The Philosophy of Batman: Schopenhauer Edition

The “Agent of Chaos” It’s really cool when a movie villain lies. Like just lies. About himself, about stuff around him. It’s silly when a movie villain tricks and deceives everyone around him for the movie, and then when he’s … Continued

Send in the Heath Ledgers

The “Agent of Chaos”

It’s really cool when a movie villain lies. Like just lies. About himself, about stuff around him. It’s silly when a movie villain tricks and deceives everyone around him for the movie, and then when he’s got a moment to talk about himself, he’s totally honest and explains everything exactly the way it works.

I love how the Joker in The Dark Knight doesn’t do that. The second time he explains his scars (and the second explanation is totally different from the first one) is one of my favorite moments in the movie.

Which is why I don’t really take the Joker at his word when he says he’s an “agent of chaos.”

As one of my friends said it better than I could – “For an agent of chaos, he’s awfully well-organized.”

I think he’s speaking to an important point — that, as far as guys like Batman are concerned, with their vision of the world, their own representations to build, their own will-to-life to conduct, the Joker is a destroyer. He just comes in and annihilates power structures, institutions, and, perhaps with the most pleasure, the psyches of people who consider themselves to be righteous and in control — people who feel the are successfully projecting their own version of the Will into the world.

He doesn’t do it for power. He doesn’t do it for money. He does it with a couple of cans of gas and a few bullets, and he burns all the cash he wins in return. He doesn’t seem to have desires that yield to satisfaction — He seems as happy when he’s failed as when he’s succeeding.

I really don’t think he’s anybody else’s agent. There’s nobody “causing” the Joker, and no principle, not even chaos, no Ra’s Al Ghul, no thing-in-itself that pushes the Joker to do the things he does. There’s something made in the movie about how the mobsters “set him loose,” but that’s kind of forced overplotting and I don’t buy it. The key to the motive behind every Batman villain is how everything they do is somehow thematically connected with their own expression of self. It’s not just good enough to kill somebody. You’ve got to Joker-kill them.

The Will-to-Joker is part of the Joker. It’s in there under the makeup, underneath the custom clothes. But it’s also in the makeup and the custom clothes. The thing that keeps him going and makes him tick is indistinguishable from what he is. And it is so strong that as an aspect of himself, this WIll projects quite a mighty Representation. The Joker costume is the Joker. So is the trick with the boats. So is the trick with the hostages. So is his insulting the guard’s friends until he beats them (how’s that for a scene about the Will-to-Life?). It’s all his trademark, it’s all the same Will in the world.Will-to-Joker

The Joker is the heightened, perfect Schopenhauerian warrior (which is somewhat of a contradiction, but bear with me). The Will-to-Life is unfettered in him to so great a degree that he reimagines everyone and everything around him as projections of himself. Each bomb, each prank, each murder is an act, not of achievement, but of reproduction. The Nietzschean Dichotomy of the Dionesian and the Appollonian is nowhere to be found — he’s all bound up in one agent.

And when he sees Batman, he instantly recognizes somebody like himself. “You’re not like the others,” he says. He gleeful exclaims that Batman is “Like me!”

And this is the villain Batman must strive against to prove his heroism and establish an epic for Gotham.

39 Comments on “The Philosophy of Batman: Schopenhauer Edition”

  1. Jimbo #

    Great stuff, mate! Absolutely. Thank you for this


  2. Ashley #

    I didn’t understand half of this, but I really loved it. The Dark Knight will hopefully prove to movie-makers that the masses really do love a movie that makes them think as well as entertains them!


  3. Gab #

    Two things I’d like to ask:
    1) What about Kant’s Categorical Imperative?


    2) Is The Assassin in “Serenity” more like Batman or The Joker?


  4. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Thanks, Pete! This article actually gets at the heart of my main problem with Bill’s superhero speech in Kill Bill 2. In that speech, he claims that Superman was unique in that, whenever he woke up in the morning, he was Superman–Clark Kent was his costume. But you’re right and Bill’s wrong; it’s the same thing for Batman. When Bruce Wayne wakes up in the morning, he is Batman. His character of “Bruce Wayne” (the playboy) is more of a mask than his batsuit.


