Of all the villains in the history of comics, TV and movies, one stands out above the rest. Without doubt one of the most enduring and fascinating characters in popular culture, the Joker has captivated imaginations and enraptured audiences all over the world. Heath Ledger's masterful portrayal of the character in 2008's The Dark Knight catapulted the Clown Prince of Crime to new heights in the realm of mass viewership, and with sublimely acted scenes like this, it's not hard to see why:
It's impossible to deny that this character holds a special place in the hearts of everyone who sees him in action, in whatever shape or form. But what about the Joker makes him capture our imaginations so much?
Deep down, we all want to abandon social constructs
Society functions on basic constructs, such as the fundamental principles that murder is wrong, we should all try and come to each other's aid when necessary, and we should all live in a civilized and orderly manner. The Joker rejects these fundamental constructs completely, thriving on chaos, anarchy and unpredictability - you're never quite sure what he's going to do next and, to an extent, neither is he.
The reason the Joker captures our imaginations so much is that there is a dark side within all of us, and it's constantly fighting for competition with the light, or good, side; trying to engulf you and drag you into darker thoughts and actions. Subconsciously, we all embrace the dark side; and acknowledge the superficial pleasure of tapping into it. It's the side of us that embraces violence and chaos; suffering and the infliction of pain. There's a dark side within all of us, and the fact that the Joker embraces it makes him all the more identifiable; he's simply allowing the darkness to take over. While watching him we can identify with him; at a subconscious level we all have a primal urge to engage with our darker side. With the Joker we can terrifyingly see what we could be if we did, indeed, let the darkness take over.
The Joker exposes our misfounded superiority complex
Psychologists have noticed that people tend to think of themselves as noble, honest, just, and generally of good character. Especially when it comes to comparing themselves with others, people tend to fall back on something called illusory superiority - that is, the bias that makes all people believe their moral qualities are better than others'. We tend to believe that we would never kill or maim another human for any reason whatsoever, and therefore we are morally righteous. However, the Joker brutally exposes this misfounded belief - he believes that without the structured control of the government and society (the "schemers" he keeps referring to), people become killers; animals that will do anything for survival.
The Joker's disturbing social experiment on the two ferries in The Dark Knight goes a long way to try and prove this - the passengers on both the ferries are eager to detonate the bomb on the other ferry and end the charade. The Joker is trying to show the world that nobody is truly morally superior, or morally righteous; given the chance, men will kill without a second thought to save their own lives. The passengers on the ferries only decide not to blow their counterparts up after several minutes of reasoning and argument - on their initial impulse, they didn't hesitate at all to end hundreds of innocent lives to save their own. No one is truly superior, and through exposing this fallacy in our beliefs the Joker seems to have uncovered a fundamental flaw in society.
All it takes is one bad day
As the Joker testifies in The Killing Joke, all it takes is "one bad day" to reduce even the sanest man alive to lunacy. This plays into psychological themes of sometimes not feeling fully in control of one's mind and the theory that deep down, everyone is insane, but we put on a façade colored by social constructs to try and hide it. This façade can go so far; become so thickly embedded in our psyche; that we begin believing it to be true and carrying out our life through supposedly "sane" principles that are actually fundamentally the exact opposite. The Joker shows us that there's a thin line between sanity and insanity, and we walk the tightrope every single day of our lives. The concept that a little push could drive us to lunacy is gripping and so profound it's hard to let go of. As the Joker himself says:
You see, madness is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.
The fact that we could be just as insane as the character presented to us means we just can't let him go or get him out of our minds - he understands us and our psyche too well.
We all subconsciously embrace absurdism
The Joker's entire character revolves around the principle of Absurdism. This concept simply rejects the belief that the universe has any value, purpose, or inherent meaning. This is quite frankly a terrifying notion; for the universe to have no value would mean that the actions we carry out every single day are pointless; and serve no purpose. Why the Joker enraptures audiences worldwide so much; why he holds a place in everyone's hearts is that not only does he fully embrace the concept of absurdism, he enjoys it.
The Joker enjoys the fact that our lives ultimately have no meaning or purpose, and so he defines his own values and chooses his own actions. Structures become shackles, to quote Jim Gordon, and the Joker breaks those shackles in a mindblowingly simple fashion - he rejects society's values and creates his own. The running theme that all of us subconsciously want to break the shackles of society comes back into play here; if life has no purpose why don't we define a purpose for ourselves? In the Joker's case he lives for gasoline, gunpowder and dynamite; he thrives off chaos and violence. The idea that we can choose and act upon our values is a gripping and enthralling one - the Joker shows us how we can do it, and it makes the character all the more fascinating.
Why so serious?
The Joker will no doubt continue to enthrall and entertain audiences for many years to come, but it's imperative to find out exactly what makes this character tick - and what makes us engage with and love him so much. Absurdism, the thin line between sanity and insanity and the breaking of social shackles - these are all concepts that grip us, make us want to hear more, and will always keep the character as engaging and relevant as he currently is.
The Joker is no doubt a genius - and the guy understands us so well it's impossible to get him out of our minds and, indeed, to let him go, which is why audiences around the world never will.