Friedrich Nietzsche left an indelible mark on modern philosophy by challenging the ideologies built on a morality that he felt were antiquated. He saw history as a cycle of dynasties dominated by ethics that existed merely to justify the authority of those in power. He sought to expose this reality through his writings on nihilism, specifically in his essay “On the Genealogy of Morals.” This philosophy has shaped much of the 20th century, even invading popular culture with characters espousing Nietzsche’s calls to defy the ascetic priest and fight the restraining power of civilization.
One particularly famous disciple of this perspective is The Joker, maniacal nemesis to the comic book superhero Batman. The character was created in 1939 as the hero’s primary antagonist but has been utilized for philosophical discourse in more recent iterations. The most prominent of these are the 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke and the 2008 film The Dark Knight; both of these works use the conflict between Batman and the Joker to embody the philosophical clash between the ideologies of a strict justice system and extreme nihilism. We know that the man himself would not approve of the actions of this character. Friedrich’s beliefs were life affirming, but the Joker isn’t the first psychopath to be inspired by his writings and won’t be the last. By studying how the Joker has been used as a cipher for nihilism in modern culture, we can learn more about the negative practical applications of Nietzsche’s philosophy.
In Batman: The Killing Joke, writer Alan Moore portrays the characteras a dark and twisted psychopath with a message to convey. The graphic novel tells the Joker’s origin as a man physically and psychologically scarred to point of complete insanity. He plans to prove that anyone can easily lose his or her grip on sanity just by being exposed to life’s simple and harsh realities. Moore’s Joker monologues about the random injustices of everyday life with examples like World War II being started over telegraph pole disputes. He disparages morality as a cheap excuse to construct a society on. These beliefs echo Nietzsche’s words about noble morality defining “good” simply as things the noble class embodied. He accuses Batman of holding a slave morality that views criminality as evil just on the condition that it exists.
The Joker represents the complete liberation of animalistic urges in protest against civilization. His insanity is meant to be a symptom of society having strained his mental state by imposing ethics that stress and harry him to the point of breaking. Once his sanity does break, he resembles the ruin of modern civilization’s attempts to tame humanity’s true nature, which is purely immoral by society’s standards. He must conform or be considered insane, which he’ll truly be in he is forced to conform. The fire in his words about this maddening catch-22 reflects the passion in Nietzsche’s writings about morality and its failings.
The nihilism in the character’s (figurative) makeup more clearly shows in the political agenda of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. This version of the character, portrayed by actor Heath Ledger, paints on his clownish grin as a parody of the smiles we are all expected to paste on for society. When the Joker revels in chaos, he mocks the happiness that order is supposed to bring us. The grayness of morality is a major theme in the film, especially concerning Batman’s vigilantism, and the Joker takes the role of foil to Batman’s moral authority. Nietzsche hoped to wake people up with his ambitious words, and the Joker tries even harder through ambitious and deadly actions targeting society itself. Rather than simply killing a target, the Joker threatens to blow up a hospital unless someone else kills the target. People come in droves to assassinate the man, and they feel justified in their bloodlust without realizing they are playing into the Joker’s sick social commentary on the inherent goodness of people. To save the hospital, they rush to end another man’s life, proving the Joker’s point that morality is pointless. He wants everyone to take up social and ethical anarchy: humanity’s natural state.
In one moment of pontification, the Joker reveals that everything he does is intended to show futility in attempting to control life. We are born inherently corrupt and build systems of order and ethics to bury that corruption under the worlds we create for ourselves; the Joker wants to prove that we will abandon those systems and burn those worlds in times of crisis. He goes about proving this by bringing about the crisis. In the film, Batman represents the reverse of that, and sets out to prove people can be inspired to fight for good in the face of chaos. Batman views his code of ethics as noble morality because criminality is a weakness in society and must be corrected. Despite the violence, his justice is life affirming and transcends the orthodox laws of Gotham City. Joker sees him as a hypocrite for breaking the law while punishing lawbreakers. He aspires to show the hypocrisy of all the goodness that Batman claims to protect.
These stories are full of action and menace but also an equal amount of philosophical commentary. Moore and Nolan recognize that this character poses a physical and metaphorical threat to society. A threat that Nietzsche dreamed of being; he called himself the Anti-Christ and wanted to upset the systems that he railed against in his works. The Joker takes a similar stance, but with more murder and explosions. He claims to be a product of the paradox of morality and aims to expose the reality that everyone is being driven insane by it too. Taming our animal selves has actually stunted our human growth, just as Nietzsche preached. Our morality developed into our own prison, and it took a murdering psychopath to show us the truth. The Joker is Friedrich Nietzsche’s ghost come back to haunt society for not heeding his words.