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IRL - The Joker, the Punisher, and why they are not psychopaths...

IRL Written by on 23 min

Have you already called your neighbor a bipolar, or your boss a psycho ?

Nowadays, many psychiatric words are used indiscriminately, and we forget that they are real medical words, referring to serious diagnostics. In literature, in the series or even in the films, if a character is a bit “crazy” and murderous, we call him a psychopath. A strange man walk in the streets with an axe and spread terror ? He is a psycho ! A religious man decides to kill seven people, according to their main sin ? He is a psycho ! Unfortunately, those statements are false, and our DC and Marvel villains don’t escape that “wrong psychopathy definition”. So, let’s find out why…

Jack Nicholson joue le Joker, dans le film Batman (1989)

“Ok but, what’s psychopathy ?”

We can diagnose psychopathy thanks to the PCL-R (or “Psychopathy Check-List Revised”) which has been approved by the DSM, or “Diagnostic and Statitical Manual of Mental Disorders” : the official classification of mental disorders, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Today, professionals work with the DSM IV, published in 1994, because the DSM V is still disputed. The PCL-R is a psycho-diagnostic tool, obviously specialized in psychopathy. It has been approved by the DSM, and is valid in front of any authorities (psychiatric, psychologic and legal). Usually, doctors use the PCL-R with a consensus, with other doctors, who confirm their opinion together. The score is made with an interview and the person’s file (psychiatric, psychologic, and eventually legal). It’s based on the individual’s professional, family, marital and criminal past. The interview to score the PCL-R must not be too organized, in order to have a natural interaction with the subject.

Jon Bernthal joue le Punisher, dans la série Daredevil

"You’re talking about score, but what does that mean ?"

The PCL-R score system has 20 items, and each of them is given a score of 0, 1 or 2. So for each item, the subject will score 0 if  “the item doesn’t match with him, the subject doesn’t have the behavior’s features

1 if “the item matches with the subject up to a certain point, but not enough to score a 2. The subject matches for some aspects”. But sometimes we score 1 if the information between the file and the interview are contradictory.

2 if “reasonably good match to the subject” but it’s not necessary to fit with all the aspects to have a 2, if the subject is in a spirit of the item.

Once the score is done, you have a mark on 40, and, according to the result, you can say if the subject is a psychopath or not. The PCL-R explain that : from 0 to 19, the subject is not a psychopath, from 20 to 29, he is a “mixed case” (they’re not psychopaths, but, if they score around 25 “you don’t really want to have a drink with them”), and from 30 to 40, the subject is defined as a psychopath.

Jared Leto joue le Joker dans Suicide Squad

"Ok, but tell us what are those items, and why the Joker and the Punisher don’t match with them ?"

Try to be patient, we’re getting down to business. First of all, you have to know the PCL-R defines very strictly each item. Each of these 20 items is precisely detailed, in order to help the specialists who, work with this tool, to give them an accurate idea of what they are looking for, to help them avoiding mistakes (even if in human sciences, there are no exact results, because humanity is complex and varied). Plus, it’s important to think about the “spirit” of the item (O, spirit of the poor behavioral controls, do you hear me ?), and we are obviously talking about what can’t be precisely explained by the PCL-R, but can match with the subject. However, as we haven’t enough time to give you a complete lesson about every item (but you can still look for more information, if you’re interested by it), we tried to sum up as simply as possible each of the 20 items, in order to make our assessment clear and easy to understand. Of course, it’s just a brief exam of these items, according to the subject, and not a detailed analysis, like a true doctor could do. And if we can’t work with a direct interview with our individuals, we still have films and series of their lives ! Yet, we’ll try to play along, and have results as close as possible from a true analysis. So, now that we have all the clues, allons-y

Thomas Jane joue le Punisher, dans le film Punisher, 2004

1-Glib and superficial charm

Obviously, we don’t talk about your neighbor (him, again ?) who always tell you his everyday troubles, nor about this strange man who wanted to offer you a drink last time you got out with some friends (whatever…?). The PCL-R defines this first item as a great lability and the capacity to talk about a subject like if we have a PhD in that field, even if we didn’t really get interested by it. The speech lacks of honesty, and is too greasy to be trust.

Here, the Joker scores 1, because he is a “smooth talker”. We could give him 2, but nothing in what the comics or films show matches with the “superficial attraction”. The Punisher scores 0.

