With the upcoming Joker movie, Joaquin Phoenix will bring to life yet another iteration of the character. First portrayed in live-action by Cesar Romero, during the 1960s Batman TV series, since then multiple well-known actors have portrayed the role such as Mark Hamill, Jack Nicholson, Cameron Monaghan, and Heath Ledger.
When talking about the Joker, one of the most perplexing things about the character is his motivation. As Alfred from The Dark Knight said, “Some people just want to watch the world burn.” While multiple writers have introduced various motivations either stemming from his mysterious background or relationship with Batman, two of the most commonly accepted theories are the following:
Motivation #1: Perception (Super-Sanity via Grant Morrison and/or A-Rationality)
A popular theory on Joker’s motivation is rooted in his perception of reality. Acclaimed writer Grant Morrison, who has written various Batman story-lines, once posed the idea that the Joker is mentally unstable due to his level of awareness during the pages of 1989’s Batman: Arkham Asylum. Called super-sanity, The Joker is hinted to be aware that his existence is fictitious and cyclical (like a comic book story is) and this reality overwhelms his sanity as it would all truly be meaningless. Explaining his obsession with Batman would be like saying that he understands to some extent the main character is Batman, thus he’s constantly focusing on him while everything else is their playground because everything besides Batman is meaningless.
Another take on his perception, influenced by cognitive psychology, is that it causes him to experience the world in a way best described as a complete absence of rationality. This can be viewed as the rationality spectrum counterpart of being amoral. Things just “are” with no explanation needed, and for the Joker that’s great.
In animals, it has been observed that they act irrationally in the sense that they’ll perform actions and follow instinctive behavior patterns that conflict with their individual interests, sometimes resulting in injury or death in pursuit of passions. However, unlike humans, the animals aren’t technically acting irrationally. As Keith Stanovich, an emeritus professor of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto, states in his 2011 book Rationality and the Reflective Mind, “an animal can be arational, but only humans can be irrational.” There is a sense of rationality, applicable to humans, which seems not to apply to non-human animals. This is because rationality is commonly influenced by choices and those choices are influenced by past decisions and future decisions.
The Joker, like many animals, doesn’t usually override past behaviors via imagining the future or conducting thought experiments before selecting how to act. The Joker instead just acts, which can result in his deaths or injury.
Motivation #2: Extreme Nihilism & Hypocrisy
Our second theory is that the Joker is an extreme nihilist and wants to instigate chaos. The Joker, during the novel The Killing Joke, said “It’s all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for…it’s all a monstrous demented gag! So why can’t you see the funny side? Why aren’t you laughing?”
This is a motivation that seemed prevalent throughout Heath Ledger’s portrayal in The Dark Knight. He gives the people of Gotham various speeches to break them down and gain psychological advantages, via the manipulation of hypocrisy and truths. This was how the Joker corrupted Harvey Dent and then with Harvey Dent’s “white knight” symbolism, attempted to corrupt the citizens of Gotham City, Batman, and Gordon.
With these accomplishments, the Joker made progress into sending Gotham into chaos and attempted to make people feel as if their hopes and desires were lost. Through this experience, the people of Gotham would be as mad as he is, something shown with Harvey’s descent into Two-Face. As The Joker says in The Dark Knight, “You see, madness, as you know it, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.”
In many comic origins for the Joker, when attempted, this mindset of the Joker is reached due to his “one bad day.” After that, he sees the world for “what it is” in his eyes which is full of hypocrisy even though much of the hypocrisy is seen from him as well. Using The Dark Knight as an example again, he exposes the hypocrisy of Batman not being willing to kill him or other villains yet wanting to save everyone and be the hero.
The Joker also exposes the hypocrisy of the criminal underground, police force, and the city’s socio-political structure. However, the biggest hypocrite is the Joker himself. As he said to the criminal underground, “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.“ However, he also describes himself as “a schemer.”