A Descent into Darkness: Inside the Joker's Head

For over 70 years, The Joker has been seen as an icon for not only Batman lore, but madness, insanity, and evil itself. He has been regarded as a personification of chaos and anarchy and one of the most unique villains ever to grace media. His dark humor and persona have taken on various forms over the years with several amazing performances from the likes of Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and Mark Hamill, all giving their own spins on the character. He has gone from a homicidal psychopath to a harmless prankster and back to his dark roots in full force in the last decade or so, becoming his now dominant image.

What is it exactly that makes this man tick, however? Why does he not value money, power, or revenge and simply lusts to watch the world burn? Is he legally insane or just an evil abomination hiding behind a mask of insanity for his own ends? Does he actually hate Batman? These are some of the questions that most fans have asked when examining this villain and there have never been any true conclusions based off of concrete evidence. His origins vary from a broken family man, to a stand-up comedian, to a sadistic hit man who eventually started his own gang. The only constant in any Joker tale is this: he is obsessed with Batman.

Why though, why Batman? This is the perfect question to open up with because Joker is truly defined by his eternal battle with Batman; a battle between two legendary icons both born on very bad days and seeking to make a difference in the world. On one side is Batman, who suffered a tragedy and dedicated his life to ensuring that no one would feel the same torment he feels. A man driven by anger and vengeance, but who controls it with his undying sense of moral and discipline, never taking a life, and watching over the people of Gotham each and every night.

On the other side, you have The Joker, a man who also once had a very bad day, the contents of which are varied and mostly unknown. Unlike Batman, however, who tries to see the good in the world and help it, the Joker sees life as a sick little joke with no truly good people within it. Joker sees the true pattern of living every day with rules to be the real insanity of life; going to work every day after hours of traffic for people who don't give a second thought about you, and toiling your life away paying bills and taxes and gratifying others until you are too old to even make it to the bathroom without help. That, to him, is the sick joke of society.

He prefers to watch the world burn and murder as many people as he can for his own, personal amusement. He feels no love for anybody or anything and believes people are just as bad as he is, so why should he feel anything towards them? The world is cruel and we're just here along for the ride says the Joker, so why not have some fun with it? The Joker was alone in this world, just another number in a deck of cards; he never had the honor of being a king or any of those face cards, he was just another carbon copy of others.

Then there was Batman, a man who was like him in so many ways and someone for Joker to focus his inner demons on. The Joker values his battles with Batman above all else as it gives him a reason to get out of bed each and every morning to embark on crime and murder. To Joker, Batman is his straight man who is needed to feel the blunt of his punchlines. Above all else, he wants to break Batman and force him to give up his code of morality, even if that means Batman killing him. The Joker finally had a purpose in life, something to do and enjoy doing every day, and rise up the ranks of the deck until he was a face card finally, one that disrupts the flow of numbers and other faces; a Joker. There's only one in every deck and The Joker now has that honor of being that one of a kind face card.

This is indicative of why Joker does not want money or power; he would be just like the scum of low-class criminals and mobsters. He is above that and wants to fashion himself a new area of criminality that he is the master of. He is the Joker, not a carbon copy of other villains and criminals, so he would never sacrifice that for something as trivial as money and power. The Joker is a man who enjoys what he does, and will use money and power to enlist others, but it is not his goal at the end of the day. Disrupting social order and replacing it with chaos is his goal and what is separating him from every other criminal, allowing him to always retain that Joker card status in the deck.

The Joker now has the attention he craved his whole life, someone to feel the blunt of his dark humor, and a goal in life to focus on every day; to prove that anyone can be corrupted, even Batman. He can now take out all his inner demons from his bad day and unleash them onto the world in madness where every victim is just another number as he used to be. Regardless if it is a man, woman, or child, the Joker's thousands of victims are random, indicative of just how the Joker sees life; unpredictable and unjust. That's the true joke and Batman is trying to save it? Joker can't help but laugh in his face every time he sees the man.

This raises an interesting question, though: does the Joker actually like or hate Batman? Various Joker incarnations have undergone different answers to this question with some seeking to just kill him, while others hate him at first, but come to love their battles with him, and others that became the Joker simply to fight Batman. The answers are varied, but one thing is true in every, single one of them; the Joker finds value in his battle with Batman.

