Revealing the genius of the Joker

The Dark Knight poster‘Movies Mockingbird’ is a blog series dedicated to uncovering the core ideas behind movies – the core ideas that are visible yet hidden. In it, I will attempt to dive into the sea of social sciences to reveal the whole iceberg of movie plots and not just the small tip visible on surface.  Movies Mockingbird is the graceful antithesis of glamorous adrenalin and spice that pervades the movie screens.

In this first post, I will examine The Dark Knight (2008), the second Batman film by director Christopher Nolan, starring Christian Bale as Batman, and Heath Ledger as the Joker.

The Joker thrusts a lot of important issues onto the surface; issues that we sweep under the rug and never think about it consciously even when we are undoubtedly influenced by it. It is interesting to see that ‘The Art of War’ written by warrior general Sun Tzu millenniums ago has become a best-selling book for management decision making and self-discovery. The book is about how to win a war, what would it teach us for managing our business, employees and ourselves? But there is where we use our ability to connect the dots and apply a discerning ‘what-if’ imagination to see that many generic lessons can be drawn from The Art of War and duly applied for management decision making. This is exactly the motivation here as well; to reveal the background into what Joker says and apply it into improving our understanding of our psyche and society (the only pre-requisite is having seen this movie).

It has to be made clear here that social sciences should not be used as glorified and elaborate excuses meant to justify criminals and those who cause violence. Nothing can justify harming other humans and other similar serious crimes. The best way to deal with evil is to understand the context that encourages its growth. The best way to combat evil is to be aware of the system that creates it (Philip Zimbardo). This is what we are going to do here.

Social insights from the Joker;

Batman: You’re garbage who kills for money.

Joker: Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak, like me! They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper! You see, 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. 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.

The JokerAs much as we would like to deny this, history is a glaring witness to the bloodshed that humans have caused, and are still causing. Whether we are civilized or savage, history is indeed a slaughter bench (Hegel). Fraught by countless double-standards we do not actually have a coherent personality (post-modernism). On the outside we might be wearing suits, but on the inside we might actually be wolves; Sociologists have gone through great pains just to show us how volatile and vulnerable our personalities actually are (leading example Laud Humphreys’ Tea Room Trade). Batman is actually more similar to Joker than he is to the police and rest of Gotham because he too is a hardcore deviant who does not have any price and cannot be bought. The morals, the codes being a bad joke makes sense when we consider the Russell-Einstein Manifesto of 1955. Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, amongst other scientists called for universal destruction of nuclear weapons; they were not particularly fond of peace treaties because in times of peace, nuclear weapons will not be used; but when war will rage, the losing side will only be the one which is not able to nuke their opponents first and so such peace treaties will be actually ineffective in the long term. Same applies to other areas of social morality.

Batman himself is a leper too; a freak to be used when people have no other choice and discarded the minute he is regarded as no longer necessary; This is pretty much exactly what happened to Nikola Tesla. Tesla made the most contributions for a single scientist enabling humanity to usher into the modern age (through A.C electrical motor and countless other inventions) but he was too ‘used and discarded’ by the powerful status quo of that time.

Joker:You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan.” But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!
Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos”.

This is something well known to war strategists for centuries. ‘Cut the head of the snake’ is the golden maxim here; killing one important person in authority like the mayor translates into screams of chaos for the society; our reaction is lukewarm if ordinary people lose their lives  because it is so common and every day.  The mass media ‘desensitizes’ us by bombarding us with explosion of images and content that is gruesome and appalling, that might be or might not be an accurate representation of reality (Jean Baudrillard). What really sends shockwaves in society is that when it faces the ‘unknown unknown’; not the expected unknown that we can anticipate that might happen, but that unknown that we could not have possibly expected (Black Swan events of Nassim Nicholas Taleb). Upsetting the established order is a powerful ‘unknown unknown’.

But this point needs an important distinction in order to make sense. Our desensitization is largely selective. There was a huge reaction to the deaths in Paris and Copenhagen. The social context is that people are desensitized most potently to carnages in war-torn countries or where bombings and civil strives are common. Also, death of soldiers is seen not that shocking. It is when ordinary people die in gruesome or tragic manner in countries where such occurrences are rare and ‘unexpected’ that there is a big reaction.

 Batman: This city just showed you that it’s full of people ready to believe in good.

The Joker: Until their spirit breaks completely. Until they get a good look at the real Harvey Dent, and all the heroic things he’s done. You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fistfight with you? No. You need an ace in the hole. Mine’s Harvey.

Batman: What did you do?

The Joker: I took Gotham’s white knight and I brought him down to our level. It wasn’t hard. You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push!

Two-Face: The Joker chose ME!

Batman: Because you were the best of us! He wanted to prove that even someone as good as you could fall.

Two-Face: [bitter] And he was right.