  5. Josh #

    My head just asploded…


  6. fenzel #

    Thanks Josh and Ashley!

    Gab, to answer your questions —

    1. Batman still shouldn’t treat people merely as a means. Compassion, putting aside total egoism, and recognizing the value of others around him is a good thing. If Batman ignores the value of others, he turns into the Joker.

    But Batman certainly doesn’t only want to act insofar as much as he could will his act to be a universal law. He likes that his will and representation in the world inspires a certain hope and imitation, but he also recognizes that not abandoning the Will causes him to suffer.

    That’s kind of the point at the end of The Dark Knight — “I’m going to do this thing because I can, and because I don’t want anybody else to have to do it.”

    Batman pretty much rejects the categorical imperative and slaps a big hypothetical in front of it —


    2. Sadly, I have no seen Serenity, although everybody keeps saying it is awesome. I should put it on my queue. What do you think? You probably have your own answer if you asked the question :-)

    And Mlawski —

    I initially had a big section in this article EXACTLY ON THAT! A link to the YouTube speech and everything! But I cut it for length.

    Suffice it to say I agree completely.

    And Josh —

    Sorry about that. I’ll get a mop :-)


  7. Gab #

    Ashley: I guarantee you that not nearly as many people as you think left the theater waxing philosophically in their heads like the crowd on this site. Consider yourself made of awesome for doing so, though. ;)

    fenzel: First, I had a feeling your answer would be something like that; and if that’s what Batman does, it sort of makes anything Kantian about him crumble. The whole point of Kant’s philosophy is that everyone should be doing the same things because we’re all connected via that Higher Power (God, God is such a copout in philosophy!), and we should not act outside the realm we think others should: if we wouldn’t want someone else to do it, we intrinsically cannot do it ourselves, and vice versa. “Do as I say, not as I do,” is the antithesis of Kant. So Batman is, thus, Kant’s archenemy, NOT The Joker’s (if you want to go back to the comic book lingo)– they sort of double-team, roundhouse kick him in the eye like twin Chuck Norrises. I rather like that.

    Secondly, about “Serenity.” I was asking because I HONESTLY DO NOT KNOW. I think in some ways he’s closer to Batman, but in others he’s definitely more Joker-esque. But I can’t esplain it to you cuz you gots ta see it fer yerself– AND “Firefly,” the series: both are Joss Whedon. And they have resulted in all sorts of fandom stuff: comics (written by Joss!!!11!!111!), a roelplaying system/world, books… Anyway, there is a lot you could pick apart and “Overthink” in that universe. Oh, and I meant “The Operative.”


  8. fenzel #

    Hey Gab,

    If you want to see Batman fight Kant, just Netflix _Batman Begins_.


  9. lee OTI Staff #

    If you want to see Batman fight a shark (and pick up the “Bat Shark Repellent” reference if you missed it) just go to:

    and fast forward to about the 2:50 mark. You won’t be disappointed.


  10. Stokes #

    Re: Batman vs. Superman.
    I happened to be clicking around on Wikipedia after watching ‘The Dark Knight,’ and I came across this tidbit. Apparently in one of the animated TV shows, Bruce Wayne had a brief fling with Lois Lane, who dumped him upon finding out that he was the Batman. Batman went to Superman for sympathy (must have been awkward) and during the conversation pointed out that for both men, Lois had only been interested in the fake identity.

    I don’t know how canon that is, but it’s an interesting take on it.


  11. Stokes #

    Re: Serenity/Firefly

    Pete, you should watch Firefly before watching Serenity. Firefly is really tremendous – knowing you as I do, I think you’re going to take a dump when you get to an episode called “Janestown.” Serenity is a very solid scifi movie, but at the end of the day it’s more interesting as an appendix to Firefly than it is in its own right.

