The Nietzschean Joker
Kristina Pickering, Notre Dame of Maryland University
Abstract: The Joker has become a staple in pop culture. The main reason for his iconic presence is due to his psychotic sense of humor. The Joker appears to be a stereotypical villain with little room for philosophical analysis. Despite this classification, the Joker can be viewed in other perspectives that can cause readers to ponder the philosophical symbolism the Joker embodies. Nietzschean ethics and human flourishing are two areas where a philosophical analysis can be done on the Joker. Nietzschean ethics describes the idea of the true "Superman" that’s neither "good" nor "evil," but rises above moral constraints, having no attachments with society and its ideals. If looking at the Joker in the same light, he transcends good and evil, and this presentation aims to explore this transcendence, grafting it onto a Nietzschean analysis. The second half of the presentation analyzes how the Joker, a madman, can flourish as a human being. Human flourishing can be described and defined under the pretext of contributing to a person's happiness or eudaemonia. Philosophical theories create questionable standards of who can flourish and how. To be clear, each person has their own idea of flourishing. A philosophical understanding of the Joker becomes more complicated than one can see on the multi-colored sheen of a comic book page. It also brings to light how one who disrupts society can find solace in it, an idea needed in this current world.
The Joker, one of Detective Comics (DC's) most infamous Batman villains, is not a simple fictional character to laugh at. He is known for his comical exploits, jovial attitude, killer jokes, and ongoing rivalry with Batman. In this war of good versus evil, the Joker has been analyzed psychologically, metaphorically, religiously, and in many other ways to understand his motives and purpose. After each study, the Joker is continuously found to be a complicated character that continues to redefine our understanding of humanity. One interesting way to approach the Joker is through Nietzschean ethics, which focuses on ideas such as good and evil and how humanity can reach its full potential. Nietzsche emphasizes the potential humans have for overcoming obstacles, and this is something that the Joker is pretty good at. The Joker is the best example of Nietzsche’s Übermensch compared to Batman or Superman because the Joker can overcome man's problems to reach his potential while challenging the true meanings behind good and evil in a more realistic and relatable way.
The Joker was initially an average stand-up comedian named Jack Napier until he fell into a vat of acid when trying to secure funds for his family (Mithaiwala). In his first debut in the 1940s Batman series, the Joker was depicted as a murderous clown with no real purpose or background. It wasn't until later that a conglomerate of known comic writers and artists such as Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson came together to fashion more of his background.
As a fan-favorite villain, the Joker is commonly seen as Batman's archnemesis because he constantly challenges Batman's sense of justice with his jovial and anarchist beliefs. The Joker has continued challenging the true meanings between good and evil, hero and villain, and chaos and order. He serves to entertain the comic masses and debate many academic subjects as he challenges what it means to be human in a world where society is our master.
As a fictional character, Joker serves as entertainment; however, as a philosophical concept, the basis of the Joker aligns closely with the ideas and beliefs of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was born in 1844 in Rocken, Saxony, and studied to become a Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Basle (Parkes ix-xxvii). Radical and eccentric, he wrote numerous books and pamphlets on his ideas on philosophy before suffering a breakdown in 1888 after witnessing and sympathizing with a horse being beaten in the streets (Parkes ix-xxvii; Philosophy--Nietzsche). His breakdown led to a flourishing of works on humanity, morality, and philosophy until his death (Parkes ix-xxvii). He did not believe in Christianity or God, detested alcohol, and thought humanity had the tools to achieve their full potential, provided they left behind the mask society gave them (Philosophy--Nietzsche). His works embodied these ideas and others centering around good and evil and the concept of humanity overcoming its limits to become the Übermensch or superman.
