He’s murdered thousands of people. He’s tortured, poisoned, and maimed even more. He’s beaten a child to death with a crowbar. He dresses like a clown. And he’s the most popular supervillain in the world.
Actually, DC Comics’ Joker is more than that: He’s one of the four most recognizable comic book characters in the world, along with Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman. He’s a character so well-known that his own self-titled movie — Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix, opening October 4 — doesn’t even need a cameo from his superhero arch-nemesis to sell tickets.
The Joker’s fame makes him the most popular fictional mass murderer in the world. Because the Joker has fans, far beyond his role as Batman’s greatest foe and foil. His hatred of the principles of society often shades him as an anti-establishment figure. Whatever horrible things the character has done, there is a core of the Joker that could appeal to anyone who feels let down by society or disenfranchised. He is the supervillain that inspires anyone who, justly or otherwise, wants to see the world burn. Unfortunately, that inspiration can reach into the real world, too.
The Joker debuted in Batman #1 in 1940 and appeared in nine of the series’ first 10 issues, cementing him early as the Dark Knight’s foremost foe. He was a murderer from his first appearance, in which he used “Joker Venom” to kill his victims while leaving them with unnatural grins on their faces. After spending the Silver Age of comics primarily pulling mean-spirited pranks, the Joker returned to his violent streak in the ‘70s, and he’s been terrorizing Gotham City ever since as the Dark Knight’s deadliest, most formidable enemy.
Regardless of whatever loose change Two-Face carries around in his pockets, Batman and Joker will always be the two sides of the same coin. They’re both obsessed with their missions, but while Batman’s goal is to enforce order and to save people, the Joker’s desire is to wreak havoc, and his primary tool to achieve that end is murder. Batman believes in the sanctity of life so much he refuses to kill his villains, no matter how dangerous they are.
The Joker will kill for any reason: He’s murdered countless policemen to avoid arrest, and when he’s caught he murders his way out of Arkham Asylum to escape. He kills for the fun of it, like when he handed out poisoned cotton candy to Boy Scouts in The Dark Knight Returns. He’s killed hundreds of people with his Joxer Toxin, sometimes by poisoning Gotham City’s water supply, other times filling blimps and staging his own parade (the 1989 Batman movie) in his attempts to cause mass chaos. He murdered the second Robin to traumatize Batman in A Death in the Family. In Detective Comics’ #741 he killed Commissioner Gordon’s wife in a room with 30 babies in it, leaving them to crawl in her blood. In the out-of-continuity Injustice comics, he tricked Superman into killing Lois Lane and then set off a nuclear bomb in Metropolis to drive Superman insane. (It worked.)
His crimes make the Joker a villain, but that’s not what makes the character appealing. Heroes are traditionally represented by light and color, while most villains operate, thematically and literally, in the darkness of night. However, since Batman is a hero who co-opts the dark, the Joker takes on heroic visual signifiers to serve as a contrast. His purple suit and clownish face are designed to draw attention. He announces his murders ahead of time, as in his first comic appearance. In 2011, he escaped Arkham by leaving his own cut-off face stuck on the wall, just to remind people how crazy he is. And whatever heinous acts he does, he does it all with a laugh. Batman is serious and grim, but the Joker is the one having fun.
Few comic villains have done more horrible things than the Joker, but there’s still a real allure to the character’s utter disregard for any conventions of society — especially when it’s directed at what seems like a worthy target. He once killed a corrupt Gotham City mayor in Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s Gotham Central comics, and in Grant Morrison’s Batman R.I.P., he was largely responsible for the defeat of the Black Glove criminal organization while Batman was undergoing some mental issues himself. Hell, sometimes the Joker even defeats other villains just because they’re in his way, or to be a jerk, or because he got bored. There’s a reason that, despite being DC Comics’ most well-known villain, he rarely gets invited to be in the Injustice League.
There’s another side of the Joker that comes out when creators decide to give him a meaning to his madness. In Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke — a large influence on the upcoming Joker movie — the villain explains his actions have been an attempt to prove to his victims that they don’t live in a sane world, and that morality and values are “all a monstrous, demented gag!” This incarnation of the Joker doesn’t just wish to cause chaos, he wants to show that society, as a set of rules people agree on to cohabitate in order, doesn’t really exist. This Joker is a nihilist first and foremost, and he was epitomized by Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the character in 2008’s The Dark Knight.
