Why is the Joker so popular?: A psychological look

Clown, prankster, killer, Joker has been in our society since the 1940s, but just what is it about this character we find so interesting?

This week, Warner Bros. will release its epic crime picture, Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Clown Prince of Crime. There has been much hubbub about the picture, with the army releasing a warning to servicemen about possible active shooters at theaters and police beefing up security at theater venues.

This has created many conversations within the media about the character of the Joker and his place in society and fiction in general. The Joker is without a doubt the most popular villain in modern cinema and comic books. Created in 1940 by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, he has gone through many incarnations from bumbling prankster to depraved killer (his most popular and recent incarnation).

Joker often tops the charts of the most popular movie characters and comic book figures. His makeup and suit combine to make one of the most worn Halloween and party costumes and, with every Batman reboot, the question that always comes up is, “Who will play the new Joker?”

Just why is this character so popular? Why do so many people around the world idolize and love him so much? Why are we the viewers of movies and readers of comics so drawn to this character comprised of pure darkness?

In addition to being a journalist and writer, I also hold an upper-level graduate degree in psychology and love to break down film and culture through a psychological lens.

To fully understand the appeal of the Joker, we must investigate the psychology of man. In the article “Ego, drives, and the dynamics of internal objects,” the author describes the psychological theory of the “id”:

“Certain aspects of your personality are more primal and might pressure you to act upon your most basic urges. Other parts of your personality work to counteract these urges and strive to make you conform to the demands of reality.”

We as humans grow and develop throughout our lives, we are taught about society and how to act and behave. This is referred to as the “ego,” which gives the id what it wants, but in acceptable ways that follow the rules of society. Say for example as a child, when you wanted a toy another child was playing with, you would go and take it. Much in the same way when we see someone with a cellphone we like, the ego has taught us to not go and steal this device from the person but to go and buy for one ourselves, satisfying our urge for the phone in a lawful manner.

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The id is the home of all of our most primal emotions and urges. Not governed by law or society, it is the wild will to do what we want and get what we what however we may. Thankfully, things like society, culture, and religion have tempered this and shown us this is not the way to behave. However, the id remains locked away. You hear stories of people whose children are trapped under a car, and a parent will lift the car with superhuman strength. This is due to the primal urge to protect your children, which tells your body to react in a certain way. There are many examples we could use, but let’s get back to the topic at hand — why the Joker is so popular.

As discussed above, everyone has an id, and the Joker represents the id in its purest most primal form; he is the walking incarnation of our basest fears, desires, emotions, rage, wants, needs, and passion. Many people look at the Joker and see the unbridled chaos of the id, and this is attractive to them. Now, this does not mean that people are looking at Joker and are envious of him as a murderer; it just means the id within is attracted to the idea of pure passion and unbridled chaos of emotions and action.

Much in the same way when watching a cops and robbers picture, we are slightly rooting for the criminals to escape with the loot and not be caught (Remember, the sympathetic criminal mastermind in the seminal, crime epic Heat). We would never commit a robbery, just like we would not copy the joker and murder anyone. It’s just the id responding to open freedom with no restraints.

A fascinating poster was just released for Joker, which depicts the human skin of Joker dripping off his face like paint, revealing the “skin” underneath, which is the Joker makeup. This poster shows that Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Arthur Fleck, did not become Joker; he always was Joker inside.

Next: Batman: All 6 Joker actors ranked from worst to best

In the cultural and religious context, the id could be referred to as the depravity of man, and the Joker is the perfect mirror to see what man is like without morals to govern us. If this were the case, we would be lawless and chaotic, primal and erratic. In much the same way Bruce Wayne has shown us all of the things that make up the Joker, but he stands as an example of humanity under the moral law. He’s one who is lawless, chaotic and primal yet controls and suppresses this with moral ethics.

So if you see Joker upon release take a moment to ponder the id, and be grateful that we possess the means and the will to control it.