God knows the world spends too much time thinking about Batman, but I need to write about what I consider one of the most compelling love stories in the history of fiction. Not a romance, but definitely a love story.
The Joker is an argument about the nature of the world. He is a product of the rational horror of life, and he inflicts that horror on society as a response. Now, I’m not necessarily claiming that’s his intention. First of all, because speaking of intentions in relation to a mind like The Joker is a pretty moot point. Second of all, because it doesn’t matter if that’s his intention, it’s still the effect of his actions regardless. That said, he generally seems aware of what his crimes signify, and it is his intention in some portrayals, such as The Dark Knight.
You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan”.
You see, The Joker doesn’t think the world is broken. In fact, he knows the world isn’t broken, because the world is rigged to work a certain way. If the system is a machine, it is fit to purpose. The problem isn’t that the machine grinds up those caught in its wake, the problem is that the machine is accepted as normal. If we all worked together to turn off the machine, the slaughter would end, but then where do we get our soylent green?
The Joker shows us that the system is both rational and horrifying. He disrupts the status quo with spectacular acts of terror and death, then asks why we react with disgust to his crimes, but not the crimes of the system. Why do we quietly accept the violent maintenance of an economic underclass? Why are we fine with stealing wealth from those who are weaker by force?
Why don’t we panic? Because it’s all part of the plan.
Batman is the counterargument. Yes, he works outside the system, but he works outside the system to uphold the system. Further, while he is a product of the system, he also profits from the system. The Joker asks why we’re okay with exploiting farmers in the Third World and calls us to destroy the capitalist classes. Batman asks why we can’t just buy more Fairtrade.
Joker says the system needs to die, a radical politic. Batman says the system needs to improve, a progressive politic.
Behold, the axis of Joker’s love for Batman.
This love is not romantic or sexual or even platonic. I don’t know if there’s a name for the kind of love that Joker feels towards Batman, but the love exists nonetheless. Joker exists only as an argument, but argument cannot exist without counterargument (though arguably, Batman is the argument, since he represents the status quo, and Joker is the counterargument, since he represents an alternative, but that’s splitting hairs somewhat).
Let’s call it a dialectic love. Joker knows that Batman just needs a sufficiently persuasive explanation of how fucked up the world is to realise that Joker was right all along.
All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day. [...] My point is, I went crazy. When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot! I admit it! Why can’t you? I mean, you’re not unintelligent! You must see the reality of the situation. [...] 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?
So Joker keeps committing horrifying crimes to bring the gravity of the world’s darkness to Batman’s attention. But this creates a problem for Joker, because he ceases to exist if he wins the argument. Batman gives Joker reason to live, but only because he represents everything the Joker exists to oppose. Joker reached a point of absolute despair at the cruel absurdity of the world, and kept on living purely to explain his revelation to the world. Batman stops him winning that argument.
So on the one hand, he hates Batman because of what he represents.
On the other, he loves Batman, because he lives for Batman.
But this creates a whole other problem, because his love of Batman gives him another reason to not want to win the argument. How could he hurt someone who gives his life meaning? Yet, at the same time, the meaning of his life is to hurt this person. Joker exists because Batman exists, and Joker loves him for that, but he exists only to destroy Batman, even though his existence is contingent on Batman’s, and destroying Batman requires destroying the only person he loves.
Ultimately, Joker just wants to not be alone in a world with the facade stripped back. But to do so, he’d have to bring Batman into his world. How can he do that to someone he loves? Especially since he’d cease to exist. How can he bring his one true love down to his level, then abandon him?
Well, because that would win the argument. No wonder Joker and Batman are caught in an endless loop – Joker doesn’t want to win. But he won’t lose either, because Batman refuses to kill him, just as he refuses to kill the system. Joker hates Batman for representing the argument for the system, but he hates himself for representing its rational horror in flesh. The only end to the argument that doesn’t see Joker win sees Batman win by conceding the argument and killing to destroy a machine of endless slaughter, the progressive become the radical. The only way for Batman to win is for Joker to win.
But Batman won’t do that. And Joker loves him for it.