Fear does not prosper when there is hope; it is when the hopes of a society are crushed do they turn to desperate measures such as war, civil strife and the well-studied phenomenon of social hysteria and panic. Note astutely what the Joker is doing here; he is taking Harvey Dent, the hero of Gotham and converting him into a hardcore criminal. The society breaks down from seeing its hero transform into an ugly mess. This is not the glamorous and fictitious spice of one movie, but the very nature of humans. ‘The Lucifer effect’ of Philip Zimbardo effectively displays that fundamentally decent and docile humans can be made to commit heinous crimes merely by altering the situation and generating a system (political, ideological, economic, legal etc) that produces such situations on a consistent basis.

It is no longer the case that a particular person is sadistic or psychopath only then he will commit those crimes. Milgram studies (1963) sent shockwaves to the whole world regarding insight into human social psyche. Milgram conducted an experiments where volunteers were supposed to give electric shocks to the learners if they give a wrong answer to the question that they ask. A confederate was standing next to them in laboratory coat and as a symbol of authority as well as coercion. The volunteers were told that they were investigating learning and this experiment will help science uncover better how to improve our learning. The ranges of electrical shocks were from range 15 volts (slight shock) to 375 volts (Danger; severe shock) to maximum limit of 450 volts (XXX Lethal).

The results were shocking; 65% of participants/volunteers continued to the highest level of 450 volts and all of them continued to 300 volts. Milgram carried out 18 variations of the original studies but it still produced similar results. This was also given that the psychiatrists had predicted that only 1% will continue to the maximum limit. This highlights the social nature of evil rather than personal reasons of a particular person being evil. Zimbardo achieved the same insights in his famous Stanford prison experiments. Zimbardo says the same thing as Joker that all it takes is a little step for evil to dominate. ‘Mindlessly taking the first step’ of harmless nature like 15 volts in Milgram is what removes the moral hesitations inside us and opens us up to greater and greater excesses.

Self-improvement lessons from the Joker

Joker: Oh, you. You just couldn’t let me go, could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You are truly incorruptible, aren’t you? Huh? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.

Batman: Then why do you want to kill me?

Joker: I don’t want to kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, NO! No. You… you… complete me.

Batman really completes Joker because Batman has no price and cannot be bought; his sole focus is on his objective of stopping evil. He does not care for social recognition, money or other aspects that all the other people want. That is truly rare; and why Joker loves to have Batman around is because Joker too does not care about any money or social recognition and just wants to watch the world burn.

 The JokerJoker: All you care about is money. This city deserves a better class of criminal. And I’m gonna give it to them!”

This is truly an epic scene when Joker burns all the money and shocks all the criminals. This is the epitome of self-actualization of Maslow which is achieving your true potential. In stage of self-actualization the person becomes fully involved in only achieving excellence at what he does; failures, rewards mean nothing to them anymore. Individuals of determination apply this trait of going beyond rewards and punishments for maximizing excellence at what they do.

 Why so serious?“Why so serious?”

Joker realizes that it is very easy to get too focused and lost in the heat of action and to lose your sense of objectivity. Dead seriousness never brings out the best in us; it is having a sense of humor that allows us to be light-hearted in our actions so that we do not lose sight of the bigger picture.

“Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just… do things. The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon’s got plans. You know, they’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are. You were a schemer, you had plans, and look where that got you. I just did what I do best. I took your little plan and I turned it on itself”.

This appears really superfluous on first impression. However, this is an existential truth. The people who only utilize their mind and logical thinking are inferior to one who synergies both his mind and his intuition, his mind and his heart. This synergy is what allows Joker to always be many miles ahead of the rest. We generally discredit intuition, favoring cold icy logic and try to make a structure out of everything. This indeed is the triumph of instrumental rationalism in this post-modern society. But then, here is where Nietzsche whispers in our ears: “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star”. This hits the core; we should have a healthy level of creativity, intuition and holy curiosity within us as well as this complements the scientific, intellectual and rational mind, not opposes it.

As can be seen from our analysis, Joker certainly has profound insights to bring into our attention; both that are socially important and those that are personally important.

In conclusion;

Alfred Pennyworth: You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them (the criminals), you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.

Bruce Wayne: Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. Just have to figure out what he’s after.

Alfred Pennyworth: With respect Master Wayne, perhaps this is a man (Joker) that *you* don’t fully understand, either.

It is hoped that we do not repeat the same mistakes Batman did when dealing with Joker and that this article allows us to better understand the enigma, the mystery and the magic that Joker is.


Danish is studying for the BSc Sociology in Pakistan. The BSc Sociology is not available to new students, however you can still study for a Diploma for Graduates in Sociology.

More about our blogger

Syed Danish Ali is an actuarial analyst in a leading actuarial consultancy across Pakistan and the Middle East. Part of his job is to understand the mathematics behind insurance and convert them into useful financial numbers so that stakeholders appreciate the risks they undertake more adequately. Apart from giving professional actuarial papers, he is a final third year student of bachelors in sociology from University of London.

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