2-Grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self

Here again, you understand it’s not about your friend who says he can make 100 pushups at once. We talk about a person who would say that, once he’ll get out of prison, he’ll become president of the United States (and that person would be totally serious). We precise that we didn’t take that example to be polemical or talk about a news topic. Or maybe we did. In that way, a person matching with this item will literally make a spectacle of himself/herself, and every conversation will become a one-man show. The speech is rigid and the opinions are strong.

The Joker scores 1 because he knows his limits and just tries to surpass himself. He doesn’t really overestimate himself, but we notice the “grandiose” aspect. The Punisher stays at 0, because he knows his abilities and is quite discreet about them.

3-Need for stimulation / bored quickly

If you are a fan of thrills, do not worry : you do not go really search. "Stimulation" that assumes this item does not focus on snowboarding or urge to skydive. There is talk of a real chronic or extreme need of stimulation, and through dangerous experiments or drug use.

The Joker rates 1 because the least we can say is that he did not have cold feet. But it is also clear that this tends to annoy leads individuals to change jobs regularly, leaving the unfinished previous. Now our friend with green hair does not do things by halves. The Punisher rates 1 because there is likely a man of action, but he seems to regret his years of lambda father.

4-Pathological Lie

No, it does not matter if you told your teacher that your dog has eaten the duty you had to go last week, it certainly does not make you a psychopath. Pathological lying here is to lie almost always with aplomb, while still having a logical explanation if caught in the act and for obvious reasons or just for "fun."

The Joker rates 1, for example, in the version of Heath Ledger, he lied repeatedly about his scars. The Punisher rates 0.


This item stands out from the previous in that it concerns the manipulation, deceit, fraud, in order to get something from someone, no matter the consequences for those involved. These people tend to consider that we must exploit the weaknesses of others ...

On this, we grant you, the Joker rates 2. He is a born manipulator and manages to control those around him without problems, and lead them where he wants. The Punisher rates 0 because he is more the type to go into the job.

6-Lack of remorse or guilt

On this, we also agree: the Joker is not really the most compassionate person we have ever known. So he rates 2 for this item. For his part, the Punisher rates 1 because, if he has no mercy for criminals he murdered, he can still feel remorse when he makes mistakes.

Heath Ledger joue le Joker, dans The Dark Knight

7-Surface Affects

This item is very delicate, and a little more complex to understand. The person matching it appears cold (Edward!) emotionally (oh no, sorry, Bella ...), and do not have the same range of emotions than normal.

The Joker rates 2, and we will mention his relationship with Harley Quinn (Here, we forget Suicide Squad ladies, because when the Joker wants to simulate love for the young woman, she is the only one to believe it). The Punisher rates 0.

8-Insensitive / Lack of empathy

This item can also seem redundant, but there are important nuances. We will spare you the details, but we are talking about empathy, the ability to understand the emotions of others. Our psychopaths will tend not to have an abstract idea of ??pain or sadness, and have not cure the rights and interests of others. The Joker rates 2, and the Punisher rates 1.

9-Parasitic Lifestyle

The person lives off society, parents, etc. Either it does not meet its own to its needs.

There, of course, the Joker and the Punisher rate 0. They do not need anyone to do things for them, and live in person hooks. Because even if the Joker stole money to others, the money was obtained by the labor of our villain.

10-Low self-control (emotional)

This is what some would call being "bipolar, gangsta! "Because the individual easily gets angry. And this translates into a violent reaction, insults and threats.

The Joker rates 1 because in all its versions, it is not really defined by its self-control. However, it does not anymore because we cannot say either that side loses control, his attacks sometimes seem to be part of the show, his own "one-man show." For its part, the Punisher rates 0.

11-Sexual Promiscuity

We are talking about having sex with "anyone" without consideration for these people.

On this point, the Joker rates 0 because, apart Harley Quinn, who he chose because she was useful, comics never really gave him other partners. We abstract here from the scene in the comics (ref?) where, having tied Quinn amid corpses, he will claim that these were all old Harleys, but this has never been proven or touched again. Having been married and did not have other known relationships, the Punisher also rates 0..

12-Early behavior problems

This item for serious behavior problems or delinquency happening before the subject is 12 years (after this age, we go into what is called juvenile delinquency). Not having accurate information about this, about the two topics, we will do what is called an omission. This item will not be noted in our final assessment, and the note will be about 38, or less if we do other omissions, then we will bring all on 40.

Cesar Romero joue le Joker, dans Batman : Le film, en 1966

13-Inability to plan long term

The individual is unable or unwilling to project into the future, it tends to change projects.

For this item, the Joker rates 0 and also the Punisher.