For Nietszche, the Übermensch, or superman, is a fully recognized and self-satisfied human being. Essentially, human beings can overcome obstacles to determine their full potential and achieve it. Human potential is not the same for each person, but rather what is best suited for their needs and skillsets and is essentially a pathway made by themselves through self-discovery. Aside from the principality of the Übermensch comes three primary characteristics - self-overcoming, amor fati (love of fate"), and eternal recurrence (Peaslee and Weiner 180). Each characteristic represents an essential concept and an essential struggle humans have with the self, fate, and mortality.
In further discussing these concepts, the first, self-overcoming, deals with the reality of oneself through self-reflection and observation (Peaslee and Weiner 180-181). Essentially, it is overcoming the challenges one finds in themselves and conquering them to understand their life outside the societal classification of good and evil. Nietzsche describes the key to overcoming as "plumbing the dark recess of the soul" (Peaslee and Weiner 182). Looking at the darker parts of oneself that we typically try to hide will allow for the full realization of the self—the continuation of persevering through these darker parts aid in understanding oneself. Methods of doing so may differ, as one may use meditation, or focus on assisting others. On the other hand, the Joker utilizes humor and laughter to self-overcome. He employs a response that is not typical when facing uncertainty or challenges. The Joker's attitude inwardly to overcome challenges is also his most expressed emotion when dealing with problems outside of himself. Thereby, when the Joker utilizes humor to deal with his inner challenges, he uses humor to deal with all other concerns, whether for fun or crime.
The second characteristic, amor fati, translated as "love of fate," is an extension of self-overcoming. Once a person can overcome their darkness, they can overcome the darkness of the world (Peaslee and Weiner 182). Nietzsche says that it is only by "accepting [ing] the dark and dangerous that we can start to learn about life itself truly, thus the importance of the love of fate" (qtd. in Peaslee and Weiner 182). By being able to deal with the unknown and embrace it rather than fear it, one can hold more power. As one has already taken from their strength of self-overcoming, the energy brought about by amor fati allows one to be even more committed to themselves and their decisions. As the Joker already uses humor to deal with his self-overcoming, he continues to use humor to accept life. A want empowers the Joker to share his humor, which acknowledges another aspect of amor fati where there is a want for nothing to change in this lifetime (Peaslee and Weiner 183). This want is consistent with his sharing of humor with others through his heinous and hilarious acts of crime (Mithaiwala).
The last characteristic, eternal reoccurrence, encompasses the previous elements to understand and appreciate the fullness of life. This means living life to its fullest, with no regrets, and being able to accept the decisions made in this lifetime; if one had to go through life again with previous findings in place, they would be able to accept all that has occurred and choices made (Peaslee and Weiner 183). This also means coming to terms and getting power found from self-overcoming. This power cannot only be used with amor fati but to accept the world as it is with "no fear of failure or weakness" (Peaslee and Weiner 183). As the Joker can take all these characteristics together, coupled with his wicked sense of humor, it allows him to fully embrace the decisions he has made by living dangerously with no regrets. The Joker overcomes his inner self, fate, and mortality to become the Übermensch himself.
Utilizing these characteristics of the Übermensch, a comparison can be made between the Superman found in comics and the fictional idea of the superman found in the Joker. Superman, another DC fictional character, is an alien hero from the planet Krypton. As the sole survivor of his race, he resides and protects Earth from threats. Unlike the Joker, who is Earth-born and powerless, Superman must come to terms with understanding humanity and the challenges of blending into a race that is not his own.
In comparing Übermensch's characteristics, Superman works to self-overcome by dealing with ideas that are societally subjected as good. He looks inward to understand humanity, not to overcome it. He works towards the higher goal of achieving societal good instead of self-challenges. This is one of many differences found between the Joker and Superman. While Superman works towards societal goodness, the Joker embraces humor and jokes to laugh in the face of the horrors. This humor spreads to the second characteristic of amor fati. The Joker aims to extend his humor to others by living as dangerously as possible, without concern for hurting others. He wants life to continue this path of humorous destruction without changing. Thereby Joker accepts the life he is in, living as dangerously as possible while laughing in the face of danger.
