Psychopaths are not easy to spot; in no small part because they are masters of disguise, skilled at fitting in even when they stand out. With the ability to read a room and the expectations of those within it they can follow social norms to fly under the radar or openly defy them to whatever advantages there might be. Whichever they choose though rarely are psychopaths spotted for what they are. It’s only if you look closely, dissect with a rational mind, that you can see beyond the surface behaviors to the true person beneath. It holds in real life and it holds in the fictional world…there are a number of characters in TV, film, and comics that hide themselves behind either subdued or over-the-top behavior so that you don’t notice who, what, they really are.
The most likely to be missed are actually the ones that present as outrageous. Those so wildly over-the-top that you can’t help but presume they have some severe mental issues. Those like the Joker, who’s been labeled with everything from schizophrenia to general psychosis to just plain crazy without any diagnosis. While understandable given the clown get-up, cackles of laughter, and tendency to really enjoy causing chaos whenever he can none of these diagnoses are accurate. The truth is the Joker’s a psychopath. A cunning, happy to subvert the status quo, creatively violent, remorseless, psychopath. He knows the things he does are wrong, he just doesn’t care. Murdering others, blowing up places, and generally terrorizing an entire city aren’t things that bother him and neither is the concept of any potential consequences for his actions.
Of course the Joker could do everything he does without the “crazy” clown get-up and giggles, but I think that’s where he’s actually the most cunning. For starters it’s a built-in defense should he get caught and brought to court on charges – “I can’t be held accountable, look at me, I’m clearly insane!” This defense is used even outside the courts when the Joker visits Harvey Dent after the explosions he caused that mutilated Dent and killed Dent’s love, Rachel Dawes. When Dent declares that, physically there or not, the Joker is responsible as it was his plan the Joker replies: “Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just… *do* things.” On the surface it’s a good argument because the Joker genuinely doesn’t look like he’d be capable of any sort of plan. The truth is though the Joker is more than capable of incredibly complex plans as evidenced by the opening sequence of the film as well as the ferry “experiment” he set up pitting criminals against everyday citizens. (Even while that one didn’t work it wasn’t an issue with a faulty setup, but instead the Joker underestimating the humanity of those in Gotham, law-abiding or not.)
The Joker’s surface appearance and behavior frequently leads to misconceptions by those around him that he can then use to his advantage. The mobsters of the city don’t take him seriously to start, dismissing him as a nobody, a wack-job, and a freak. They see him as useful in hiding their illegally obtained funds, but not as a threat. Because of this the Joker is allowed to live, plot, and scheme for a significant period of time before any of the mob bosses decide he is more threat than asset and by then it’s too late. By then the Joker’s obtained significant influence over the criminal underlings so that they turn on their bosses. Even Batman initially makes the simplistic categorizing of the Joker as a just another criminal, one that’ll be easily captured once he figures out what the Joker wants. Alfred has to point out that the Joker is not that sort of criminal, he’s not someone with a clear or even logical motive that can be manipulated to catch him.
Interestingly though, not even Alfred is completely correct. He suspects that the Joker might be doing what he’s doing because he considers it “good sport”, which isn’t entirely accurate. The Joker himself explains that he wishes to upset the order of society, to cause chaos, in order to prove (he presumes) people are only as good as their surroundings allow. It’s still not the usual, still an intangible, thus still not something that Batman can easily exploit to stop Joker, but it is a motive beyond just some twisted fun. The Joker is unlike any of the other criminals Batman has gone up against up to that point – he is intelligent, determined, unpredictable, and delights in the terrible results of the things he does.
There is also a more metaphorical reason for the Joker’s bizarre costume and behavior…it both calls attention to and subverts Batman as an icon. It’s unlikely anyone or anything will get Batman’s attention faster than a “crazy clown” cackling as he terrorizes the city and it’s equally unlikely that said crazy clown will make people think of anything other than that other costumed citizen of Gotham. Both men are hiding their true identities, both use theatrics to shock, and both are physically aggressive so that the only true difference between them is motive; the Joker to deconstruct the city and promote chaos and Batman to try to keep order and safety. A key difference, but one potentially overlooked by terrorized citizens.
Up until the Joker appears in the Gotham of the Nolan trilogy the man in the costume was the hero while criminals stuck to either mob suits or functional, bland, outfits. With the introduction of the proverbial Crowned Prince of Chaos that’s no longer the case; now the one hiding behind a cartoonish alias and mask can also be a terrorist. This leads to Batman’s hero status being questioned: What do we really know about the Bat-Man? Wasn’t he involved in a number of destructive and dangerous events around the city? If this man’s presence can cause someone like the Joker to appear, do we really want him in our city? Suddenly the few who’d been questioning Batman’s presence – both in need and helpfulness – become the many. He’s no longer an unchallenged icon of vigilante heroism after the Joker…now he’s something darker, more suspect, and ultimately the one being hunted for multiple murders.
After doing enough damage that the golden boy and white knight of Gotham, DA Harvey Dent, must be killed by Batman after going murderously mad and Batman himself becoming public enemy number one the Joker is finally caught. If identified as a psychopath he’d be deemed legally sane and thus responsible for all the crimes he committed…at the very least this would mean life in prison. But because of his presentation, because of his bright clothing, wild makeup, and delighted giggles at terrible events in humanity, the Joker does not present as sane. As such he is wrongly found insane and instead of prison is sent to the mental institution, Arkham Asylum. Some might argue that the asylum is the worse place, but given how frequently people escape from there it seems the better to me. So, again, the outrageous presentation works for the Joker. He knows this. It’s why he almost never shows his true self – a cunning, manipulative, psychopath completely aware of himself, his actions, and the consequences of those actions.