What makes the Joker the most recognizable and popular super villain in American folklore? Technically he’s not even a “super” villain, just a human with no powers or altered abilities. He became a mainstay in the comics because of the striking visuals of his character design, but a sinister grin isn’t enough to explain the character’s longevity.
The answer is in how perfectly he compliments Batman as an antagonist. Most Nolan fans can quote Alfred’s line: “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” from The Dark Knight. And careful viewers of the film will draw out themes of chaos versus order and anarchy versus justice. The Joker’s appeal, though, runs deeper than Nolan’s focus on the foe to a conflicted Bruce Wayne.
A good villain must never think he’s a villain. Joker has no heroic delusions, but he does believe in his nihilistic philosophy to the point that he thinks it’s funny how society tries to define things like law and crime, good and bad, and so forth. Then he meets Batman who believes just as passionately but in justice, self-control, and hope. Batman isn’t funny. He’s a threat to the Joker’s worldview and needs to be broken.
Batman is a threat because there is an element of Batman in the Joker. As much as the villain would like to give himself over to nihilistic chaos, he still has the capacity to reason, and that faculty grows stronger with every elaborate plan he orchestrates against Batman. In Arkham City, a Joker thug can be overheard commenting on how Joker is insane one moment and then all plans and logistics the next. This has to be infuriating to the Joker whose struggle against his foe is strengthening faculties that make him more like his foe.
Even more twisted is that the same can be said for the Joker’s effect on Batman. Each time he goes up against the Clown Prince of Crime, Batman must embrace a small amount of chaos, the chaos of violence, the chaos of thinking like the Joker to foresee his next move and so on. The Joker is interesting because of the Batman he demands in his stories. The Dark Knight fighting the Joker walks a tightrope more than any other hero. He can’t kill, not even one who has slain and wants to still slay so many. But it doesn’t stop there. While battling the Joker, Batman must remember that the darkness he battles is first and foremost inside himself, the darkness the Joker is trying to call out.
This interplay is why the Joker, and Batman, have gained in popularity over the last decades. Modern society is nihilistic. It seeks to deconstruct values, traditions, and then deconstruct the ones it replaces them with the very next moment. Anyone who dares believe in anything can see the Joker in our culture, laughing and trying to discredit whatever we attempt to hold on to. In this sense the villainy of the Joker is more recognizable than ever, and the unique heroism of Batman against the Joker is necessary for a soul to survive.