In this article, Olav reflects on how representations of Jokers and Philosophy in films could lead us to ideas that modern philosophers once put on the table. They are Camus’ Absurdity, Nietzsche’s Nihilism, and Schopenhauer’s comedy through tragedy.
Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) marks the 3rd time, in the last two decades, that filmmakers have adapted the Clown Prince of Crime to the big screen. Unlike the usual comic book adaptations however, Jokers in general met with relatively well critical acclaims beyond the usual superhero movies fan. Joker (2019) alone received 11 Oscar nominations before finally earning Joaquin Phoenix the Academy Award for Best Actor and Hildur Guðnadóttir for Best Original Score. This is not the first time someone has won the Academy Award for such a role. In 2008, Heath Ledger won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Interestingly, both Jokers bring a reflection on philosophy to audience as an aftertaste.
So why exactly is this comic book super villain so popular even outside of the regular comic book fans? Is he simply an insane clown with bad jokes who murder people? Or is there a deeper meaning to the character of the Joker?
This article contains major spoilers for Joker (2019) and The Dark Knight (2008)
A Realization of the Absurd
In Joker (2019), we get to see a side of the Joker before he dons his signature make-up. Before he was Gotham’s very own clown prince of crime, The Joker was Arthur Fleck. He was just a regular clown (for living) and a part-time comedian in Gotham city. Arthur struggles with mental disorder and is working to make ends meet to provide for his aging mother. He also suffers from a condition where he involuntarily laughs at a stressful situation. At the beginning, Arthur is feeling more depressed at the current state of Gotham and society’s callousness towards those in impoverished conditions like him.
Despite his growing despair, Arthur did not immediately lose hope. At the beginning, we see him focusing on things such as his stand-up comedy routine, and the budding romance with his next-door neighbor. The story also explores Arthur’s journey to meet with his long-lost father, which he believes to be Thomas Wayne. We are talking about Thomas the billionaire mayoral candidate (and yes coincidently Bruce Wayne’s father).
As we know, Arthur’s story did not end well. His comedy career didn’t take off. The romance with his neighbor was nothing more than a delusion. Moreover, the identity of his father being Thomas Wayne was a lie created by his own mother. Unlike most movies and stories with fantasies born out of human expectations, Joker (2019) shows what would happen when those expectations are confronted with a cold and cruel reality. This separation is exactly what Albert Camus, called ‘the absurd’.
20th century French Philosopher Albert Camus described this longing for happiness and meaning despite a cold and harsh reality as something he called ‘the absurd’. In his essay the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes:
Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.
In the movie Arthur remarks “I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize, it’s a comedy.” Like Arthur, German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer also noted a similarity between the two:
The life of every individual, viewed as a whole and in general, and when only its most significant features are emphasized, is really a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of a comedy. —Will and Representation, Arthur Schopenhauer
Like tragedy, comedy works by subverting our expectations. We find jokes to be funny because the outcome of a story is not in line with what we expect them to be. This is another take on jokers and Philosophy.
Yet this very same subversion is also what gives births to tragedies in life. We grieve for the death of a loved one, or the failure to reach our dreams. This is because they are not in line with what we expect the outcome of our lives to be. Arthur’s statement indicates him realizing the absurdity of such an existence and choosing instead to embrace it. So, despite his reputation as being insane, the Joker’s state of mind is one that was born out of clear awareness for his own existence.
Nihilism and Agent of Chaos
While the Jokers and their philosophy seemingly do things out of impulse, his action does hold a deeper purpose in mind. Unlike most villains, the Joker is not driven by money or power. His role as he put is as an agent of chaos, spreading chaos and fear to those around him.
In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) we get to see the effect Joker has when he is unleashed into society. One of the most frightening effects the Joker has is in how he can incite others, even good ordinary people, to commit atrocious actions. In one instance, he threatens to blow up a random hospital in Gotham. This is only to incite citizens to kill a person who plans to reveal Batman’s identity on TV. In another occasion, he plants bombs on three separate ferries, but gives each of the boat’s passengers their detonators. Such conditions eventually force them to blow one of the others if they themselves want to survive.
Joker’s point by doing these sorts of actions is to prove that in times of emergencies, seemingly good ordinary people will drop their moral codes and justify even the cruelest acts of evil for their own benefit. Or as Joker puts it:
“Their morals, their code; it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. You’ll see- I’ll show you. When the chips are down these, uh, civilized people? They’ll eat each other.”
The Joker believes that all moral values and codes are baseless, is what philosophers refer to as Nihilism. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche describes nihilism as:
“Nihilism: any aim is lacking, any answer to the question “why” is lacking. What does nihilism mean?–that the supreme values devaluate themselves.” –Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche
To Nietzsche the existence of such nihilistic ideology is a very dangerous phenomena to society as a whole. According to Nietzsche, a nihilist is someone that would not only let go of their own personal beliefs in any moral codes or values, but also act to encourage others to do the same.
In The Dark Knight (2008), the Joker’s attempt at spreading his nihilistic view ultimately culminates in his turn of Harvey Dent. The Joker managed to turn the once symbolic hope of the city, the so-called white knight of Gotham, into a murderous criminal hell-bent on revenge.
This is what makes the Joker such a scary villain. He is not simply a criminal who commits evil acts such as stealing or murder. What makes the Joker scary is his ability to make others reconsider and abandon their very own concept of good and evil. Both Jokers leave a deep philosophy beneath them.
Which portrayal of Joker is your favorite?
Todd Phillips’ Joker premiered at the 76th Venice International Film Festival and won the Golden Lion. This film also earned 11 nominations at the 92nd Academy Awards. The nominations include Best Picture and Best Director. Both Joaquin Phoenix and Hildur Guðnadóttir won Best Actor and Best Original Score at the Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight received eight nominations at the 81st Academy Award and won in Best Sound Editing and Best Supporting Actor categories. Heath Ledger already passed away when the ceremony happened.
Olav Sudja is a coordinator for Philosophizeme and Bukunema programs at Jakarta Cinema Club
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