The answer to me is no, Joker definitely does not hate Batman at all. Batman has given Joker a purpose in life, a reason to live; how can Joker hate someone who has given him all that? The Joker sees Batman as a deranged friend and that is the real tragedy of his character if there ever was one. So many people have abused, abandoned, and failed him in his early life, that the closest thing Joker has ever had to a friend is a man who beats him to a pulp on a routine basis. Batman and Joker are the two sides of the same madness that drives them and Batman will always be there for Joker to engage in a battle of wits with.

Joker sees Batman as a man to focus on and someone to break to finally prove his point. He does not hate Batman, but rather his ideals and values and seeks to break them. This can cause frustration at Batman when he is too stubborn for the Joker sometimes, but I believe Joker truly appreciates Batman and loves his battles with him. The Joker sees Batman as a symbol of madness just like him, how else can you explain a man dressing up like a bat jumping off rooftops when he could be at home? He loves that Batman is just like him, but also different in his ideals, giving Joker a true challenge to embark on. For many, a challenge is the ultimate will and motivation to live and the Joker is actually no different in this regard.

One last fascinating question many fans have thought about it is this; Is the Joker actually insane or is that simply just another ploy? The other question that goes along with this is why would Joker fake insanity, what does he have to gain? For one thing, the Joker avoids getting the death penalty, despite murdering thousands of people and committing scores of other crimes, for reason of insanity and is instead incarcerated in Arkham Asylum, Gotham's institute for the criminally insane, to be cured. There, the Joker is a keen manipulator of everyone from the security staff to his own therapists, one of which was seduced by him and became his psychotic plaything and sometimes girlfriend... long story, but everyone at Arkham is a potential victim of his manipulation.

It would seem that Arkham Asylum is the perfect "home" for the Joker where he can easily break out, avoid the death sentence, and form connections with other creatures of the night. Indeed, in some comics, it seems Joker can escape the Asylum at will and just uses the facility as another staging ground for his plans. Obviously, for a human being to actually fool hundreds of state-appointed therapists to believe he is insane when he is really not would require a great deal of cunning and even a genius level intellect, but the evidence supporting this is that Joker has those exact traits. He is a borderline genius who has a great understanding of how people function mentally, knowledge that helps him manipulate easily. Even if he were insane, this trait is still there; the villain does indeed know how to fool others like child's play.

My thought is that, while the Joker definitely has some screws loose, he is hiding behind a mask of insanity to stay in a place he can escape easily. He seems to have no need or longing for a cure and only laughs in the faces of those that try to find one. I know Joker does not truly care if he dies or not, but he would rather be executed by his best friend, Batman, and prove his point that anyone can be corrupted instead of simply being executed by society; he suffered through that already in his early life every day of his miserable existence back then.

There is my attempt to dissect the true madness, or lack thereof, inside this heart of darkness known simply as The Joker. While there will always be unknowns in his character, from his origins to his exact thought process, he is a truly unique villain in not only Batman lore but in media in general. Whatever the conclusions, one thing is for sure: The Joker prides and defines himself in his battles with Batman, the very feud that has given him a purpose in life and allowed him to become this iconic image of madness and anarchy. Take care everyone.

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Comments 18 comments

mejohnson profile image

mejohnson 4 years ago

Great insight on one of the great crafted villains. It makes me wonder who would the Joker be without Batman.

cperuzzi profile image

cperuzzi 4 years ago from Freehold, NJ

This was excellent.

It was a well reasoned analysis of the Joker. I found it well articulated and certainly had much merit.

The only two things that I'd disagree with was 1) he does hate Batman and 2) he's insane.

As for the "hating Batman" thing - while it is one writer's opinion, it is Kevin Smith. Please feel free to refer to the Wiki summary of Batman: Cacophony.

Smith created a situation where he was shot up full of anti psychotic drugs. The Joker quite calmly and somewhat sanely said that he hated him.

As far as the Joker being insane there are just too many instances of him going down that road for him to be anything but that. I think the best illustrations of this came with Underworld Unleashed where he traded his soul for a bunch of cookies and in Joker: Devil's Advocate where he was hooked up to be executed and simply fell asleep.

However, given the empirical evidence of the case you made, on your grounds, I'd agree with you. He may not be crazy and he may not hate Batman.

The big thing about the Joker is that he is a wild card and his thoughts are really only known to him.

Great hub.

thejokethatkills profile image

thejokethatkills 4 years ago Author

@mejohnson: Thanks; Joker probably would be still out there in some shape or form, but definitely not how he is now.

thejokethatkills profile image

thejokethatkills 4 years ago Author

@cperuzzi: Yeah, there are so many different interpretations on the character that certain points can contradict at times. It does, in many ways, depend on the writer as you said. Thanks for the compliment and taking the time to read my article, I appreciate it.