    Gab, that character is probably more Batmanish. 1) He’s a stupendous badass with some seriously dark urges, 2) he is at least nominally in the business of enforcing law and order, but 3) his methods are quasi-legal at best. That’s all Batman through and through. Also, there’s a strong suggestion – or is it stated outright? – that he is in the law and order business ONLY because it gives him an excuse to act out on his dark urges. One doesn’t get that sense from the Bale/Nolan Batman, but I do think it’s a place that the character has been taken in the past.


  12. mlawski OTI Staff #

    The interesting thing about the Operative (Serenity guy) is that he is more self-aware than Batman, I think. He says outright that he wants to create a better world but will not have a place there. He knows he’ll probably die in the effort of bringing it to fruition.

    You kind of wonder if Batman realizes he’s not going to have a place in a peaceful Gotham. Luckily for audiences (and Batman, too), we’ll never have to know, because Gotham will always be the same. Otherwise there’d be no more comic/film series.


  13. Gab #

    Dude, fenzel, you underestimate me: I so own the DVD already. I owned it the first day it was available. ;p

    With regards to the Operative, I thought what made him Joker-like was that he didn’t care how he did it, so long as he did. He kills many innocent people without flinching and yeah, totally admits that he has dark urges. Batman’s methods are quasi-legal, too, but I think the Operative’s are more blatantly IL-legal; still, both get the same treatment from the government, meaning they get ignored when doing REALLY naughty things and helped when it’s necessary (i.e. he “doesn’t exist” and then is commanding a fleet and a bunch of soldiers later). The stuff about a better world was what I thought made him like Batman, though: both realize they’re outsiders and must be excluded from what they are striving for. And I had used the same word for Batman that Anara uses to describe the Operative before seeing “The Dark Knight”: believer. Both have a vision, believe in it, and are willing to make sacrifices (although not necessarily their own) to see it come to fruition. That’s why I couldn’t decide which he was *more* like. Thanks for deciding for me, Stokes.


  14. Gab #

    Oh, I have an idea for a post for one of you Overthinkingit bloggers, too, that’s related to this and some other past posts: “I Need a Hero.” I’d like to see why one or all of you think superhero movies have become so rampant in the past few years- and the YouTube videos you’d link to help explain ;p


  15. Gab #

    One more thing that I just CANNOT contain any longer: Adam West graduated from the same college I just did.



  16. Grace #

    This explanation of the philosophy of Batman is almost as good as seeing the movie and absorbing the themes and ideas. But you know, words have nothing on Stuff That Blows Up. Well done explanation. Get yourself over to Nolan’s writing table and make sure number 3 is just as mind-blowing as the Dark Knight. :)


  17. CppThis #

    Entertaining as always, keep up the good work lads. :)

    As for the Serenity guy, he’s definitely a Batman. Like Batman, he does what he does to try to make the world a better place, not just because he can get away with it (Joker).


  18. Wishkas #

    Great article, loved it, altough I need to read it again. But since we are in a philosophical vein, I ask: what about Freud? Harvey Dent as Ego, Batman as Super-ego and Joker as Id? Sort of like that Psycho theory of the 3 levels in the Bates motel, the ground floor being Ego, upstairs Super-ego and basement as Id… Would love to read an article about it by someone who can handle the theme…


  19. fenzel #

    I think if you want the Ego/Id/Superego trifecta, the Batman movie you want is _Batman Returns_.

    Catwoman – Id
    Penguin – Ego
    Batman – Superego

    It even has electroshock therapy!


  20. Marbeque #

    Can anyone dumb this down more. Seriously I can’t understand. I liked the last one atleast it had charts.


  21. mickey #

    mayhaps the joker was referring to himself as an agent that CAUSES chaos? besides, a person who causes chaos doesn’t have to be chaotic him/herself, as you can’t really ever have true chaos without order first–whether it’s born by it or from it.

    or maybe i’m full of shit? hey, that’s just me! :D

    this was a great read. i’m going to go back and get through it again for real understanding, but this is really awesome overall.


