Batman and the Joker: The Philosophical Angst of Life – Sayandeep Paul

The Batman and the Joker have been one of the most iconic superhero-villain duos of all time. With a fan base spanning across the world and having renowned directors making marks in the international theatres with their adaptations of these characters, the two have served as symbols of pop culture to both viewers and critics alike. Since ages, comic characters have inspired people. However, the new wave of emotional connection and profound internal conflict of ideologies that the Batman & the Joker bring to the fore is a unique phenomenon in itself. The reason for such an occurrence can be traced to their underlying philosophical strife, under the garb of the narrative at hand.

At the onset, it is useful to note (and it may be known to many) that both the Batman and the Joker have somewhat similar origination points in life, well, definitely not their social (or financial) dispositions. However, once they are rid of these surface attributes that aren’t quite inherent to them, we arrive at the crossroads of their crises. Now to begin with, we are grossly familiar with how the demise of Batman’s parents at such an early stage in his life lead to the morphing of his persona into a form, devoid of any beliefs in ulterior purposes or intrinsic meaning. We can’t wholly attribute his transformation to his confrontation with, what is called the absurd (the conflict which is brought forth by the coexistence of a constant human urge to search for values and meaning in life and the inability to find one in this purposeless universe) because he wasn’t necessarily searching for any meaning whatsoever and hence, no potential conflict could have taken place. However, the events, as they materialised, distanced him from such searches altogether and resulted in his realization of the inherent meaninglessness of things. We get to see that side of his character more and more as he develops into the vigilante we know him as. On the contrary, none of the adaptations casts much light on the Joker’s life. In The Killing Joke, although we get some form of a backstory, the Joker himself agrees that he would prefer to have multiple choices in case he is asked about his past life.  However, going through the numerous versions of the character over the years, we can be fairly sure of his coming into close proximity with the absurd or otherwise, some crisis at a point in time which leads him to the same realization of absurdity; after all, Joker quite openly preaches the hollowness of life with an air of utmost devotion. 

Having started off from the same point in life, atleast figuratively, the two characters assume quite the opposite roles as forms of responses to their realizations. The Batman, having faced the meaninglessness in things, goes on to create his own purpose and meaning in life.  His iron clad code of justice and going to the farthest lengths to preserve and uphold it is more of an existentialist response to the absurd. As an existentialist, he acknowledges the purposelessness of being but emerges from his realization by forming his own purpose, through sheer free will, personal responsibility and sense of morality, and immerses himself within it; living it as if it had always been the true purpose all along. He recognizes the fact that “people need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy” and he is more than willing to take up the role of the “silent guardian, a watchful protector”. In a way, he knows the futility of this universe but copes with it by surrendering to a resolve of his own creation. 

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Joker, as we’re introduced to him at the beginning across various media, has a more nihilistic approach towards this absurd universe. He believes that trying to construct a meaning or underlying purpose in life is as futile as searching for a pre-ordained one. His singular worshipping of anarchy is born out of his ingrained apathy for life and by extension, the world and not so much out of his conscious positioning of anarchy as an end goal. He channelises his nihilism into chaos thus purging the world of its false convictions. He is the one who “can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with.” But, as we progress along with him farther, we see a somewhat transformation in his views. The Joker, after coming into contact with the Batman and consequently, his diametrically opposite stance on life, subconsciously creates his purpose: to make Batman see the world for what it is; to justify and hammer his nihilism down his throat. Batman’s uncompromising sense of morality and justice, albeit of his own concoction, is as meaningless and disturbing to the Joker as is any rest of the worldly norms. But, unlike the world, the Batman holds on to his existential purpose ever so strongly which further perpetuates the Joker’s own purpose of “corrupting” him. After all, it takes much more than a “little push” to make the Batman descend into “madness”. The Joker never disowns his beliefs about the ineffectuality of existence, and yet, continues his unending ploys to coerce Batman into accepting his ideologies; “Why so serious?” – the Joker never seems to figure out. Thus begins the possible journey of the Joker from a nihilist to a somewhat absurdist individual; one who accepts the void and yet, rebels against it by trying to create some purpose out of life, which, although just as futile, creates purpose from the act of rebellion alone. He truly gets “ahead of the curve” or as Dr. Ruth from Arkham Asylum puts it, “…we’re not even sure if he can be properly defined as insane…we may actually be looking at some kind of super-sanity here…he can only cope with that chaotic barrage of input [sensory information] by going with the flow…some days he is a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer. He has no real personality…he creates himself everyday…”. For the Joker, truth is a function of time and lack of consistent morality or utter unpredictability is normative.

The Batman-Joker conflict is immortalised since they are stuck in a deadlock, aptly put forth as “what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object”. To the Joker, the Batman “completes” him and provides a sense of purpose however impermanent, and annihilating him makes no objective sense. On the other hand, while disposing of the Joker would make sense from a consequentialist point of view, the Batman is subservient to his own moral code, which, judging the act of murder itself (rather than the possible consequences out of it) as something innately wrong, constantly decides against it. And our ability to relate begins right here. Though it might not be the case that at an absolutely individual level, we have all searched for the meaning of life (and failed to procure one thereafter), but, Joker’s relentless remarks on the emptiness of being create appreciable impact on us. The questions he puts forward on morals, society and the likes are just too apparent to ignore; do we really ever have a fitting answer for that “Just one bad day”? On the one hand, we uphold the ethical standards of Batman from a purely ideological point of view but fail to completely immerse ourselves in it and yet, Joker’s nihilistic stance on the matter seems too real to refute; stuck in our own spiral of simultaneous upholding of norms and denial of the same.

Qetza art , Artist: Jorge Garza, Mexico 

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