Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight deservedly garnered rave reviews: in addition to the creative script and comfortable balance of action to inaction, the late Heath Ledger’s performance as Joker was rightly recognized as remarkable. His masterful acting is not the whole story; Joker’s ideology is powerfully demonstrated in his “interview” with Batman in the interrogation cell. Batman’s forceful attempt to extract information from Joker fails as Joker replies, “You have . . . nothing to threaten me with — nothing to do with all your strength.”[1] The option of leveraging something of value to Joker disintegrates because he (according to the sagacious butler, Alfred), isn’t “looking for anything logical like money. . . . Some men just want to watch the world burn.”[2] There are even times when Joker is staring death in the face and simply laughs.

What can mere strength do with someone who values not even his own life? The interrogation scene shows both characters pushed to the limits of what their respective philosophies allow. Since Joker comes out ahead in this pivotal confrontation, it could be argued that he has out-philosophized Batman. Ostensibly, his position is superior and he has outwitted the Bat! But applying the law and basic sanity to his behavior, it is clear that Joker’s demented, chaotic worldview is not exactly a shimmering example of goodness. We must ask, then, ‘How does Batman fall short?’ If a superhero is to rally any kind of following worth having, he should have a philosophy worth holding. Let’s see if we can find the chinks in Batman’s muscle-driven vigilantism and posit something better before the Crown Prince of Crime has the last laugh.

Apparently, “reckless abandon” accurately describes the core of Joker’s mentality. Batman often strikes fear in villains’ hearts because even they hold something dear (money, power, security, etc.). But having nothing to lose is a game-changer. The essence of Joker’s unique confidence is his metaphysical anarchy. G.K. Chesterton captures the heart of anarchy with an analogy: “It is not anarchy in the home if the whole family sits up all night on New Year’s Eve. It is anarchy in the home if members of the family sit up later and later for months afterwards.”[3] Chesterton illustrates that anarchy is not necessarily disgruntled, grubby men in smokey pubs plotting insurrection. Along with opposing rules and rulers, it is a spirit of unbridled limitlessness in thought and action: “Anarchy is where you cannot stop yourself.”[4] For Joker, there is no inherent or utilitarian reason to cease his momentary pleasure — no duty necessarily to preserve or destroy anything in particular. He simply wants an immediate surge of excitement and the intoxication of “sending a message” of chaos.[5]

Attempting to pick apart Joker’s pathology, one philosopher hypothesizes, “Let’s suppose that his current insanity is best understood as an inability to form second-order desires to quell his first-order homicidal tendencies.”[6] In more conventional terms, Joker’s conscience is nearly shot. It is beyond our present scope to scour his past for the origins of his madness. But in the Arkham Asylum story, therapist Ruth Adams opines, “He can only cope with that chaotic barrage of [sensory] input by going with the flow . . . . He sees himself as the lord of misrule, and the world as a theatre of the absurd.”[7] In typical existentialist fashion, Joker lives as if existence in an inherently senseless world precedes essence and allows him to create himself however he pleases.

Conversely, Batman’s worldview has values: he supports social order and usually reinforces law enforcement. He upholds respect for basic human dignity, and according to Mark White, “Of course, with the exception of his very earliest cases, Batman has refused to kill at all, usually saying that if he kills, it would make him as bad as the criminals he is sworn to fight.”[8] After all, he must have at least a decent grasp on morality to identify crime as he inspects the news or surveys Gotham from the Batcave.

But there are elements about Batman’s practices that reveal his limits, restrictions, or even contradictions. He must not display weakness and he can be compromised if villains threaten his loved ones. Villains can and have gained leverage over his actions, as in The Dark Knight when he must suspend his fight against Joker to save Rachel Dawes, whom Joker drops out of a window. Batman’s vigilantism is also suspect since he claims to bring criminals to justice, yet operates above and around Gotham City’s laws. While corralling criminals, he often wantonly destroys property while employing overly-invasive search and interrogation procedures. The ace up Joker’s sleeve is that he defies — by refusing to be confined to — the limiting rules and structures of Batman’s worldview. In other words, Joker relishes that “Batman’s ultimate enemy is chaos.”[9]

