Nihilism in The Dark Knight

How do we respond when life takes away our meaning? In the universe of ‘The Dark Knight,’ the protagonist, Batman, responds by fighting crime in disguise. However, the antagonist, The Joker, embraces the meaninglessness and abandons all conventional morality from his life. As I watched the movie, the Joker had a scene that provoked my transcendental thoughts on identity: ‘‘Wanna know how I got these scars? My father was… a drinker. And a fiend. And one night he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself… Turns to me, and he says, ‘why so serious, son?’ Comes at me with the knife… ‘Why so serious?’ He sticks the blade in my mouth… ‘Let’s put a smile on that face!’ And…Why so serious?’’ (Nolan, Jonathan. Nolan, Christopher. The Dark Knight). His anecdote on losing morality is heartrending, and his rhetoric presents us a thought-provoking question: Why so serious? The Joker’s rhetoric, that abandons conventional morality, influenced me to harmonize with my inner-madness.


My focus is on the Joker today, who adopted the rhetoric of existentialism, which mainly states that our existence has no purpose or meaning. The Joker provides a horrendous image as he explains the trauma he faced in his childhood. By stating his family background of an alcoholic, aggressive father and a naïve mother, The Joker established a deeper connection with the audience regarding his personality. For an audience that had no clue on how The Joker got the scars on his face, and this anecdote made me feel empathetic to his abnormal attitude. This especially made me recollect with my childhood experiences. As a kid, my biggest fear was disappointing my father. The anxiety I felt when my father yelled at me is beyond comparison to anything I experienced. The Joker’s speech made me feel flashbacks of my childhood and reflected on my angst and the vulnerability I faced in the face of authority. I thought that my world was collapsing when I was grounded and could not leave my room. It also made me feel optimistic, because I am not the only one who dealt with adversity in childhood. This recollection made me feel a trembling sensation, and it reminded me of the unexpressed emotions that I repressed in childhood since I never confronted my father. The relationship with my parents defined my attitude in interpersonal relationships and made me relate to The Joker with a new perspective into his madness. The way he narrated the plot was another powerful device, because the plot had depth that could be elaborated into a book. He established a swift composition of the tragedy he faced: ‘‘and one night he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself…’’ There are clearly gaps between the transitions of the plot that he describes, but we can still infer the story from the child-perspective of an innocent Joker in the making. The rhetorical use of narrative was one of the key attributes that made this passage compelling. Another key component of the story is the phrase that ended up evolving into the slogan of the Joker, ‘‘why so serious?’’ In this passage, the Joker perfects the artistic usage of anaphora by stating ‘‘why so serious?’’ over and over again, but he uses the phrase with a different purpose each time. The first time he uses it, we can imagine the shock that the Joker faced as he faced life-threatening trauma in his childhood. The second time he uses it, the danger evolves even further, as he specifies on how his father stuck a blade in his mouth. And the last time he uses it, the phrase evolves from a phobia into his philosophy. We can argue that with any regular kid who faces such a horrific event would probably have chilling flashbacks if they heard ‘‘why so serious?’’ For The Joker, however, the phrase evolved into his purpose. He confronted the phrase as a means of coping with his catastrophic childhood. He developed sociopathic tendencies after this event, and took his fathers phrase to point out that life is cruel and meaningless. Instead of fixing the scars that his father left him, he decided to adopt them, and turn it into an everlasting and existentialist smile. One bad day made the Joker abandon his conventional morality, and at any given moment, any traumatic experience a human being experiences can lead to the same path. The Joker’s rhetoric helped me reflect on my past adversities, and how they shaped who I am today. Experience builds character, and it is through accepting rejection and harmonizing with my inner self that I became aware of my own distinct qualities and built my self-esteem. If I have a personality that is peculiar from societal standards, why should I not choose to represent them in society without losing all of my meaning in life?

One might object here that this is just an uncomplicated passage narrated by an uncomplicated murderer. The Joker indeed reflects on a tragic experience, but this passage does not include the depth and the complexities that were stated above. The passage might be influential for children and adolescents because of the colloquial narration of the story, but it does not satisfy any cerebral pursuit. The imagery that the Joker provides has no sincere articulation, thus it unsuccessfully serves the poignancy that was trying to be entrenched. Since the foundation of this passage fails to communicate an appeal to emotion, the pathos in this passage remains abstract to the audience. A captivating rhetorical passage is identifiable, but who can really identify with the Joker’s experience? I personally connected with The Joker and felt enthusiastic about his characteristic. For a lot of the audience members, however, the experience was not the same. Alex Hess, a film critic, states: ‘‘ “Why so serious?’’ implores Ledger’s Joker at one point, as the film pauses for a moment of unintentional introspection. Christian Bale’s gravel-voiced antihero — possessing the suit, sound and script of a pro wrestler but none of the self-awareness — is certainly not about to lighten the mood.’’ (Hess, Alex — The Guardian) Hess does not deny the abundance of the dark mood portrayed by The Joker in this passage, but he finds the introspection unsettling. Since The Batman is not the light that shines in the face of The Joker, the depressing scene becomes unbearable for a lot of the audience members. Rather than the melancholic childhood memories that the passage made me feel, it just leads to a dissonant feeling for many others, which is the antithesis of the experience that I have felt. Everyone faces conflict with his or her families, but most of the audience cannot possibly parallel a tragedy in the radical fashion of the Joker. The narration creates a quivering sensation for the audience, which is a repulsive trait instead of a provoking one.

An issue with the ‘intellectual’ criticism of the Joker’s rhetoric is that it is argued that there is a rhetorical attempt through his use of colloquial language. The reality is that the rhetoric represents the intuitive madness and savagery of his identity. This passage made me realize that I filter a lot of my word choices in my daily life. Since English is my second language, I care about organizing my word choice and speak English precisely. After The Joker’s passage, I realized that my language usage sometimes restricts my intuitive emotions. Communicating emotions goes beyond the word choice, and feelings can be expressed from the heart. Analyzing the Joker as someone trying to conform to an audience is a fallible argument. The question that he outlined is ‘‘wanna know how I got these scars?’’ He responds to the question in an adrenaline-filled, madness-elevated succession instead of an attempt at providing rich imagery. Even though the audience cannot connect with the story per se, an audience can connect with represented emotions. The Joker’s rhetoric screams of angst and isolation, themes that we come across at some point in our lives: ‘‘Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself… Comes at me with a knife…’’ The plot-holes are a device for us to interpret that this was the last memory he experienced with his mother. The abstractness of the story is a rhetorical commodity rather than a liability; hence the poignancy of the Joker’s rhetoric is successfully conveyed.

Each one of us has the capability of a righteous or an evil path. The Joker’s rhetoric taught me that virtue and morality is a mask that wears off. Our instinctive behavior is the identity we adopt as we deal with adversity and meaninglessness. This rhetoric proves that it is beneficial to realize that there is always an untamed characteristic lying under all of us. This passage helped me confront my childhood controversies, and made me realize that emotions are communicated from the heart rather than establishing an intellectual choice of words. His rich imagery was also an essential part that articulated on his heartrending experience of losing morality. We do not need to fit to the norms of rhetoric, and it is just as important to express emotion when it comes to providing a captivating argument. The Joker successfully established that, which is the main reason why many people made him the protagonist instead of objectifying him as a sociopathic criminal. Why so serious? It is not wrong to sometimes want others to fail; it is not wrong to dislike some people; it is not wrong to laugh at what other people do, and it is not wrong to be yourself. We live in a mad world.


-Hess, Alex. “The Dark Knight: my most overrated film.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 14 Nov. 2014,