One Eyed Dragon 4 years ago

In general the different- and more famous- adaptations of the Joker are the ones that suggest that he isn't crazy. The Mark Hamill Joker, for instance, is not insane- he was a murdering psychopath before, and he was a murdering psychopath afterwards. Apart from the tie-in comic that explains how he escaped the Phantasm, the Hamill Joker is consistently evil. Same with the Nicholson and Ledger Jokers.

Though, in point of fact, neither the Evil nor Crazy versions of the Joker would be found legally insane in the real world. Gothamn just has a messed up system there.

thejokethatkills profile image

thejokethatkills 4 years ago Author

Can't argue against that. Gotham is a corrupt city on every level.

One Eyed Dragon 4 years ago

In this particular instance, I think it is less corruption and more that everyone in Gotham is crazier than he is.

Dominique L profile image

Dominique L 4 years ago from Oregon

A lovely, well thought out Hub, sir. And a brave one too, as it takes a special kind of person to even think of getting inside The Joker's head. ;)

That said, I would have to disagree with a few points. If you read the old stuff from the 30's, he was just a guy trying to be on top of the gangland stack (and which resulted in the very fun competition between himself and the gang headed by The Sparrow, which The Sparrow ended up winning before revealing herself to be a woman, which added insult to injury). It was about money and power.

But The Joker, like a few other Batman villains (most notably Poison Ivy and Catwoman), has had such long and varied careers written by people who had such vastly different ideas about where the character was coming from that it all starts to actually flow together and make a very rich, multi-dimensional character.

But I actually think that the way The Joker can mold himself to all those different versions with ease is the key to understanding him. In "Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth," Grant Morrison talks about The Joker as a super-conciousness who can be anything at any time and become anything he wants to at any moment. It's not that he BELIEVES he becomes it, be becomes it, which makes the character and his head ultimately fluid.

So, my point in bringing this up is that I agree with most of your conclusions, but not your proofs, as, I think, looking at The Joker in human terms, and assuming he feels human things and has human motivations is a mistake. The Joker is not human. The Joker never was human, that's why no one can peg his origin. He's just always been there, like your shadow. The Joker is the one Batman villain who is truly elemental. The Joker is every terrible news story, war photo, horror movie, urban legend, nightmare and atrocity wrapped up in a purple suit. He is every bad thing one human being can do to another, and because he's so utterly inhuman, he's so scary.

When I think of The Joker, a quote from "The Man Who Laughs" by Victor Hugo pops to mind: "The disconcerting enigmas which in nature we call caprice, and in human life chance, are splinters of a law revealed to us in glimpses." In short, just because you don't get it, doesn't mean it doesn't mean something on some level.

And as for Batman and The Joker, I think people too often overlook the interaction of The Joker and James Gordon, because if The Joker goes down, it should be Gordon who does it. Gordon is a normal person just like you and me, having to deal with the madness, just like you and me, and having already had his life steadily destroyed by it. If anyone has earned the right to take The Joker down, it's Gordon.

thejokethatkills profile image

thejokethatkills 4 years ago Author

Good points all around and well said, but I think Joker is also somebody who can reinvent himself any time he wishes, so his characterizations can be very diverse and varied. Comics such as the Killing Joke can very well show that Joker has been known to show some form of emotion and human understanding. He himself knows that there is something buried deep inside him that made him who he is, but does not remember it. He just embraces who he is and brings death and misery to the world.

As far as his motivations, I think they aren't human at all as he craves nothing but death and destruction and having a constant battle with Batman. The legacy that Joker leaves behind is very elemental, but I believe the Joker himself is a man as a character, which makes his character so disturbing; he is capable of leaving behind such a scar on the world and feel nothing towards it. He embodies random crime and senseless killing in war and tragedies as you said, but as for the central being of the character, I think he was once human who became a monster. The true appeal of his character to me is seeing how this one skinny man became such a fearful entity for others.

His character also varies from the writer who creates the stories he is in; some even show him crying (The Joker Novel). I think Joker is a character that can ultimately be left up to each, individual person's speculation, making him a timeless entity in itself. Thank you for the complement and your thought on my article; they were very well worded and I understand your points.

cperuzzi profile image

cperuzzi 4 years ago from Freehold, NJ

One would also need to ask who the entire crazy show is for?