Our answer to this conundrum begins with a picture of a valley with a dark slope and a light slope, the dark being gradations of evil, and the light being gradations of good. Joker stands atop the dark side, since we place his worldview among the most consistent and unanswerable evils. Batman stands only halfway up the light, given his flawed — yet mostly good — principles. The point is that Batman must ascend further to approach a worthy antithesis to Joker’s anarchy. This is the case because the only worldview potent enough to counter a careless, wild negation of meaning and value is one of supreme truth, goodness, and beauty. To be ideologically unassailable, Batman needs, in addition to strength and the long arm of the law, spiritual security and peace which only flow from pure humility and love: only reckless abandon into spiritual fullness can rival reckless abandon into spiritual oblivion.

A prime example of a philosophical foil to Joker comes from the classic, Crime and Punishment. The morally anarchic character, Raskolnikov, cannot be reasoned with or logically disproved. Disbelieving in God and objective value, no silver-bullet argument can convince him to believe in morality; if the metaphysical anarchist is consistent, morality is (in proper Joker-lingo) one big joke. Only the loving, compassionate Sonya can soften Raskolnikov’s hardened heart as she exudes faith and spiritual light, illuminating the darkness in his soul. Every person has at least a small part of himself that responds to virtue over vice and recognizes truth over error. Some are more calloused than others, but while in the body, the grace to differentiate morally remains in every soul. Sonya’s love and selflessness eventually waters Raskolnikov’s withered spirit, reviving in him a valuation of mankind. Batman is unable to be this example because he is partially shackled by having to enforce his own rules of self-preservation and vigilantism.

One could object to our argument of Sonya’s loving example, “How is a mere example effective? People often ignore or reject examples and Joker could simply reject the best lifestyle because it fails to tantalize him.” True. However, in the end, there is something mysterious within the human spirit that not only differentiates between good and evil, but sees the superiority of good. A heroin addict knows he is trashing his health when he sees the healthy jogger pass by. Deep down, the thrill and tang of addiction binds him to heroin, even though he can still intellectually recognize his folly. In Crime and Punishment, Sonya’s example and the kindness and tenderness she shows is the effective factor (not her arguments). A demonstration of life’s inherent value and dignity precipitates Raskolnikov’s confession. He is moved when she fans the fading spark of goodness deep within him.

It may be difficult to admit, but Joker’s enduring popularity as a villain is probably partly because his worldview overmatches Batman’s. Batman is rigid and rules-based, and such legalism can only go so far. Its efficacy fails in conflict with a devil-may-care anarchy which has nothing to lose because it values nothing other than “sending a message” of infinite, volatile lawlessness.[10] Only infinite volitional love that would die for a brother or even an enemy can be the answer to Joker’s nihilism that would give its life to the void to spread the message of the void. Any argument is swallowed up in that existential monster of madness; but demonstrated love, refracted through faith, selflessness, and humility, vanquishes the monster. Admittedly, Batman would not be Batman if he were our idea of a full surrender to Goodness; yet perhaps he need not be. Remaining the Dark Knight we know, he represents the significance of human strength and laws in their own right. Be that as it may, doubtless some evils require the wisdom of something greater than mere worldly strength and law: paradoxically, “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life . . . will find it. . .”[11]

Citation Information

Jason Monroe, “Answering Joker’s Dark-Knight-Defying Anarchy,” An Unexpected Journal: Superheroes 4, no. 2. (Summer 2021), 120-130.

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[1] The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan (Legendary Pictures, 2008), DVD.

[2] Ibid.

[3] G.K. Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils (Project Gutenberg, 2008), chap. 2, Digital edition.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan, 2008.

[6] Christopher Robichaud, in Batman and Philosophy, ed. Mark D. White (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, 2009), 79.

[7] Quoted in Sarah K Donovan and Nicholas P. Richardsom, in Batman and Philosophy, ed. Mark D. White (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, 2009), 134.

[8] Mark D. White, in Batman and Philosophy, ed. Mark D. White (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, 2009), 6.

[9] Brett Chandler Patterson, in Batman and Philosophy, ed. Mark D. White (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, 2009), 53.

[10] The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan, 2008.

[11] Matthew 16:25 (NABRE).