A Note from the Editor: This article was written just prior to the release of Todd Phillip’s The Joker, which recently released on the big screen. As such, the article focuses on and takes into account the many prior iterations of the character, the Joker, in film and comics.
Perhaps we’re intrigued by the mystery surrounding his origin, or maybe we admire his wit and fearlessness in the face of danger. It could also be that he’s so frighteningly insane we can’t look away. But with a new film being released, it may be worth examining another reason why we find the Joker appealing—he’s refreshingly honest about life’s inevitable suffering.
While we don’t know exactly where he came from, we do know something tragic happened to the Joker. Perhaps we find this quality relatable because we experience injustice or misfortune in our own lives. In one of his most popular origin comics, The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, the Joker says, “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.”People and institutions have disappointed every one of us to some degree, and because betrayal can be agonizing, that is where many might find the Joker appealing and relatable.
We can see an example of a “bad day” in the film The Dark Knight. The Joker shows Harvey Dent that tragedy is inevitable when his fiancé, Rachel Dawes, is murdered without a timely rescue from the police or Batman. Even though Dent had been a hero and an upstanding man, he could not protect the one he loved most from suffering. The revelation that injustice was beyond his control quickly turned Dent into a villain: Two-Face. Thus, the Joker succeeded in winning over the one man on whom Gotham’s hope seemed to rest.
But it may be easier to understand the Joker’s take on suffering with Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy. Nietzsche challenged our notions of good and evil with a concept he called the “superman.” This superman is not the guy in red and blue tights you see on the cover of DC comics. This superman challenges the moral code put forward by the rest of society with power. If you have power, you make the rules. You are not merely a man but a superman.
Humans have historically gained power through self-discovery and ingenuity. We question old ideas in discovery of new more effective truths. What if the moral codes are just concepts imposed upon us by manipulative authorities who just sought power to control others? If so, the superman could rewrite morality and become the master. He would live without accountability to anything or anyone outside of himself.
Wouldn’t someone whom society (the church, the government, and the like) has failed want that kind of power? We get a sense of this with the Joker. It makes sense that he would then want to rewrite the rules. People and institutions have disappointed every one of us to some degree, and because betrayal can be agonizing, that is where many might find the Joker appealing and relatable.
Following The Dark Knight, “Why so serious?” became a mantra for fans. Similarly, it was Nietszche who wrote, “But to me, on the contrary, there seems to be nothing more worth taking seriously…Our old morality too is part of that comedy!” If good and evil are illusions, then trying to prevent harm seems pointless because suffering will happen and life’s victims are just unlucky. Thus, we shouldn’t take society’s morality too seriously. This old morality is a joke and the Joker can laugh as he does the most sinister things. Pain, suffering, and tragedy are only negative because society deemed them so, and a real power player can turn darkness on its head and rewrite the rules of morality.
Perhaps that’s why the Joker claims in The Dark Knight that he’s “not a monster.” He’s just “ahead of the curve.” The clown always smiling would no doubt laugh or scoff at society’s rules and protocols that fail to protect people; it’s a comforting illusion we’ve put in place to keep us from the truthful dangers about the world and ourselves that we cannot escape.The Joker is right that we can’t avoid tragedy, but perhaps by conquering our pain, we can become heroes instead of villains.
The Joker is right that suffering and tragedy are not completely within our control and people in authority have long used their powers maliciously. There also is a time to question what society deems right or wrong. Maybe the Joker is not completely crazy after all but a genius who’s misguided, but negative events like the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, have been linked to the character’s popularity. Although the connections are debatable, it’s worth asking the question: How seriously should we take nihilistic philosophies like the Joker’s views?
By adopting his response to injustice, we arrive at an empty philosophy. I am not optimistic that the transfer of power from one man to another will prove to be any more promising. We will still have suffering, the new superman will eventually use his power for evil, and life’s tragedy will never be eliminated.
Batman had one bad day as well that shaped his perspective. While the Joker’s tragedy is unknown, Batman’s was when his parents were murdered. In either case, they are both victims of tragedy, bad luck, and immense suffering, yet they respond in entirely different ways. The Joker takes vengeance on the society that let him down by furthering more tragedies while Batman upholds a traditional idea of justice in an effort to prevent future tragedies.
Nietszche may think Batman is the weaker of the two because he embodies what he called “the slave morality” while a superman, like the Joker, holds the “master morality.” According to Nietschze, the “master” is the man who makes the rules and the “slave” relies on principles outside of himself. But what if there really is an objective right and wrong and we don’t get to make the rules? Maybe this is why the Bible describes Christ’s followers as servants to righteousness (Romans 6:22). If God exists, then He is the superman to whom we’re all accountable. And because He created us, He knows what’s best for us. If that is true, then part of the Joker’s response to life’s suffering may be more appealing, but Batman’s response is nobler.
I have not yet been able to see Todd Phillip’s new film. Like most people, I am excited for a new addition to the Joker’s narrative. Maybe we can learn more about the tragic backstory behind the Clown Prince of Crime and enjoy the character without taking him too seriously. The Joker is right that we can’t avoid tragedy, but perhaps by conquering our pain, we can become heroes instead of villains.
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You can find Clark’s website at www.thesolidfaith.com