Unlike the Joker, Superman wants life to change for the better so everyone can live the most meaningful life possible. He works towards changing fate and thereby does not recognize his lack of self-overcoming. His self-overcoming, he associates, means fits in with Earth's people and culture, living for them and not overcoming the inner struggles he faces as a sole survivor on a strange planet. Superman has more focus on others and lives life as safely as possible. Superman is the antithesis of the Joker, who lives life for himself without concern for others. Thus, the Joker can be seen more as Nietzsche's Übermensch, or superman, than Superman himself.
The Übermensch Nietzsche describes challenges the understandings and truth behind good and evil societal descriptors, a key definer in understanding the importance behind the Übermensch compared to the Joker. Good and evil are descriptors of actions, thoughts, and morals. For example, Nietzsche sees morality as a construct that does not clearly define good and evil but instead provides baseless ideas to make someone feel good rather than doing good. Nietzsche describes well:
Man had originally praised and called 'good' altruistic acts from the standpoint of those on whom they were conferred, that is, those to whom they were useful; subsequently the origin of this praise was forgotten, and altruistic acts, simply because, as a sheer of matter of habit, they were praised as good, came also to be felt as good- as though they contained in themselves some intrinsic goodness…" Good" did not originate among those to whom goodness was shown. Much rather has it been the good themselves, that is, the aristocratic, the powerful, the high-stationed, the high-minded, who have felt that they themselves were good, and that their actions were good, that is to say of the first order, in contradistinction to all the low, the low-minded, the vulgar, and the plebian (qtd. in Samuel 3-4).
In this way, “good” loses its value and meaning once it becomes mandatory and deserves recognition for something that should be done regardless of feeling or reward. Thereby, “good” becomes another construct of society we are bound to live by, separating the powerful from the weak. It brings forth the idea that being reasonable means being assertive, and the good is done to benefit the originator, not the ones receiving the supposed good.
This does not mean, however, that evil is the essential path to follow either. According to Nietzsche, evil is not necessarily the direct opposite of sound but rather a misperception or disagreement of ideas. Therefore, evil is in the eye of the beholder; if one has an opposing view on a supposed act, they can be deemed the enemy of the other and, as a result, evil. Ressentiment is the gauging point for deciding between “good” and “evil.” It can be viewed as an underlying motivator to achieve recourse, powered by hatred due to their weaknesses (Litsey 184-188). This explains why, on the outside, man is viewed as “good” when helping their fellow man. While internally or left alone, man would hide their inner beast that defies this sense of “goodness.” Feelings such as selfishness, envy, and jealousy, generally deemed unfavorable and motivators for wrong, are suppressed instead of embraced. Thereby, evil also constricts members of society to a prescribed idea where their feelings are ignored.
As Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the Joker can see the faults in the pre-described “good” and “evil” that weigh on its members of society. He can also handle his darkness, rising above it so that it becomes part of his identity, to become the best version of himself. Once reaching this potential, he wants nothing more than to spread his non-societal bound, jovial, monster-releasing freedom with others. This is a task that the Joker realizes cannot be done by everyone because they cannot accept the truth that good and evil mean nothing: The Joker explains it this way:
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 (qtd. in Batman Interrogates the Joker: The Dark Knight).
In talking to Batman about the Gotham City Police who have arrested him, the Joker knows that the law enforcement, which is supposed to be “good” and hold morals, doesn’t. The Joker knows people have these animals, or monsters, inside with a thick societal mask of morality and societal norms placed upon their faces. He already took his off; therefore, he believes others should also. It is only the Batman who indeed refuses to let go of his societal mask and is, thereby, the man of interest in the eyes of the Joker.
