Understanding The Joker: A Philosophical Diagnosis

Image by Warner Bros. Available on The Atlantic. under Creative Commons 2.0 license

*Warning: minor spoilers ahead*

Seventy nine years ago, in 1940 to be exact, comic book writers Bill Finger and Bob Kane created what would unforeseeably become the most recognizable villain in superhero fiction: The Joker. Although a vast number of interpretations of The Joker have been adapted by a greater number of creative minds, the character’s philosophy has stayed succinctly consistent throughout the decades. While different versions of the character are championed respectively, Joaquin Phoenix’s 2019 cinematic portrayal imparts an aspect only one other iteration (Heath Ledger) sufficiently possessed: realism. Phoenix’s superlative realism not only compliments the film’s bleak atmosphere, but further enhances the Absurdist philosophy The Joker embodies.

The film follows the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man disregarded by the entrenched social disparity of 1980s Gotham City. Desperate for connection and recognition by the world around him, Arthur begins an elaborate journey of self-discovery as he transforms himself into the Absurd Hero known as The Joker.

Coined by French philosopher Albert Camus, the term ‘Absurd Hero’ represents the personification of Absurdist philosophy; the Absurd Hero not only recognizes the absurdity of the human condition, but further embraces the struggle of living life meaninglessly—yet contently—in a turbulent and incoherent universe. To illustrate the Absurd Hero, Camus presents the case of Sisyphus, who like Arthur, undergoes an Absurd revelation. For defying the will of the Gods, Sisyphus a once a triumphant King is condemned to eternal punishment; Sisyphus must roll a rock up a mountain only to have the rock roll down upon reaching the summit, leaving Sisyphus to begin again in a torturous infinite cycle. Despite his condemnation however, Camus writes that in the end: ‘’one must imagine Sisyphus happy’’.

Image by José Antonio Camacho. Available at Acción Preferente under Creative Commons 2.0 license.

When Camus writes this he means to illustrate that although Sisyphus’ efforts are ultimately meaningless, it is the goal of the Absurd Hero to find enlightenment in this futility and struggle. Arthur slowly realizes this goal as tragedy befalls him throughout the film; it is only after he is bullied, beat up, patronized, neglected, and lied to that Arthur begins to recognize that the world he lives in is simply an arena of chaos and meaninglessness. By the third act of the film, Arthur fully embraces this idea by literally and metaphorically dancing with the notion of Absurdity; since the world is in itself absurd, Arthur reacts to it in an equally absurd way: by dancing. It is only when Arthur recognizes this absurdity in the end that he finds true happiness as an Absurd Hero.  

What particularly resonates with Camus’ philosophy is how he manages to capture the essence of the human condition. He explores the idea of meaningless and its implications on the universe, society, and living. Part of why audiences and critics gravitate towards Phoenix’s portrayal is because he embeds this essence fantastically. Although the audience comes to sympathize with Arthur as he trudges through his journey of self-discovery, he further embodies the existential anguish, anxiety, and sadness all humans encounter upon flirting with nihilism.

Although Arthur represents an extreme form of Absurdism through the acts of murder and inciting anarchy, the philosophy woven into the character’s very fabric nonetheless speaks to audiences who at some point have felt the gravitas of an absurd reality.

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