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Joker’s Self-Defeating Nihilism

The Joker 80th Anniversary Feature

For 80 years Joker has entertained us and taken on many forms. Sometimes he has delighted with campy antics other times he’s horrified with unhinged brutality. The character is a pop-culture icon, but over the past few decades, he’s become something even more: a nihilistic representative for the darkest parts of our mind. The part of us that says life, existence, is all meaningless. Morality is a sham. Good is an illusion. The void is eternal.

Many stories depict Batman’s fight with Joker coming down to this very notion. Their battle is not of fists but ideology. Batman asserts there is a purpose, while Joker’s mayhem often speaks for itself. Joker always loses thanks to Batman’s iron will but Batman’s victories are temporary. Joker, or some other atrocity will return and challenge life’s value. Chaos, after all, is inevitable. Luckily for Batman, and us, Joker does not need to be defeated to be proven wrong because, by his very behavior, he undercuts his own world view.

In Frank Miller’s seminal Dark Knight Returns, Joker has the chance to topple the world. Joker develops brainwashing lipstick. He kisses one person, gives them orders to go to the next victim, and do the same. Like a virus, Joker can spread his influence without direct involvement. In this context, he gains control over a congress-man. With the politician’s connections, Joker could topple the world. The only limitation on Joker his own ambition, yet, he just drops the whole thing to kill kids at a fair. No coherent plan or design, Joker murders at random. Chaos incarnate, he seems more like a vicious force rather than an individual with a will.

However, upon closer examination, the illusion fades, and desires emerge, betraying the person underneath the carnage. Joker only goes on his killing spree because Batman has come out of retirement. Prior to Batman’s reemergence, Joker is in a catatonic state, withering away in Arkham Asylum. When Joker hears the news of his rival’s return, he speaks for the first time in years, uttering two words: “Batman, Darling.” Joker is no force of nature. He loves Batman and finds joy in their game.

The Dark Knight Joker

Christopher Nolan’s beloved Dark Knight expands on this relationship exploring the reasons Joker enjoys toying with Batman. As Joker freely admits in the film, Batman “completes” him. He gives Joker’s life purpose. For Joker the world is chaos – nothing matters – and, yet, Batman stands undaunted. A sheer force of will he won’t back down in his assertion that good exists. He is Joker’s opposite: the immovable object to Joker’s unstoppable force. Batman is the one thing that won’t buckle to chaos. Batman upends the monotony and excites Joker.

Throughout the movie Joker toys with Batman by trying to prove him wrong. Joker says that people are only “as good as the world allows them to be.” Morality is just a perk of being fortunate. That for which Batman fights, Joker asserts, does not exist.

But, why? Why the need to prove it. Yes, Joker likes messing with Batman but that’s an inadequate explanation. Perhaps, Joker wants to convince himself as well. When Joker gives his famous, “I’m a dog chasing cars” speech, he is either lying or lying to himself because he does have a plan. During the scene in question, Joker wants to convince Harvey Dent that nihilism is right. Joker wants Harvey to go berserk as it will show Gotham City that even the most benevolent of people are monsters underneath. He even acknowledges this to Batman at the end of the film. Joker calls Harvey his “ace in the hole” in “the battle for Gotham’s soul.” This means not only is there a soul, but it is not yet corrupted. Joker is not just trying to prove to Batman that the world is meaningless, he is trying to prove it to himself. After-all, Joker’s is scarred: a smile is permanently etched into his face. The world brutalized him into laughing at horror. If nothing matters then his pain won’t matter.

Joker
Joker’s opening scene sees Fleck struggling to find his characteristic smile as he applies his clown make-up.

2019’s Joker shows Joker coming to be in a world without Batman, and, in so doing, it conveys the pained self underlying his nihilistic view. This incarnation of the Joker is introduced as a broken man named Arthur Flek. He suffers daily. On multiple drugs for mental illness, and a victim of severe abuse, he has trouble co-existing and is kept on the fringes of society. Even his laugh is not allowed since he breaks into laughter at uncomfortable moments. He empowers himself by flipping the narrative. There is no good, no right, and wrong; it’s all a joke. His laugh is fine, society just doesn’t understand what’s funny. He is not mentally ill because there is no illness, only chaos.

Laughing instead of crying, Joker suffers and sees no point. He cares for nothing but he still feels. Near the end of the film, when Joker goes on a late-night comedy show, he kills the host out of spite. Joker even tears up as he recounts how the host degraded him. There is no randomness in the act. He is motivated, spurred on by a fury born from sadness. This makes his somber nihilism. Other Jokers turn the pain into a joke. There’s a theatricality, a performance to their disorder. The Dark Knight’s Joker, for example, doesn’t just kill the mob’s accountant, the man he was hired to kill. No, he burns him alive on a pile of cash – an ironic death for a man whose life had been defined by money. The Joker of Todd Phillips film, however, has no use for such theatrics. His pain is so stark, so ever-present, it must become the joke. He sets up no antics, creates no punchline. He just laughs.

Ironically, it is Joker’s very pain that undoes his nihilistic argument as he shows he has a self. Joker only sees the world’s ugliness, the cruelly of others, and the pain within himself. This blinds him to his own potential for good. For instance, the murder that sparks Arthur’s transformation into Joker occurs because of his compassion. Joker kills the men because they attack, and they attack him because he draws their ire away from the woman they’re harassing. These men, clearly malicious and looking to cause harm, taunt a lone woman on the subway. Scared, she looks at Arthur. He gives her a brief look of understanding then begins to laugh. His laughter distracts the men and the woman is able to escape. At the time Arthur may say his laugh was arbitrary but, as he is in the end, the laugh is his own. He recognized the woman’s pain and then did all he could to help. Of course, he never acknowledges this, for him, it’s not enough to counter the negative emotions he feels.

When Joker helped the woman he did something good; the good came from him. Batman never breaks because he doesn’t depend on the world for his belief in the good. Batman creates his own good then chooses to believe it exists in others. Joker cannot see that by making the choice to do good one is not creating an illusion but expressing a part of themselves.

Whether it be his pain, love batman, or both Joker exposes the existence of his self, a self he is terrified to acknowledge. Joker hides behind nihilism, afraid of the mirror and the pain within.

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