The Batman-Joker dynamic is one of the most infamous interactions between good and evil. A moral pillar of truth and justice, Batman represents the typical person in society, fighting for truth against the supposed corruption in Gotham. Batman is held to his societal moral code that prevents him from killing. While the Joker, a dismissible plague of society due to his psychotic tendencies, represents the oppressed and forgotten. With his self-made archaic moral code, the Joker is liberated from the constraints of society and able to follow his code to do anything to benefit himself. This preset idea of good and evil is a charade as the relationship between Batman and Joker is complicated by their views of ethics, morality, and power.
This charade relationship can further be explained with another concept created by Nietzsche, the slave master model, which considers the complicated understandings of good and evil. The model depends on the decider creating their beliefs or morals; the other is bound by said morals (Litsey 184-188). The one who holds power is the decider and can enforce their will upon the other. If the decider finds that their actions are right while the other is wrong, the decider becomes the master of their ideas while the other becomes the slave to the decider's ideas. When using this model to compare the actions of Batman and the Joker, they are slave and masters to each other. Batman has predefined ideas of justice from societal norms that demand equity when possible for the greater good of people and choosing to value life. Thus, the Joker is a slave to these ideas and is deemed evil in comparison to Batman because he violates the basis of Batman's societal code not to harm others and challenges his belief in justice. The Joker challenges justice, specifically with his value in anarchy and humor that values himself instead of society. Thereby Batman is the antithesis and enslaved person to this master's model. Each can rally and overcome the values of the other through the idea of slave revolt when times are rough, a formulaic comic book climax in which the hero defeats the villain after the villain has taken everything from the hero. This constant change between the roles of slave and master creates continuous conflict and elicits growth for both characters.
The Joker, however, is more conscious of the slave-master model, as he humorously invokes Batman by challenging his moral code by attacking him physically, mentally, emotionally, and morally. The Joker realizes that Batman needs him as he needs Batman. The clown has surpassed society's limitations and personal hindrance; he holds no moral code and abides only by his actions. The Joker is aware he fits into no prescribed societal standing and strives to keep it that way. This self-made freedom allows him to thrive in complete chaos, challenging Batman to rise above the tribulations he places in front of him (Litsey 184-188). This way, Batman will continue to be the slave and fight for his higher purpose. However, once he reaches that point, he is challenged by the Joker, who begins the cycle again.
The cycle continues round and round until one of them is taken out of the picture. When taking Batman out of the relationship, the Joker believes himself to cease as he has no fundamental importance without Batman. The Joker once described their relationship as follows:
There's these two guys. Both with serious emotional issues, they each start dressing up like freaks and break the law. One they call a psychopath and lock up in Arkham…the other they call a hero and name high schools after. Do you get it? (qtd. in Snyder 30-31).
Therefore, if the slave-master model exists, how can the Joker, or the master, live without someone to challenge? The master loses purpose when he has no one to control. This then changes the idea that the Joker is not held by anything. Through the concept of the slave-master model, the Joker is bound to Batman out of interest in laughs. Instead, Batman and Joker are intertwined because Batman is the only one to understand the motivations behind his actions.
The detailed understanding of the Joker cannot be summed up in one singular paper. His ideas, ideology, morals, and experiences are different aspects of a complicated character. Philosophically, one can analyze one part of the Joker and realize that he has been able to surpass all of humanity through the teachings of Nietzsche. As the Übermensch, he can look into the darkness in himself and embrace it so that he may find power through the challenging concepts of man- self, fate, and mortality. By self-overcoming his night, finding amor fati in life with humor, and allowing for the acceptance of his actions in eternal reoccurrence, he can flourish. He defies the societal ideas of good and evil by demolishing their meanings, embodying none of their ideas, and realizing that having morals is worthless. A revelation that Batman challenges in a reoccurring slave-master model where each man fights to protect their beliefs while enforcing them on the other, encouraging a cycle of breaking and building themselves back up. The Joker becomes more than a simple clown and a simple man through Nietzsche’s ideas of the Übermensch, good and evil, and the slave-master model. Instead, the Joker becomes what we want most out of life- to be free.
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