Comics fans freaked out (as they always do) when Christopher Nolan cast Ledger, worried that the actor wouldn’t accurately play the part. And Ledger didn’t, instead giving the villain his own, unique, greasy-haired spin that’s now considered as iconic as Jack Nicholson’s portrayal in the classic 1989 Batman movie, and at least as popular. His memorable and highly marketable catchphrase “Why so serious?” became its own meme. A quick image search will show you the vast variety of tattoos given to fans wanting to memorialize the character. There’s still a brisk business on Etsy using his likeness and his motto if you’re looking for bootleg merch.
But part of the appeal of this new Joker was his nihilistic take on society. Sure, he was obsessed with Batman, as per usual, but also proving … well, I’ll quote him from the film:
You see, [people’s] 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. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these … these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.
This worldview has also come to be seen as disturbingly sympathetic by those who ignore his body count. In 2015, a theory stating that the Joker was the real hero of The Dark Knight got thousands of upvotes and a great deal of media coverage. Googling “the joker is right” brings you hundreds of millions of blogs, vlogs, and this infinitely depressing related search term: “childhood is when you idolize batman adulthood is when you realize that the joker makes more sense.”
The problem here is that the Joker is a lot of things. If you’ve ever thought “the world seems like it’s gone crazy” — I do, at least four times a day — then congratulations, you and I agree with the Joker about something. But there are those disturbed people who feel the Joker is right about everything — how society is dysfunctional and morality a lie, so there’s no reason to adhere to either of them. This can be a very attractive idea to someone who feels society has failed them, because it also justifies their revenge.
Despite the horrible acts of violence he commits in The Dark Knight, the Joker has fans — and when mass murderers have fans, bad things happen. There’s a long list of real people who have either emulated or directly invoked the Joker after 2008. While some of these instances are as benign as donning Joker cosplay while trying to steal movie posters, others are far more sinister, resulting in disfigurement, arson, and murder.
These tragedies have not undercut the Joker’s appeal. Quite the contrary, in fact; Todd Phillips’ Joker is not only an origin story for a new incarnation of the character (named Arthur Fleck) but one that posits his descent into homicidal madness is at least partially due to society’s failings. According to early reviews, Arthur’s early killings are seen as an attack on the one-percent, inspiring others who are similarly disenfranchised to do the same. That’s one of the most sympathetic origins the supervillain has ever had, not least because it feels so timely.
The argument already surrounding the film, prior to its October 4th premiere, is whether the film is merely a portrayal of the type of person who can become these sorts of violent extremists — mostly white, male, heterosexual incels — or something inadvertently inspirational. Warner Bros., the studio behind all DC Comics movies, claims the former in a statement they issued in response to criticism of Joker:
Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues. Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.
Time movie critic Stephanie Zacharek holds the other view, saying the character of Arthur “could easily be adopted as the patron saint of incels”:
Arthur inspires chaos and anarchy, but the movie makes it look like he’s starting a revolution, where the rich are taken down, the poor get everything they need and deserve, and the sad guys who can’t get a date become killer heroes.
The joke here, so to speak, is that the film can be both things simultaneously, depending on what point-of-view you bring to it. Arthur can be a cautionary tale or a glorification of his actions. The film can be celebrated as the former — it’s already a critical success, having won top prize at the Venice International Film Festival — but it can also be a danger. In fact, there are already concerns that the Joker on the big screen may inspire more real-life violence; last week, the U.S. Army warned its service members about potential shootings at Joker screenings, specifically by incels, based on information from the FBI and Texas law enforcement.
The Joker film may be the focal point for this discussion now, but let’s not forget that The Dark Knight’s Joker was already getting revisionist lionization by some viewers years ago, or how Jack Nicholson’s Joker portrayal stole the movie from the title character in the 1989 Batman movie. None of this would have been possible if the Joker, as a character, hadn’t been so intrinsically compelling, ever since his creation nearly 80 years ago. Despite all his atrocities, there’s something about the character that isn’t just appealing, it’s understandable. It’s a crazy world out there, and sometimes it can make any of us crazy. Unfortunately, the insanity of the Joker occasionally seems to make sense.
The reason Batman isn’t in Joker, Phillips says, is because he wanted it to be a standalone movie exploring the character, completely separate from the many established Batman canon, as well as the rest of DC Entertainment’s films. It makes sense. But without a hero, it can be hard to remember who the villain is.
Rob Bricken has been a professional nerd for 20 years, the editor of Gizmodo’s geeky pop culture site io9, and was the creator of the fan-favorite, unfortunately named news blog Topless Robot. He lives in West Virginia, where he spends time writing and regretting action figure purchases.