The Joker has had pretty much infinite power (as demonstrated in the Graphic Novel, Emperor Joker). The world he made and the people he created - plus the people he tortured were insane.

The analysis that I'd make is that more than the need for death and destruction, the Joker craves an audience. He wants to be seen. At the end of Last Laugh when they put him in a prison cell in the Arctic, they specifically took out mirrors and monitors because they were certain that he was doing all of his insane acts for an audience.

That was the Joker's punishment.

Really... the case I'd make for his insanity is that he really doesn't even know his past. He said it himself in The Killing Joke. "If I'm going to have a past, I want to make it multiple choice." Sometimes he remembers his past one way, sometimes he remembers it another.

Does he hate Batman? Yes, I believe he does. Why - when he had god-like power did he make it a point to kill Batman every day and resurrect him over and over again? Yes, it's funny from a certain perspective - but why do it, unless there was a kind of hatred there.

As I said, I could be wrong. What I'm sure about, is that character truly is a wild, unknown variable, whose purpose is to keep unpredictable so that the Batman can't figure him out.

thejokethatkills profile image

thejokethatkills 4 years ago Author

Well, the fact that Joker kept brining him back over and over again may speak to the concept that he has an unhealthy addiction to Batman. Even if Joker likes him, he would still relish in his own pain and suffering because that's just the type of person he is; he does not show attachment towards things the way normal people do. His relationship with Batman is one of violence and deception and that a what Joker loves about it so much; he's a sadist and a cruel mind. He seeks to break Batman first and foremost, but his life wouldn't be as much fun without him, hence his need to always want him back. Mark Hamill said it best "Without Batman, crime has no punchline". Again, it all boils down to the particular writer and actor portraying him some times.

As for Joker needing an audience, I completely agree because the Joker does love attention as I put in my article. His whole life he was a nobody, just another face until he rose amongst the ranks with his crimes and madness. Joker relishes in death and destruction because he thinks life is a joke and it also gives him a unique place in the world, gaining a lot of attention. Again though, Joker seems to need Batman to be the straight man for his audience. Joker has said once before that he would never kill Batman because he's just too much fun. Other version contradict this of course, but I believe a major component of the character has been attachment to Batman; this is also one of the reasons why Joker is so unique. His relationship with the hero is unlike many other hero and villains relationships.

One Eyed Dragon 4 years ago

There are theories amongst some fans and writers that the Joker acts like he does because he knows he is a comic book villain (to a greater or lesser degree), and is just trying to be the best and most memorable supervillain he can be. THAT is who is audience is; it is also the reason he often claims that the world "makes no sense" and ties in to some degree with Morrison's idea of his so-called "super-sanity"- if he is the only man who knows the whole world (nay, the whole MULTI-verse) is made up, then he might be the only sane man.

Though, he is still obviously a violent and attention-seeking sociopath with sadistic tendencies and a pathological obsession with Batman, and knowing he is a comic book character doesn't really excuse his actions (ignoring the fact that the writers make him do it all). Legally, he is not insane, because to be legally insane means you are incapable of understanding that you are breaking the law, and every version of the Joker knows and BRAGS about breaking the law.

For the record though, there are plenty of humans in real life who kill and destroy for fun. The only reason none of them are as bad as the Joker is that they would never get away with half the stuff he has done. And Joker doesn't have to kill Batman over and over again because he hates him- he could, for instance, simply love killing him, or he could have been trying to break him again. Lots of different reasons. Plus, the persons whose attentiion he craves the most, is Batman himself, and hurting someone is a good way of getting their attention.

Dominique L profile image

Dominique L 4 years ago from Oregon

Listening to all this has made me think something that is highly, highly tasteless (when has that ever stopped me?), but here goes anyway.

Batman and The Joker essentially need each other for their own reasons, even though their relationship is what it is. So, essentially it seems we have a solid example of an abusive relationship. They can't keep away from each other, no matter the harm they do, and they have a million excuses for not keeping away from each other (justified or not, they are still excuses).

thejokethatkills profile image

thejokethatkills 4 years ago Author

Yeah, in a way their relationship is one of an unhealthy addiction to each other. Joker relishes in Batman's torment and anguish as a deranged rival while Batman will never kill him because he hopes for this man to get cured one day; a life, even as twisted as there Joker's is still a life to Batman. Paul Dini once said that is Batman's underlying goal, no matter how little he starts to believe in it over the years. He stops these criminals, but refuses to kill them out this vain hope that they will one day help themselves and be cured. While this may be a noble ambition, Batman knows deep down that Joker is never going to be cured because he too far down this road of evil. It's essentially an unhealthy relationship to be sure with both Batman and Joker becoming accustomed to how things work now in their battles.

