“You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world”– John Rogers
Every good story is like an essay. Each character signifies some philosophical thought which is then being tested throughout the narrative. A villain symbolises an objection or a counterargument to the values of the main hero. So, let us ask: what is the Joker as an antagonist supposed to represent?
Now, I guess most of us have recently seen the Joker costume at a Halloween party. Which is kind of weird when you think about it. Why would anyone dress up like a fictional terrorist for Halloween? I think it is because the Joker presents a very strong argument against how contemporary society is governed and terrorism works for him as an expression of that contention. Therefore, people admire the ideas represented by the Joker, even though they might not agree with him in his entirety. The purpose of this article will be then to investigate the meaning and significance of the Joker’s philosophy.
Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything from the recently released movie (although I will use some isolated quotations). I will argue the position that the Joker succeeds in demonstrating that our society is governed by lies to a considerable extent. The Joker is the embodiment of extreme nihilism. He alludes to the fact that our society needs a radical change. However, the Joker is quite aware that there is a no viable alternative to the current state of affairs, and that is why he mocks our futile endeavours to construct order out of chaos.
It is very unclear what the Joker really wants. He does not care for money, neither for fame or the ultimate destruction of mankind. On some occasions, we may even see him sparing lives of his captives. What I think he cares about the most are people’s opinions. Notice that his terrorist acts are similar to classical trolley problems. For instance, the Joker mostly provides people with a choice on who is going to live and who is going to die. Thusly, he is keenly interested in people’s reactions to these scenarios and most importantly in public perception.
To understand the Joker, let us turn our attention to his origins. We know very little about his mysterious past, only that it was scared by some traumatic experience. This goes in line with the Joker’s credo: “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy” (Moore, 2019) In this regard, the Joker is the perfect foil to Batman. Whereas Batman decides to combat his tragic past, namely the death of his parents, by embracing the rule of law, the Joker decides to tear down the governing principles of modern society. That is why the Joker enjoys the dispute he is having with Batman. If he succeeds to overcome Batman, then his normative interpretation of the world is correct.
Nevertheless, the Joker does not resort to some shallow ideology to explain his dissatisfaction with society. His terrorist acts are aimed to combat the very root of societal problems, the so-called “Noble Lie”.
A Lie Conjured up by an Ancient Philosopher
In The Republic Plato postulates that to create a just society, we would have to feed its participants with a fictional founding myth called the Noble Lie according to which all men are brothers, but each has a different value or purpose. Such a lie, supported by a state-wide propaganda, would prevent citizens from questioning the social hierarchy.
Sounds familiar? Indeed our societies are governed by fictional narratives that underpin social order. To exemplify how the Noble Lie works, let me borrow an example from the movie The King’s Speech. For those of you unfamiliar with this movie; it is a story about England’s Prince Albert who overcomes his speech impediment as well as his fears of becoming a king thanks to the help of his speech therapist Lionel Logue.
Seems like happy ending, right? Yet, according to Slavoj Žižek this movie could be read as a pretty sad story. To elaborate, Prince Albert starts off as a normally reasonable person who understands that it is impossible to possess kingly dispositions. Over the course of the movie, Lionel succeeds in rendering Albert to be foolish enough to accept the role of a king.
This is best illustrated when Lionel provokes the king by sitting on the coronation chair:
Excerpt from the script:
Albert: Get up! You can’t sit in there! Get up!
Lionel: Why not? It’s a chair
Albert: That it is not a chair. That is St. Edward’s Chair.
Lionel: People have carved their initials into it and it’s held in place by a large rock.
Albert: That is the Stone of Scone, you are trivialising everything-
Albert: Listen to me… !
Lionel: Listen to you?! By what right?
Albert: Divine right, if you must! I’m your King!!!
As you can see, Lionel managed to convince Albert that a chair is not just a simple chair, that a stone is not a mere stone, and that something like a “divine right” really exists. The movie quite aptly illustrates how the Noble Lie works. We take on similar symbolic roles such as father, employer or teacher, and society makes us think that the authority we assume is grounded in some divine principles. However, the divine principles are epistemically untraceable, and therefore their existence rests on the Noble Lie.
Now, if the society is established on false assumptions, then it obviously yields some negative results. For instance, social inequality rests unjustified and the way we treat people is essentially unwarranted. This I regard to be the crux of the Joker’s philosophy.
The Joker vs The Noble Lie
Firstly, let me demonstrate that we are chasing the right rabbit and that the Joker is in fact aware of the Noble Lie. Hence, let us consider this quote from the recent movie:
Oh, why is everybody so upset about these dead guys? If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me. I pass you everyday and you don’t notice me! But these guys, what, because Thomas Wayne went and cried about them on TV?– The Joker
As you can see, the Joker recognises that our society prioritises certain people over others and not enough attention is being paid to individual suffering.
Now, you might ask: why is the Joker so keenly interested in destroying traditional moral codes? Well, the DC Comics universe hints that the Joker used to be a failed comedian struggling with depression. His experience of being a mentally ill outcast showed him that moral codes are not a solution to his suffering, rather they are the root-cause. As pointed out by his own joke: “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” Don’t have it or don’t exist – both are equally plausible. Hence the Joker, as a former victim of the common sense morality, might be simply taking revenge on moral codes.
Having established that; we may now explain several of the Joker’s terrorist acts in the Dark Knight. The reason why he attempts to assassinate the mayor, is his own way of demonstrating that our society, and especially the media, will be so over-concerned with the life of “one little mayor”, whilst being blind to different kinds of atrocities happing everyday. Moreover, in his trolley problems he either deprives the participants of any agency or he simply kills them all. Which is not how trolley problems are supposed to work!
There the Joker laughs at how rigid our moral reasoning is, since it rests on false assumptions. It craves the Noble Lie the same way the human body desires water. For the Joker, it does not matter whether you opt for consequentialism or deontology. Both are equally as wrong and baseless in his eyes.
The Joker’s Message
The Joker’s message is especially relevant in the current post-truth era. The past few years have been a testament to the growing dissatisfaction with the Liberal World Order. People resort to voting for nihilistic figures, such as Donald Trump, whose sole purpose is to tear down the system. Furthermore, the trust in media and scientists is being undermined on a daily basis. No-one knows a solution to this political conundrum, but these are signs of the need for a more radical change. The system’s insistence on gradual reform simply won’t do.
But the true problem remains; whether we are ready to really experience the hopelessness of our situation. As Joker himself said at a certain moment in the new film: “I laugh because I have nothing to lose, I am nobody.”
Lacan, Jacques, and Bruce Fink. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. W.W. Norton, 2007.
Moore, Alan. Batman – The Killing Joke. DC Comics, 2019.
Plato, and D. J. Allan. Republic. Methuen, 1965.
Žižek, Slavoj. “Redefining Family Values on Film.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 3 Oct. 2013, Accessible at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2013/oct/03/slavoj-zizek-family-values-on-film.