As we’ve stumbled down the winding path towards the total e-hegemony of culture, the lifecycle of memes has massively dwindled. The smirking visage of Good Guy Greg may yet linger in the imagination of those who fondly recall the days of “image macros,” but it’s hard to imagine anyone fumbling for the perfect Ligma joke next week, let alone next year.
But some memes proliferate so unexpectedly that they drastically change the meaning of the already-established source material from which they pull. A decade on, when we look at The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s dour love letter to the Bush years, we might be surprised — though it’s not really surprising, of course — to find a path stamped with memetic portraits of Heath Ledger’s acclaimed performance as the Joker. Over time, bewildered suburban teens have latched onto this particular incarnation of the campy comic villain as an icon of anarchic hell-raising, untethered by the trappings of a coherent ideology. While most memes quickly fall into a forgotten dustbin, this Joker’s output has managed to hold on for years at a time, rising from the murky vat again and again, just like the Clown Prince himself. Even in that age before platforms like Twitter flooded the internet with the same content every day, for years afterward it was impossible to avoid that familiar, mocking phrase, no matter the situation: “Why so serious?”
Long before The Dark Knight stormed into theaters, Ledger’s role as the Joker was already mythic, owed in part to a lengthy hype cycle for the character, and the young actor’s own tragic death at the age of 28. The subsequent praise heaped onto the performance, along with a rare posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, crystalised Ledger as the Joker in the amber of the cultural imagination, even before rowdy memesters could begin to twist it for their own ends.
On the internet, Ledger’s Joker started off as little more than a facemask and a catchphrase, a one-line joke copy-pasted onto other moments from that zeitgeist, such as the bro-historical thriller 300, christened with period-appropriate comments like “Epic, FTW!” Though the years eventually evaporated the reverence for his most famous line, Nolan’s portrait of the Joker as a problematic truth-teller who commits acts of violence to reveal the hypocrisy of “both sides” remained immensely popular, especially in the dim corners of the web where reactionaries gather.
In the early 2010’s, the first durable format of memedom began to first emerge under the AdviceAnimals banner, producing well-known characters who spoke in the now familiar “top-text, bottom-text” format, such as the Socially Awkward Penguin, the Philosoraptor, and Condescending Wonka. The Joker re-emerged in this role in the “Everyone Loses Their Minds” format — referencing a scene from The Dark Knight where the Joker monologues to a bedridden Harvey Dent — which memers use to juxtapose two similar situations in order to shed a spotlight on perceived double standards. Though the memes often target humorous trivialities, like society’s stigma against wearing the same shirt two days in a row, the focus occasionally veers toward the usual “anti-SJW” talking points, like the gender gap in tech.
“It started picking up around 2012, 2013,” said Don Caldwell, managing editor of internet culture database KnowYourMeme. “That’s the most popular, but it wasn’t the first of the Joker memes by a long-shot. The motto ‘why so serious’ was huge from 2008 onward, and there’s YTMND pages devoted to it from that far back.” Though the meme typically traded in trivial everyday situations, in time — as with all things on the internet — the “injustices” reflected began to slowly slide towards a internet-familiar slurry of misogyny and racism. All of a sudden, the internet’s Joker seemed more concerned with the indignities of family court or the growing percentage of women in tech than terrorizing the streets of Gotham.
In America, where the levers of power have remained ensconced under the two-party permafrost for all of living memory, we can’t get enough of characters who “transcend politics” in order to speak truth to power. (Examples abound down the generations, from George Carlin to — yes — Donald Trump.) Of course, the truth about these so-called “straight-talkers” is that they try to hoard status by pandering to the basest instincts of a vocal contingent of the population, such as insecure young men. Though these dust-ups vary from the bizarrely trivial to the outright offensive — such as falsely claiming that including women soldiers in your WWII media mega-franchise constitutes historical revisionism, or just outright calling women the embodiment of chaos, as snake-oil-as-paperweight-purveyor Jordan Peterson has on many occasions — a peek below the sophistry inevitably reveals a plywood-flimsy foundation. Regardless, to a certain audience, these incidents serve the narrative that there is something deeply Wrong with the current status quo, and we need some Noble Soul to rectify it.