  22. mlawski OTI Staff #

    OK, Fenzel. The boyfriend and I were discussing your post, and here was our question:

    What about Superman? Everyone acts like he’s the “light” or “good” superhero, but he’s willing-to-power as much as Batman is, right? I mean, there’s nothing in the law saying Superman HAS to be a superhero. He is genetically SUPER, but that doesn’t mean he ever had to dominate Metropolis as a superHERO.


  23. fenzel #

    Superman kind of deserves a series of his own. The philosophy of Superman would be pretty complicated.

    I think when you’re talking about Superman, you have to start with the fact that, as far as we can tell, he can’t really die.

    I mean, sure Kryptonite can kill him, but Kryptonite is rare and story-driven.

    I mean, it varied by depiction, but if you were to sort of lump them, he doesn’t really seem to age past adulthood, he doesn’t seem to ever really get sick short of ridiculous alien viruses or whatever.

    He’s invulnerable and immortal, so a lot of the value we derive in our own philosophy and literature from extrapolating from death (like Book XXIV of the Iliad) doesn’t really apply to him.

    Yeah, I think any serious inquiry into what he’s about has to start there or something close to it (as in, maybe he’ll age and die, but he can’t be killed or caused die) and go from there.

    The implications would be far-reaching and probably lead to a very strange ethics.

    I think you have to go all the way back to Socrates — one conversation he provokes is the intersection between traditionalist approaches to morals and philosophical inquiry.

    But Edmund Burke would be another good writer to reference.


  24. Gab #

    Superman proposal: His immortality is symbolic of our internal desire for perfection and a completely un-flawed existence.


  25. Robert #

    This needs some serious copy editing. The typos and grammatical mistakes were too much to deal with. I’d love to read it, but only when it’s in a fit state to be read.


  26. fenzel #

    You know, I thought I was pretty far up there, but you, sir, take your Batman SERIOUSLY.

    Kudos. Sorry about the typos. I was too busy mopping up chunks of exploded brain to properly fill out the form to submit to the OTI editorial department.

    Hopefully, you’ll keep reading, because if you’d really love to read the Schopenhauer post on Batman, then I think you’ve come to the right place and would be remiss to give up on us just yet.



  27. lauren r #

    This is an awesome post, as was your Joker’s Magic Pencil post.

    I feel like large portions of this philosophy would explain Watchmen too. Thoughts? Maybe when the movie comes out?

    Also, I’m not clear on why Firefly/Serenity came up in the comments, but if you really haven’t watched Firefly you should definitely allow D-Rock and I to subject you to it in the near future.


  28. fenzel #

    LAUREN!!!! HI!!!!!

    An offer like that, I can hardly refuse. I’m up for it any time you and D-Rock are.

    There will _definitely_ be extensive discussion of Watchmen on this site as the movie approaches. I can pretty much guarantee it.

    I think that this philosophy definitely applies to large swaths of Watchmen in pretty complicated ways (the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan in Vietnam, for example), but Watchmen has so much else going on that I think it will take this site’s entire team all our efforts for a while to really delve into it.


  29. Jim #

    Looking at TDK through the lens of greek tragedy, I have to disagree on a particular point. I see a lot of Nietzsche’s Dionysian and the Apollonian struggle.

    It stems from a basic question: Who won? Joker or Batman?

    If you’re asking me, I have to say stalemate (maybe with a slight advantage to Joker). It was the classic confrontation between established sobriety and excess of the individual. Always in constant battle, no one ever winning. The best either party can ever hope to achieve is to victory in small battles, but not the war (to use a cliche).

    Fight of Ideals Scorecard:

    The citizens not blowing each other up. Point Batman.

    Ruining Dent. Point Joker.

    Batman & Gordon lying about Dent’s fate? Batman kept the faith alive in Gotham, but in the process he pardoned the guilty criminal Two-Face… Something DA Dent built a career opposing. Point Batman & Joker.

    Otherwise, excellent analysis and application of Schopenhauer.


  30. Gab #

    Jim: What about Rachel’s death? Wouldn’t that give another point to the Joker, since he knew how Batman felt about her?


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