The Psychology of the Joker from ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ (1992)

Drea Letamendi
TV Movies
TV Movies Animated Series DC

The Joker is a villain that both fascinates and terrifies us. His origin has remained relatively mysterious, sparking questions about how a “psycho killer” is created. Using real methods and theory, clinical expert Dr. Andrea Letamendi examines several iconic portrayals of the Clown Prince of Crime. Given the raised concerns causing tension to surround the new film, Joker (2019), considerations are given to the science behind behavioral threat assessment, case study, and occurrences of real events in an effort to responsibly inform the discourse.

The author wishes to note to readers that this collection of psychological profiles includes some references and descriptions of both real and fictional portrayals of mass violence, intimate partner abuse, and suicide. Just like the Joker, these conceptualizations are fictional and are not meant to diagnose any real person. This series is not intended as a substitute for the medical or mental health advice of psychiatrists or other clinical professionals.

The Relational Joker

The Joker from Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), The New Batman Adventures (1997-1999),  and Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000) — so memorably voiced by Mark Hamill — possesses an abundance of scenes and storylines, and stands as the most prolific villain in the highly acclaimed animated universe. As Batman’s deadliest arch-enemy, this Joker is a full-bodied, gratifying combination of playful cleverness and impulsive pandemonium. Due to Hamill’s brilliant vocal characterization and Bruce Timm’s stylized visuals, The Animated Series Joker is uncannily lovable. True, he is menacing, merciless, and extremely dangerous, but his magnetism is powerful. Here, art truly imitates life; the animated Joker is actually the most realistic portrayal of a psychopath on account of his striking ability to seduce our senses, charm us away from logic, and manipulate us into forgiving his transgressions.

Taking influence from Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), BTAS changed the landscape of animation by using film noir aesthetics, darker tones, “vintage” color schemes, and more adult-like thematic complexities. The topics of trauma, loss, vengeance, and hostility are depicted in straightforward and often unreconciled ways; it isn’t uncommon for an episode to end with a hysterical or despaired villain suffering in a dark cell in Arkham Asylum. The larger messaging is unsettling; does anyone actually “win”? It becomes clear that simply incarcerating villains is not effective in reducing terror, and Batman is unable to create stability despite his pained efforts. From the domestic violence perpetrated against Harley Quinn, to the child abuse shown in the unedited PG-13 version of Return of the Joker, this animated Joker’s behavior is emotionally shocking. His pattern of actions is best characterized as relationship-based; he seeks connections with others. True, he derives joy from the manipulation of them, but also seems to find reward and a sense of purpose through his personal interactions. Relationships are also the foundation of his most powerful and sinister weapon: He can hurt Batman by threatening the ones close to him.

Emotional Dependency with Batman and Attachment Pathology

In our attempts to capture the function of the Joker’s behavior, we must ask ourselves, “What is the purpose of pursuing this course of action?” and “What are the needs and desires he is attempting to satisfy?” In the second episode of Batman: The Animated Seriesto air, “Christmas with the Joker,” the Clown Prince of Crime escapes from Arkham Asylum using a rocket hidden inside a giant Christmas tree. Charged up with exhilaration and freedom, he blasts through the roof. Meanwhile, Batman, who has insisted to Robin (Dick Grayson) that they must patrol Gotham City rather than take the night off, assures his young sidekick that the Joker is likely to plan an attack, even on Christmas Eve while most are spending time with loved ones. “He has no family” Batman grunts. He’s not surprised to learn through a live television broadcast that the Joker has indeed begun his assault on Gotham City with a chilling “Christmas special.” Joker tells the audience that if Batman isn’t able to track him down by midnight, he will kill three high-profile innocent hostages. It takes a string of high-risk hijinks, but Batman and Robin eventually track the Joker down at Laffco, a decrepit toy factory. Largely a cat-and-mouse plot, the episode reveals a key feature of the animated Joker: Criminal stalking. His reason for breaking out of Arkham was to gain closeness, proximity, with Batman. Whether due to the sentimentality of the holidays or a particular craving for intimacy, the Joker engineers the entire night where he gets to spend “quality time” with his favorite person.

To Joker, Batman is his version of family, perhaps the person he feels most connected to.

