Without darkness there can be no light. Without evil, there is no good. Every yin has a yang. So having said that can there be a Joker without Batman? The Joker is arguably Batman’s greatest villain and easily one of the greatest villains in literary history. Created all the way back in 1940, the Joker has been plaguing Batman since the beginning. In this post we’ll take a closer look at the complicated relationship between Batman and the Joker and see whether or not Joker is just a lunatic or does his presence actually benefit the Dark Knight.
The Joker appears and acts like a lunatic but is he really insane? Sure he’s a mass murderer with zero empathy but are his ideals that psychotic. The Joker’s main philosophy is a simple one: everyone is simply one bad day away from insanity. It is this “one bad day” philosophy that allegedly created the Joker in the first place. In the graphic novel The Killing Joke we learn of one of the Joker’s many origin stories. In the novel, the Joker is a failed comedian who is bullied into pulling a robbery for mobsters. The day of the robbery, his wife dies in an accident but he is still forced to go through with the crime. The comedian is given the identity of the Red Hood by the burglars to make it look like he is the ring leader while in fact he is just a reluctant participant. During the robbery, Batman arrives to stop the criminals and in the chaos, the comedian falls into a vat of chemicals that bleach his skin white, turn his hair green, and lips a bright red. His disfigurement along with the tragedies of the day break the man’s psyche completing his transformation into the Joker.
In The Killing Joke, The Joker attempts to prove his theory correct by breaking Commissioner Gordon psychologically and driving him insane. Joker does this by crippling Gordon’s daughter, Barbara and taking pictures of her mangled, naked body and presenting them to Gordon. Gordon overcomes the trauma and insists to Batman that the Joker be stopped “by the book.” Batman offers to help the Joker recover from his insanity but the Joker is so far gone that there is simply no going back to his old life, if his origin story is to even be believed. The Joker has a nihilistic view of the world and can’t possibly see any good in it. He sees that something tragic like what happened to him would cause Batman to do what he does and insists that Batman is truly just as broken as Joker is. This is why the relationship between Batman and the Joker is so unique. They are complete polar opposites. While Bruce Wayne used his personal tragedy to become a symbol that fights for justice, Joker uses his personal tragedies to justify that the world is a dark place and there is simply no good or evil, just chaos.
In the film The Dark Knight, The Joker appears as an agent of chaos and as an answer to Batman’s unique brand of justice. Batman has taken justice to an extreme, so must the Joker arrive to take injustice to the next logical extreme. The two are locked in a philosophical battle for the soul of Gotham City itself. In the film, the one shining light in Gotham City is its District Attorney, Harvey Dent. Much like Gordon in The Killing Joke, Joker attempts to tear him down and prove that anyone can become the Joker. Joker succeeds, turning Dent into the villain Two-Face and essentially winning the psychological battle with Batman by corrupting something that was once good. Joker sees chaos as neither good or evil but simply as fair. In a way perhaps he is right. Sometimes bad things happen to good people and who hasn’t had a day when they “just want to watch the world burn.” The only difference is that the Joker takes that quote quite literally.
Throughout their long complicated history, the Joker and Batman have been constantly intertwined. Unlike villains like Riddler or Penguin who are motivated by money, power or a need to be better than the Dark Knight, Joker appears to be motivated by nothing in particular. In fact the one thing that does seem to motivate him to do anything is the mere presence of Batman in his life. Joker will never kill Batman because he would be bored without him. Likewise Batman can never bring himself to kill the Joker because he refuses to cross that moral line into murder. Even after Joker crippled Barbara Gordon or brutally murders the second Robin, Jason Todd, in the storyline A Death in the Family, Batman still refuses to kill the Joker. When Jason Todd returns to life years later, it is as a ruthless vigilante called the Red Hood, the same identity Joker had all those years ago. Jason questions why after all this time Batman didn’t avenge his death and has allowed Joker to live. Batman gives the same moral high ground answer but perhaps the answer is deeper than that. Perhaps the reason Batman continues putting up with Joker’s sick games is because the Joker makes Batman better.
The Joker is constantly challenging Batman and he truly believes he is making Batman better as a result. This is shown in Death of the Family where much like his murder of Jason Todd, Joker attempts to destroy other members of Batman’s family to prove that they make him weak and the only person Batman really needs is the Joker. Joker is even shown to know that Batman is really Bruce Wayne but does not care about his true identity, the only thing that matters is their game with one another. Joker would willingly eliminate everyone that Batman cared about not out of some sick sense of murderous impulse but for the pure and simple reason of that Batman only needs his nemesis for motivation, not his allies.
Batman has been given opportunity after opportunity to kill the Joker but he continually refuses. Is the Joker right in his assumption that Batman needs Joker? In The Dark Knight Trilogy Batman refuses to kill the Joker according to him “out of some misplaced sense of self righteousness.” In the first film, Batman refused to kill Ra’s al Ghul but said “he didn’t have to save him” essentially leaving him to die anyway. This incarnation of Batman may not have actively murdered Ra’s al Ghul but he just as good as killed him when he condemned him to a fiery death. Does Batman’s decision to murder one villain but his choice to spare the Joker show that he truly may favor the Joker because of what he brings out in Batman or is it just a plot hole?
Throughout their history, Joker and Batman are always shown to have a deeper relationship than just hero and villain. Some writers have even implied the two are in love with one another and that is the reason for their reluctance to end each other. In any story where Joker actually dies it is never Batman who is directly responsible. In the video game Batman: Arkham City, The Joker dies due to a disease and in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker the Joker is killed by Tim Drake, the third Robin. Even in The Killing Joke, where it is implied Batman finally gives in and strangles Joker to death, it is unseen and happens off panel.
The beauty of their relationship is that they are locked in a never ending battle. The truth is that Batman does need the Joker and vice versa. They make each other better and no matter how many people the Joker hurts, Batman will never cross that line and become what Joker wants. Batman has already had his “one bad day” and channeled that anger into something entirely different than the Joker. The two may truly be destined to battle forever. As long as there is a desire for new Batman stories, his greatest adversary, villain, co-star and ultimately motivation for doing what he does, will remain the Joker.