Batman has been one of the most popular heroes in the history of DC comics. The ascendancy of this bat costume-wearing vigilante lays not only in his gadgets, ass kicking and extraordinary detective skills, Batman and the series itself are known for having the best villains. While the list of Batman’s best villains can be drawn-out, the Joker has been and will always be the most popular adversary of Batman.
In recent years, Batman movies (The Dark Knight Trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan) and video games (Batman: Arkham, a series of four games developed by Rocksteady Studios) started to focus on the rivalry between Batman and Joker. Both received very positive acclaims. I watched and played them more than one time and paid particular attention to the antagonist the Joker and tried to comprehend the nature of their rivalry. On the surface, we see Batman, representing justice, laws, and order, fighting the maniac, clown-dressing Joker who evidently represents the opposite. Everything is as conspicuous as black and white. It is not. The Joker’s motif (in this essay, I will refer to both Jokers in the movie and in the video games, which belong two different plots despite portraying similar character development) makes one morally question everything. It is indeed his goal, which is to prove that there is no such thing as morality. The line between the moral and the immoral becomes extremely blurry. Such view is demonstrated in the philosophical concept Moral Nihilism (or Ethical nihilism).
In short, moral nihilism advocates for the belief that there is no such thing as right or wrong. Morality is a constructed product through our social interaction in which we, as individuals, create our own senses of what is right or wrong. Such senses or judgments do not hold any universal or even relative truth. Moral nihilism is an interesting view in meta-ethics, the branch in which philosophers seek to understand the nature of ethics. After all, it is always a perplexing matter when talking about ethics. To what extent may an action or decision be considered moral and to what extent they are immoral. We mostly deal with moral relativism, demonstrating that actions can be either right or wrong depending on people, cultures, and systems of laws. However, moral nihilism ultimately rejects the existence of morality and claims our established moral codes are abstracts that are deliberately created by human’s mind. This is the Joker’s doctrine. He believes conventional laws, justice, and moral acts (of heroes like Batman) are meaningless, and so are crimes. In this essay, I will try to decode and analyze this moral nihilist view of the Joker.
The creation of the character “the Joker” was inspired by Victor Hugo’s Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs (1869). The novel tells a tragic story of Gwynplaine, a man with a mutilated mouth which leaves him a perpetual grin, taken place in the 17th century England where the gap between the working class and the aristocracy grew significantly. To be short, without explaining the plot and the metaphor of this classic masterpiece, Gwynplaine’s permanent smile is a sarcastic remark towards the English aristocracy, social inequality, and injustice. This is an important key contributing to the character development of the Joker. The perpetual grin in combination with a criminal mind, sadistic sense of humor, deadly pranks, and a colorful outfit perfectly contradict Batman with his dark bat suit, seriousness, lack of smile and his ultimate intention to protect Gotham. The oppositeness already signifies an everlasting source of conflict between them. Both Batman and the Joker exist just to fight each other. Interestingly, in The Dark Knight’s interrogation scene, the Joker (played by Heath Ledger) says the same thing: they are opposite, yet they are no different from each other. They are both considered “freaks” by the so-called civilized society whose moral codes are only as good as the world allows. He (the Joker) concludes it is Batman that completes him. In the final scene where Batman saves the Joker, the Joker reaffirms their rivalry is like an unstoppable force meets an immovable object and that they are destined to do this forever. They can never kill each other because of Batman’s sense of self-righteousness (he never kills, only uses non-lethal forces) while the Joker never wants to kill Batman but to corrupt his moral code.
In the Batman: Arkham video game series, their contrary courses of action remain the same: Batman trying to stop the Joker and actively using (and advocating for) his no-kill code of conduct while the Joker deliberately trying to corrupt Batman and break his morality, even offering him the chances to kill the Joker himself (see the fighting scene between Batman and Bane in which Batman, Bane or the Joker must die). Later on, the Joker managed to kill himself just in order to set off his ultimate plan to corrupt the vigilante: injecting his infected blood into Batman and transforming him into another Joker. Batman’s inner vision shows his greatest fear as he becomes the Joker and tears Gotham apart, killing everyone.
What makes the Joker becomes the way he is? As I try to trace the origin of the Joker’s insanity and disbelief in morality, I find that his story is more complicated. Since his first appearance in comics in 1940, the Joker’s characteristics as well as his story of origin (why and how the Joker becomes as the Joker), has dramatically changed throughout the Golden Age, Silver Age and Bronze Age of American comics books. Nevertheless, the Joker from Nolan’s movies and Batman video games I mentioned above (the Joker in Suicide Squad does not count) is, I would argue, heavily influenced by Alan Moore’s one-shot novel The Killing Jokes published in 1988 that features a miserable origin of the Joker. In this work, the Joker used to be a regular person (a failed comedian, to be specific) who experienced a lot of hardship, including the death of his pregnant wife, then being framed to be a criminal, then encountered a freak accident with a chemical waste container that creates the sadistic Joker that turns into a criminal mastermind. However, unlike other villains, this Joker does not struggle for power or money. He dedicates his plans to prove that everyone, including Batman, can be insane and corrupted as the Joker himself. This is the concept of “one bad day,” meaning that anyone is just “one bad day” away from being as psychotic as the Joker. In Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), the Joker (who appears out of nowhere but surely shares Alan Moore’s depressing version of a criminal clown) manipulates people to commit acts that are hard to distinguish what is morally right or wrong.
To be continued