“Peak oil” is the theory that there is a maximum production rate for oil, a limit we will hit as natural reserves becomes more scarce and the effort to drain them increases. With 2019’s Joker, we have reached peak Joker: not the most Joker-y thing possible but the peak of a decades long increase in how much meaning can be gotten out of the character. But as with oil, this is not so much a doomsday message as a call for transitioning to sources of alternative villainy. When we compare the historical collection of stories about the Joker to Joker, we can see it is time to move on.
The Beginnings of Big Joker
The contemporary Joker explosion begins with Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight (2008), but that boom — into memes, moral panics, and mall goth t-shirts — was the culmination of a longer Joker growth period beginning with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986). Miller’s comic series provides not just much of the plot for Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, but a new approach to how readers see Batman and his world. The Batman of Dark Knight Returns isn’t a cerebral detective, as in his earliest comic book incarnations, or a campy children’s role model, as in the 1960s tv show, or even an invincible warrior-playboy, as in the films of the 1990s.
Miller’s Batman is vulnerable, traumatized, and violent. He is not really a good guy, but he fights bad guys. And Frank Miller was not alone in thinking about what more psychologically human superheroes might look like. Watchmen was hitting the shelves at the same time as Dark Knight Returns, another comic that abandons the idea that superheroes are as morally perfect as they are powerful.
What Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen share, along with the other “dark” comics that followed their lead, is not only a loss of faith that our heroes are really “good,” but an inquiry into whether there is even an objective moral yardstick by which to measure them. The Batman of Dark Knight Returns isn’t good, but we aren’t supposed to think he is bad, either. Readers no longer have access to that way of categorizing the world.
In The Postmodern Condition, Jean-Francois Lyotard described the worldview emerging at this time as the loss of “meta-narratives” — the big stories that organize our day to day experience into something with greater meaning . By the 1980s, it was increasingly apparent that history had no moral destination. We were just stuck here with each other, increasing our capabilities for consumption and destruction until ordinary flawed people held the horrible powers once reserved for the gods of human imagination.
In a world where the ideological oppositions of the Cold War were collapsing into endless oil wars managed by transnational corporations, the Joker was the perfect foil for Batman. The challenge of this Joker was not a solvable problem for Batman, something he could beat into submission or puzzle out with his superior intellect. The Joker represented an environment in which Batman lacked ethical direction. In The Lego Batman Movie, the Joker pleads that he and Batman have always shared a unique bond, and for a generation that has been true. The Joker has not been one enemy among many for the Batman; Batman has been one character in the Joker’s world. Though there have been many treatments of the Joker since The Dark Knight Returns, he has always been a figure who looks into the void and laughs.
Why We’re So Serious
The Dark Knight Returns was published in 1986, more than thirty years before 2019’s Joker. The comic was itself an effort to reboot the Batman franchise — the ur-“gritty reboot” that launched a thousand gritty reboots — by shedding the cheery Batman that had become disconnected from a more complicated reality. Today, that late-80s softcore-Nietzschean Joker is not a bad character, but it is one frozen in time, literally a figure who was edgy thirty years ago. Nonetheless, the idea that a supervillain can help us explore the moral dimensions of our world– what does it take to be really, really bad– is still a valuable idea. We just need the right comic book villain to identify our own.
How has the world changed since Reagan? In some ways it is very much the same, as the same cast of ghouls continue their project of making the rich much richer, and critics like Leslie Lee have analyzed Joker as a response to the long project of neoliberalism. But while the mode of production has remained the same, the means of production have not, and the mechanics of how to do bad things have changed rapidly within the last thirty years. Two of the most vivid examples are the impacts of climate change and the power of information technology.
Marx predicted capitalism would collapse because it was founded on contradictions. Take the law of immiseration: capitalists make more profit the more they exploit workers, but increasing exploitation also makes it more likely that workers will band together and overthrow the capitalists. Marx was perhaps wrong about how long it would take to reach a tipping point — and hey, maybe we will all die in agony before we throw off our chains! — but he was not wrong about the final contradiction between capitalism’s endless need for resources and the finite capacity of the Earth itself. If in the 1980s Marxist meta-narratives about capitalism’s “inevitable” collapse were the dogma of a minority party, today it is basic science embraced even by ultra-capitalist institutions like insurance companies. Meta-narratives are back, they just suck a lot more for us now.
Joker aims to connect with audiences by departing from the Joker of the last thirty years. Climate change is one meta-narrative returning to the public consciousness, but the law of immiseration is more central to the film. In Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s Joker repeatedly tells stories about how he got his scars, each one different and contradictory, the perfect example of what happens when meta-narratives no longer compel consistency. In contrast, Joker aims to offer a plausible explanation for how people — not just Arthur Fleck, but the mobs of clown protesters inspired by him — are pushed to violate the law. That desire for meaning, which Fleck appears to find in violence against the upper class, is foreign to Jokers before Fleck. Joker is trying to resurrect a meta-narrative; it is marking the end of the Joker.
Joker Me This
The Joker wasn’t always the defining villain in the gallery of rogues. Catwoman got her own film first, and studios have always invested in A-list actors for Batman’s enemies. But now that the Joker has passed from being a foil for Batman into a character in his own right, first as a trial balloon in Suicide Squad and now fleshed out in Joker, he needs his own villainous foil. The Batman canon provides just that figure in the Riddler.
Though they are superficially alike — both deal in language games and a manic affect — subtracting those cosmetic similarities reveals their essential difference. Jokes and riddles are opposites across the divide of whether the universe is senseless or sensible. Riddles are puzzles with a correct answer. Jokes are meant to elicit laughter, which Lacan observes is a response to the absurdity of the universe. The Joker chooses crime to mirror a universe without laws. The Riddler chooses crime to conform with the highest law — make money by any means necessary.
In his last film appearance in Batman Forever, the Riddler hatches a crime worthy of the internet age. As genius inventor Edward Nigma, he creates a device that allows users to experience television in three dimensions. The people of Gotham can’t resist, and as part of providing that service, the Riddler routes all their mental activity through his data center to extract their personal secrets. Not only can he access sensitive information like credit cards numbers, he can peer into their hidden desires. In other words, he invents what would be one product in the portfolio of a tech giant. The Riddler’s big scheme in Batman Forever is to invent Google Chrome. Though it seems banal today, Batman Forever is correct: that is a big scheme, and one worth policing. Joker may give us the view from the bottom, but 1995’s vision of the Riddler still provides a more timely analysis of who is on the other side of the law of increasing immiseration.
Many people have pointed out that Joker is not really about the Joker — it’s Taxi Driver pitched for a world where all movies are part of comic book franchises for some reason. But the movie does trade on the Joker’s massive cultural appeal, and those intertextual connections cannot be dismissed as mere marketing. Joker is part of a history of the Joker, and how it moves away from its antecedents marks changes in what we imagine to be a good villain. To paraphrase Nietzsche, the Joker is something that must be overcome. In Joker we can see the necessity of that overcoming; in the rest of the Batman canon we see what real crime looks like.