Stalking typically involves an unwanted pattern of pursuit and the induction of fear (or the intent to induce fear) in a victim. Stalkers often lack empathy while also having a stunning sense of entitlement. Motivators include many things (anger, revenge, etc.) but some sub-types are driven by an intense intimacy-seeking infatuation. Because the Joker is a passionate and frenzied individual, he engages in something called “hyper intimacy”– meaning, frequent provocations of his target to rapidly accelerate intimacy. Violent stalkers use coercion, such as forcefully restricting their victim’s behavior, as well as what’s called “proxy pursuit,” which is the use of third parties to reach the victim (for Joker, kidnapping is the tactic often used to grab Batman’s attention and lure him closer). The animated Joker also feels rejected by Batman, and as a way of defense, he frequently takes the position that he’s the target and Batman is the perpetrator. Through denial, minimization, and projection of his unhealthy entanglement with Batman, he’ll assert innocence, e.g., “He’s coming after ME! I’m the victim here!” These behaviors reveal a disorder of attachment.  In his attempts to establish a close relationship with someone he admires, he oscillates between predation and pursuit.

Victimization of Children

In the film Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, the Joker explains to Batman how he took Robin (Tim Drake) down to the ruins of the first Arkham Asylum to torture him for three weeks. “I will begin with how I peeled back the layers of the boy’s mind,” he says in a voiceover of a grainy home video, showing clips of his work table covered with torture devices, psychotropics, and tools. Comforting images related to parenting are also shown (e.g., toothbrush and toothpaste, a donut, etc.), as if to imply he was grooming the boy to trust him. “The serums and the shocks took their toll” Joker remarks while images of Robin receiving shock therapy are shown.

His abuse of Robin was not indicative of his interest in simply luring Batman closer; this was no gag, hoax or “close-call.” Instead, Joker deliberately and systematically maltreats an adolescent boy for several weeks.  Here, Joker is genuinely interested in physically and emotionally traumatizing a child to the point of brain injury, with Batman as the real target (and the one who will suffer the most).

Mad Love

When an eager, determined psychology intern encounters the charms of a dejected patient considered “untreatable” by doctors at Arkham Asylum, the most dangerous, provocative and beloved couple in pop culture emerges. It starts simple. The psychology intern, Harleen Quinzel, gets caught up in her own idealism and conviction that she could “cure” the Joker of his violent and homicidal ways. Seeing the vulnerability in her, the Joker engages willfully in their therapy sessions, sharing stories about his abusive childhood and upbringing. Tactfully, his storytelling combines and confuses humiliation with humor; pain with pleasure; lashing-out with laughter. Harleen is pulled in. When she realizes she could rescue the Joker from the system that continues to torture him, her alter-ego, Harley, is created. This is Harley Quinn‘s origin story and the beginnings of her tumultuous relationship with the Joker.

In the series, Harley is depicted as a faithful, devoted partner to the Joker. The first chapter of their relationship shows us that their connection starts with very confounded feelings due the Joker’s ability to associate negative and positive emotions in order to establish her dependency. Within the context of their romantic involvement, the Joker’s abusive behavior is clear. We see signs of what’s considered “antisocial behavior”– the Joker’s lack of empathy toward others extends to her, and his willingness to harm and violate others close to him, especially Harley. Often, Harley is dangerously in the way of the Joker’s wild, impulsive antics. Sometimes the abuse is implied – off-screen, the conflict escalates. A screaming Harley is seen flying out of a back door and crashes onto the street, breathless and defeated. Other times, we see overt depictions of partner abuse in the form of Joker grabbing, striking, kicking, choking, and flinging Harley to the ground. In one scene, the Joker grabs a giant swordfish and uses it to shove Harley out a window of a high rise building. She crashes through the glass and falls several stories toward the street.  Though we do not see her land, the story cuts to an image of her limp body atop debris, twitching from injuries, blood on her face. “My fault… I didn’t get the joke” she mumbles.

Indeed, the overt partner abuse displayed between Harley and the Joker is physical. Batman: The Animated Series portrays overt intimate partner abuse between characters who joke, tease, and prank –a  jester and a clown. Physical comedy is a part of their repertoire. Due to being packaged with the slapstick tones, familiar musical beats and comedic style established by Looney Tunes, BTAS conveys battering in a way that, although disturbing and tragic, was allowable in the era of ‘90s animation. Perhaps animation allows for a not-so-subtle subversive quality. Notably, the show also depicts nuances often not portrayed in “kids’ cartoons,” such as coercion, threats, intimidation, minimizing, isolation, and gaslighting. The more overt behaviors, like physical violence and sexual assaults, are often accompanied by an array of these other types of abuses that establish a pattern of intimidation and control in the relationship. When Harley “messes up,” Joker delivers punishment and humiliation (being physically tossed onto the street in lingerie is particularly demeaning). He also convinces Harley that she’s a disappointment, a failure, a dolt, and is therefore deserving of mistreatment. Understanding the whole array of power and control allows us a window into real circumstances of dangerous partnerships.