14-Impulsivity in acts

This item is different from the one regarding the low self-control. Here, we just talking about an impulsive in acts (rash and unpremeditated), not emotions. For example, if the subject wants something (let’s say a smartphone), he will take it, no matter the consequences, he will not have thought about.

The Joker rates 0 on this point, and the Punisher rates 1 (for the moment in the series Daredevil, he decided at the last moment to kill the dealer to whom he has just bought his weapons)


Here, the individual does not respect its commitments or obligations.

We will establish 0 for our two characters.

16-Inability to take responsibility

Here, we speak of the responsibility for the acts. The person makes excuses or reasons, blame others, talks about set-up, etc.

Unfortunately, if there's one thing the Joker does not, that's it. He fully assumes all the crimes he did and more likely brags about! For its part, the Punisher also assumes everything he does and does not hide it. For this item, both rate at 0.

17-Number of short cohabitations

As with sexual promiscuity, our two "villains" will rate 0 for this item there. First, the Joker has probably never lived with anyone, except possibly Harley Quinn (but does he only live like any other normal human being?), and the Punisher has obviously had a cohabitation (we imply here that there is a commitment by the parties, but it cuts across all types of relationships) when he was married.

18-Juvenile Delinquency

Here it is therefore a strong antisocial behavior or delinquency between 12 and 18 years (or at least adults). For the Joker, if we rely on a version he would have committed crimes is minor (the murder of Wayne family at the age of 15?), But this concerns one of multiple versions of the character. So he rates 1. For the Punisher, we have no information on the subject, and we prefer to do a new omission.

Jon Bernthal alias le Punisher, dans Daredevil

19-Revocation of conditional release

So we speak of breach of conditions and ... escape! For this item, the title is very clear, you obviously notice that the subject must have been in prison for this to apply. Yay! The Joker rates 2, because of its many spectacular escapes, and the Punisher .... 0.

20-Diversity of the types of crimes

For this item, the PCL-R specifies that if the subject has committed more than 6 different kind of crimes he rates 2, for 4-5 crimes of different nature, he rates 1, and 3 different types of crimes or less he rates 0. With the murder, rape, fraud, theft, torture, kidnapping, robbery, threats and so on, the Joker rates 2. With an impressive panel of murders, the Punisher rates 0.

"So, what is the result? "

The Joker has a total result of 17/40, which doesn’t make him even a mixed case. You can go for a coffee with him safely! But if we omit items 11, 12 and 17, for which we have not many information, the Joker has a rating of 17/34, which makes a total of 20/40. So put a (ant) foot in the category of "mixed case", and is still not a psychopath.

For his part, the Punisher has a total of 5/36 (as we have omitted items 12 and 18, for which we had no clear information), which amounts to a little over 5/40 (5.5555556 to be exact) so, if you are not a criminal, you can sympathize with him without any problems!

As we enjoyed this little exercise psychology, we decided to apply the PCL-R to other villains of our heroes’ universes ! But as we did not want to bore you with new lists, we made a small summary table ! Enjoy !

Tableau des vilains psychopathes en anglais

Conclusion: Psychologically speaking, comic villains are not, for the most of them, psychopaths. However, if they do not correspond to the precise definition of psychopathy, they aren’t less dangerous or disturbed, and recognize it, very well built. Some might even match other serious psychiatric diagnoses (which feels to read the entire DSM to make us a summary table?). Also, if we did this little article, it is not so much to get you to rebel against the popular culture that refers to the name of psychopath, schizophrenic or bipolar anyone deviating a little from the "right way" but rather explaining that some words we use every day for everything and anything (or rather anyone) are actually real psychiatric terms, with serious implications and cannot be taken lightly. Moreover, this is, again, a good way to link the world of fiction with our reality, and scientific phenomena that play in it (because no, human sciences are not "soft" at all, and are just as serious as neurology, medicine or biology).

Fun fact : usually, psychopaths don't kill, and they use violence mainly for instrumental reasons.

Wilson Fisk, dans la série Daredevil

So if you liked this article, if you did not like, or if you wish to clarify certain points, please tell us about it in the comments (politeness is required, obviously). And above all, we recommend that you always try to broaden your curiosity, your culture, your knowledge, while remaining aware that we are… all ignorant!

David Tennant joue Killgrave, dans la série Jessica Jones

@All rights reserved Hare, R. D. (1991). The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). Toronto, ON: Multi-Health Systems

Julie LD is a journalist for PauseGeek, and a student in criminology, at the University of Montreal, in Quebec.

Camille B is a journalist for PauseGeek, a student in journalism, and a full-time curious.

This article has been approved by a Professor in Criminology of the University of Montreal.

The article contains translation errors?

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