaptations of the character, they all have similar traits. The main sources for exploring his philosophy will be Heath Ledger’s portrayal, the famous comic The Killing Joke, as well as the new film starring Joaquin Phenoix.

The Joker is trying to get people to see the world the way he does. He tortures, kills, and harms people to prove a point. In The Killing Joke, he kidnaps Jim Gordon to drive him insane. In The Dark Knight, he tries to make the mighty fall to prove his point to Gotham. In his mind, we are no more than one bad day away from becoming the Joker. What exactly is it that he wants the people to see?

The Philosophy of a Clown

The Joker’s outlook on the world is based on the real-life philosophy of Nihilism. However, philosophy is taken to extremes. Nihilism is the rejection of all moral principles and holds that life is meaningless. A nihilist will reject all principles and standards as he does not believe that they matter.

This new viewpoint created by the Joker is one of nihilism mixed with his own craziness. One seeing no real point to life and the belief that all the rules, morals, struggles, etc are just one big joke. A normal person may become depressed at the thought of this, but the Joker instead finds it hilarious and laughs at it. In The Killing Joke, he states:

“It’s all a JOKE! Everything anybody every loved or valued or struggled for… it’s all a monstrous demented gag! So why can’t you see the funny side? Why aren’t you laughing?

This statement is extremely nihilistic. One can clearly see the loss of all values and the new dark sense of humor towards the world. He seeks to strip away all the “gags” and embrace chaos.  The Joker calls himself an “agent of chaos” and seeks the removal of all moral codes, seeing civilization and morals as a mere joke and chaos as natural and preferable.

See, their morals, their code: it’s a bad joke. They’re dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. You’ll see, when the chips are down these civilized people will eat each other.

The goal here is for everyone to see the world as he does. To test that moral codes are simply a “joke,” the Joker creates situations where people must decide to drop their moral codes. For example, In The Dark Knight, he threatens to bomb a hospital if the city of Gotham does not kill a man. The Joker is attempting to prove the rule that “thou shall not kill” is a joke and that when a little chaos is introduced, people will drop all their moral codes. When things get uneasy, civilized people will become chaotic and uncivilized.

One Bad Day Away

The Joker wants to prove how easy it is to become him. It is his goal to bring Batman to his level of thinking. To him, all it takes is one bad day for a “normal” person to become extremely nihilistic. His actions have been trying to give people this “one bad day” to bring them to their breaking point.

One possible backstory for the Joker presented in The Killing Joke shows the Joker as a failed comedian who turns to crime to provide for his pregnant wife. On the day of the crime, his wife and unborn child die in an accident. He still must go through with his plans and runs into Batman. To prevent being captured he jumps into a batch of chemicals which deforms his body with the classic clown look. He emerges from this pit with his new outlook on the world.

Throughout his history, the Joker has succeeded and failed at bringing people to his level. In The Killing Joke, he shoots and paralyzes Jim Gordon’s daughter to drive him mad, but this does not work. However, in The Dark Knight, he is able to “win.” The Joker takes Harvey Dent, the district attorney of Gothman form a man who believes in law and justice, to a man who believes everything is “fair random chance.”

The Joker sets up a scheme where there is only time to save either Harvey Dent or his girlfriend. Dent’s girlfriend dies and he comes out scarred as Two-Face. In the hospital, Joker is able to push Harvey off the edge. Harvey abandons all of his principles and goes on a killing spree, only to die. Batman decides to take the fall for Harvey’s killings so that the Joker does not win by proving the mighty can fall after “one bad day.”

I took Gotham’s White Knight and brought him down to our level. It wasn’t hard. See, madness, as you know, is like gravity: all it takes is a little push.

The New Joker on the Screen

The new Joker film with Joaquin Phoenix will provide a new take on the Joker. In the trailer, it shows him starting as a seemingly normal guy who is driven mad, not by chemicals and tragic death, but by seemingly normal things (like mental illness, bullying, poverty, etc).

The internet has already made memes about how the old Joker needed to be thrown into a batch of chemicals to be driven mad and the new Joker just needed to be thrown into society.

This philosophy is far more interesting and deep than any other villain. It is a challenge to the very basis of the society we live in today. It may make some people think about if some of the things they were taught were simply a joke. Even if you do not agree with the Joker, his philosophy is interesting to theorize about. Furthermore, it forces us to ponder over one lingering question: “Are we all one bad day away from becoming the Joker?”

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