“Harlequinade” is a provocative episode in which Harley provides explicit descriptions of unhealthy interactions and intimate partner violence between herself and the Joker. In an interesting twist of roles, Harley is recruited by Batman to help him catch the Joker before he detonates a massive bomb. Batman, taking on a momentary role of a caring friend, directly questions why Harley, someone who was a mental health provider, continues to put up with the Joker’s sadism and abuse. Here, the narrative offers a complicated idea, an unsettling paradigm in which Harley admits her participation in a toxic relationship. The episode explores Harley and Joker’s reciprocal (also known as “bilateral”) intimate partner violence. Their dynamic is best explained by the “conflict-based theory” of abuse, which posits that unresolved fights between two romantic partners lead to increasingly coercive interactions that may spiral or escalate into violence. In bilateral scenarios, risk of injury is heightened, and women are more likely than their male partners to experience injury and even death from these interactions.

Why doesn’t Harley simply leave the Joker? If she admits the relationship is harmful, why does she stay? The episode “Harley and Ivy,” addresses a host of mature themes, including stalking, sexism, and power differentials. Notably, there are moments in this episode that appear to celebrate female empowerment and female agency. Seeing the toxicity in Joker’s treatment of Harley, Poison Ivy takes her under her leaf and attempts to teach her a lifestyle about independence and self-sufficiency. As Ivy claims, “No man will take us prisoner!” However, Joker and his henchmen break into Ivy’s house with the intent to leave with Harley. “I’m only staying long enough to collect what’s mine” he assures Ivy, before grabbing Harley aggressively and throwing her to the ground. The Joker’s goal is ownership of her.

This may be one of the most extreme depictions of their abuse, and is true to life: The riskiest period of time for a victim of intimate partner violence is shortly after leaving their abuser; there is a higher likelihood of a fatality or serious injury because the perpetrator interprets it as loss of control and escalates violence to regain the control.

Joker’s feelings for Harley can come off as confusing. In “Beware the Creeper,” a new character named Jack Ryder experiences a very familiar cataclysmal event. He is dipped into a vat of chemicals. Of course, Ryder transforms into a villain. Known as The Creeper, he is an extraordinarily strong and agile maniac with yellow skin, green hair, and a “rictus grin.” He causes mayhem throughout Gotham City, with a particular objective of aggravating the Joker.   Meanwhile, Harley surprises the Joker with a sexy performance involving…pudding.  Upon arriving to their place, the Joker notices a giant vanilla pie in the center of the room. Harley slowly emerges from inside the pie, dripping from head to toe and ostensibly naked beneath the creamy layer. After her song ends with, “Take the night off…let’s play,” she asks him, “Wanna try some of my pie?” The Joker is momentarily entranced, and actually looks frozen as he’s taking in the enticing sights. But his mood is interrupted. The next thing we see is a pudding-covered Harley being hurled onto the street. “Find the person who has been stealing my act!”, he screams at her. This demonstrates his difficulty with reciprocal intimacy and a balanced power dynamic. When Harley is assertive, autonomous, and consensual, the Joker is emotionally dysregulated and chooses to reject her. He becomes, again, focused on his relational power over the Creeper, who is threatening his position as the alpha male.

The Joker’s Diagnosis: Signs of callousness, lack of remorse, and abuse

For the Joker, breaking the law is not accidental; he knows the difference between right and wrong. The term “psychotic clown” is inaccurate – he’s not delusional or detached from reality. If the goal of assessment is to minimize risk or predict future criminality, it may be a good idea to focus on the symptoms first (and how those symptoms might motivate violence) and the diagnosis last (or even not at all). For instance, Joker’s episodes of sudden, excessive energy, his disconnected and racing thought-pattern, his grandiose beliefs, and inappropriate social behavior are traits of possible mania, indicating Bipolar Disorder. However, his poor impulse control, angry outbursts, hostility, and minimal empathy, may more closely fit the personality dysfunction known as Antisocial Personality Disorder. Similarly, men with Borderline Personality Disorder (also referred to as BPD) often exhibit paranoia, narcissism, and rule-breaking behaviors.

Men with BPD likely show relational challenges such as the inability to commit to romantic partners, blame-shifting, emotional sensitivity (escalation of anger, irritability), and difficulty with boundaries.

Many men with BPD struggle to accept boundaries placed on them, sometimes acting forcefully to break free of them by violating the law. It is possible that the Joker struggles with all of these disorders, or none at all. What seems consistent and predictive are Joker’s attachment-related deficits. He will continue to terrorize, abuse, and violate others as mechanisms to achieve reward, self-preservation, and a sense purpose in the world.

Readers interested in seeking support, resources, or advice about keeping themselves or someone they know safe should call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), or visit the website thehotline.org.

Drea Letamendi
Dr. Drea is a licensed clinical psychologist and mental health educator. She co-hosts "The Arkham Sessions," a podcast dedicated to the psychology of Batman.