The Existential Loneliness That Unites Batman and the JokerS

A university lecturer in philosophy suggests that Gotham's hero and its worst villain share an unwilling awareness of society's fragility — and a profound isolation from others as a result. We're pretty sure we knew this, but validation is nice.

Ron Novy, a lecturer at the University of Central Arkansas, argues that what Batman and the Joker have in common are formative traumas that highlight how easily order can slip away. Bruce Wayne, of course, saw his parents killed in front of him as a child, thus learning an unwelcome lesson about how peace can be upturned and the law can fail.

Novy draws on Alan Moore's semi-canonical Batman: The Killing Joke to explain how the Joker's experience mirrors Batman's own. In Killing Joke, the man who'll become the Joker is a struggling stand-up comic forced to turn to crime. His pregnant wife dies just before a botched break-in at a chemical plant, where the comedian falls into a vat of chemicals that turn him into a chalk-faced, green-haired ghoul. Seeing his reflection, his mind finally breaks, and a villain is born.

Throughout Killing Joke, the Joker keeps returning to his theory that "one bad day" is all it takes for a morally upright person to access their depraved side. If anyone can sympathize, Novy points out (as have others), it's the prematurely orphaned Bruce Wayne.

By Novy's lights, Batman and the Joker have each "glimpsed behind the curtain of appearances," learning all too well how artificial, and easily broken, are the rules and codes that keep the world running smoothly. The difference lies in how they use their insights. One fights to preserve the system; the other takes a jackhammer to it.

Novy doesn't mention The Dark Knight, possibly because that movie makes too much of the hero-villain kinship to support his conclusions. Even so, his essay and Heath Ledger's anarchic portrayal of the Joker — by turns acerbic, childlike, barbarous, and oddly feminine, as if he were bored even with the unwritten rules about how a man should walk or talk — seem to be in a kind of accidental dialogue.

At one point, Ledger's Joker is called crazy, and he flatly refutes it: "I'm not. No, I'm not." It's the most serious we'll see him in the whole movie. If anything, Ledger's Joker believes he's the sanest guy around. He understands things on a level that almost no one else does — the only other person operating without illusions is Batman himself.

It's that shared alienation, Novy suggests, that makes Batman and the Joker such perfectly matched foes. Though it's a bone-deep character trait that they only have in common with each other, it's also what drives their struggle — what Novy calls "a relationship without which each one would cease to be who he now is." Or as the Joker puts it in The Dark Night, "I think you and I are destined to do this forever."

What is it like to be a Batman? [The Philosophers' Magazine]