One Eyed Dragon 4 years ago

In some stories the Joker HAS been cured (relatively speaking)- said stories being ones where he thought Batman was dead. Once, he thought he had killed Batman, then got surgery to hide his skin and grin and went off to start a normal suburban life, only to return when he learnt Batman was alive.

In The Dark Knight Returns, he faked being catatonic for years, decades even, until Batman re-emerged from semi-retirement; and after Final Crisis, the Grant Morrison Joker decided to become a crime fighting detective himself (albeit a murderous one) until the real Batman (as opposed to Dick Grayson Batman) showed up and knocked him out.

That Morrison Joker, however, complained that no matter how hard he tried to kill Batman, he always found a way to survive, and he doubted he could kill him DESPITE how much he genuinelly tried to- it wasn't that he couldn't live without him, it was that Batman just plain refused to die and if anything that fact was driving Joker even crazier. Also, Batman didn't mind revealing he was Bruce Wayne in front of him- neither of them remarked on the fact, and it probably just reinforced to the Joker that he can't kill him, even if he knows who he is, and that the real man is the mask.

The Hamill Joker and others like him are distinguished by that, and that is how you know whether or not they are genuinelly crazy- when the Hamill Joker thought Batman was killed, he simply tried to murder the guy he thought had done it and when he thought he had, he decided "Well, that was fun. Who's up for Chinese?" Hamill Joker, Evil Joker, wants to kill Batman because he think no one else has the right to, but if Batman dies the Joker would still be out there commiting crimes and murdering people.

Though, really, I don't think Batman is as addicted to the Joker as the Joker is addicted to Batman- Batman doesn't think about Joker every single moment of every day, but Joker does Batman. And though Batman can't bring himself to kill the Joker, it isn't his fault that Arkham Asylum has terrible security or the courts keep finding him insane, or the police can't do their job without him etc. etc. Batman has other problems to worry about, and he has family and friends. What might scare the Joker above all is that Batman CAN live without him.

harliquinn profile image

harliquinn 4 years ago

First, I think this is a great Hub and you did an awesome job with it.

Second, I think no one will ever come to an agreement on whether or not the Joker hates Batman because I don't think anyone really knows. Is he even capable of love or hate? He doesn't really seem to hate anything except when he doesn't get his way and he doesn't really love anything except causing chaos.

The Joker needs Batman but Batman doesn't need the Joker and on more than one occasion, the Joker has made the comment that he's Batman's best friend and vice versa. He wants to be the one to kill Batman, but also doesn't want him killed. In the Animated Series when everyone thinks a regular guy named Sid killed Batman, the Joker goes more mad and decides to kill Sid as punishment for killing Batman. In the comic Mad Love, Harley tries to kill Batman as a way to make the Joker love her and he's outraged that she was going to be the one to kill him.

So in a weird way, the Joker does care about Batman because he doesn't want Batman killed. Unless its by him. Yet, he could have killed Batman on a few occasions but chose not to.

I think One Eyed Dragon made a good point that Batman can live without Joker and that probably is part of his problem. The Joker goes after Batman's loved ones but why? To hurt him? Or to make him just as lonely as Joker? In Batman Beyond Bruce explains a time where the Joker tried to turn Tim Drake into his "son" just to take him away from Batman. Just to make Batman suffer at the thought of what happened to him.

thejokethatkills profile image

thejokethatkills 4 years ago Author

All well thought out points. The best I can come up with is that it really does depend on the writers because each Joker story embraces different characterizations. My opinions were basically done by thinking of the situation; he honestly does love toying with Batman, so killing Batman would spoil that fun. He probably could live without Batman and continue causing death and destruction, but it wouldn't be as fun.

As for Batman's overall thoughts on the Joker, that is largely unknown with recent media such as Arkham City making it a major plot point that Joker's death would have a huge effect on him, yet it's not really known what that would be. Every writer will have a different stance so I think the only thing that can be agreed upon that Joker has been portrayed as all these; loving Batman, hating him, wanting to kill him, not wanting to kill him, and so on.

emraldwolf profile image

emraldwolf 4 years ago

wow! this is a well written piece. do you think that a villain archetype is the correct archetype for the Joker? also you seem to be good at analyzing of storied do you think you could read my hubs?


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