Once under the veil of internet anonymity, these memers didn’t need to fall back on established authority figures to voice these toxic takes, or even real people. In a world where all the institutions seem to crumble before our eyes, and trust in the media has sunk to a low ebb, perhaps some people trust a kabuki-masked comic villain to critique our society more than any editorial board or party politician. The use of pop-culture meme-spokesmen like the Joker recalls Guy Fawkes masks donned by the hacker group Anonymous, a relic drawn from the popular film V for Vendetta. While some acolytes viewed the adoption of the masks as a uniform of sorts — a totem of the unknown power of the anonymized masses — in time it came to symbolize the archetype of the “edgelord,” a vapid, self-styled provocateur who prides himself in his ability to “trigger” those who hold progressive viewpoints.
Such is the ultimate fate of the Joker in the meme climate of 2018 — and the character has been appropriated in even dumber ways. As Caldwell attests, even Heath Ledger’s spellbinding performance can’t compete with the arch-cringiness of Jared Leto’s interpretation of the character, which Caldwell described as an “instant punchline.” Reactionaries might have co-opted the inchoate nihilism of the Ledger character as a familiar face for their rhetoric, but, in recent months, Leto’s version of the character has taken prominence as “Gamer Joker,” an ostensibly-satirical construct designed to poke fun at the perceived bluster of self-described hardcore gamers. While memes about Ledger’s Joker were more likely to deny the existence of the gender pay gap, or draw spurious conclusions about “the two genders,” this new breed speaks only in the jargon of incels, who describe a hyper-stratified world of virile “Chads” systematically denying them sex and companionship from beautiful women, or “Veronicas.” (They blame this on Veronica, of course.)
“It’s all about Chads vs. incels right now,” said Caldwell. “It’s far less political than before. They see the Joker as an archetypical cringe figure, who doesn’t have self-awareness, doesn’t understand they’re being cringy. It’s similar to the Guy Fawkes mask, the fedora-wearing neckbeard, who doesn’t even realize they’re being a misogynist. And it’s seen as satirical. The Joker is now that ultimate edgelord.”
It’s often said that the internet remembers everything, but, according to Caldwell, gauging the slow segue between earnest toxicity and supposed-satire can be almost impossible, especially in the irony-drenched corridors of Reddit. He cited one of the web’s oldest axioms, Poe’s Law, which states that it’s almost impossible to discern between parody of extremism and the genuine article.
“When I first started at KnowYourMeme, there were almost no right-wing memes that I could recall. In the last two Presidential election cycles here in the US, it’s like the right finally learned to use the internet. I found a Joker meme from 2015 that said, ‘when a nice guy loses his patience, the devil shivers.’ Is that earnest? I honestly have no idea. It could be, certainly. But it’s impossible to tell. With Gamer Joker, I think you’re seeing a backlash to the way people used ‘Everybody Loses their Minds.’ It was kind of cultural criticism in a way, trying to point out perceived injustices in society. Whereas Gamer Joker is all about talking about how gamers ‘get shit done.’”
Whether it’s a comic book villain or corrupted signifiers like Pepe the Frog, it’s clear that reactionaries have come to understand the need for proper branding to obscure the rancid heart of their failed ideology. But while it’s easy to laugh at the absurd afterlife of Ledger’s Joker as a sadboy stoner who lies around all day playing Overwatch and cursing his lingering virginity, there’s a faint current of horror lurking beneath the green-white facade. The real Gamer Jokers of the world might seem like figures of ridicule when they’re sitting in their basements alone, but angry men fueled by grievance often rise up from the underground and try enact their own plans. And when a pseudo-admiration for a comic book supervillain can turn from a childish fantasy into something truly, frighteningly real, that’s when all the laughter stops.