Creation of the Joker: Mental Illness and Abuse
The recent controversies over the new ‘Joker’ movie were not lost on me as I sat through it recently. Given that there have been BOLO’s put out by the US Military and the FBI concerning the threats of active shooters attacking theaters playing the film, even I had some trepidation in going to see it for fear that my theater might be the one targeted by some shooter. In fact, I deliberately went to see the film at a matinee during the week in order to have very few people there, and thus in my mind, less of an attractive target for a would be shooter. As I watched the film there were in fact moments of “ah ha” this is why some were concerned about this being a touchstone for those who might carry out such acts. At it’s heart, the movie is a character study of the Joker, aka Arthur Fleck.
Arthur fleck is solitary figure who still lives with his mother in a strained relationship. He works as a clown for children’s parties and the odd gig fronting for a store closing sale. It is at this job we start to understand Arthur’s situation even further, as he is beaten by a gang of kids who stole his sign. After he is reprimanded by his boss, he has a conversation with a co-worker who gives him a revolver to protect himself with. This gift implies a couple of things in the conversation. The first is that Arthur has been feeling like he needs a gun and had talked to this co-worker before about it, and secondly, that this co-worker is not really his friend, today we might call that person a ‘frenemy’ with an agenda of bullying Arthur while being his ‘friend’.
Arthur starts carrying the gun and eventually gets fired for having it at a children’s ward where it drops on the floor. He is summarily fired for this and on his way home is taunted by three Wall Street types who finally end up beating him. That is until Arthur pulls the gun and kills them. This is the catalyst for Arthur’s transformation to begin from Fleck to ‘Joker’ as he has his first taste of not only power, but also recognition as the incident makes it into the press where some are lauding the unknown clown as a hero. Finally, Arthur is starting to feel like he is powerful and seen where most of his life he was a nobody and invisible. During this time as well, Arthur has a relationship with a woman down the hall. She attends his stand up comedy night and all seems good with them. One might think at this point that, murder aside, he is starting to become empowered and perhaps might be ok, that is until he discovers a letter from his mother to Thomas Wayne and learns in there that he is in fact his illegitimate son.
Arthur’s discovery that his mother has been lying to him about who his father is (Mr. Wayne) causes a dualistic reaction of anger against his mother and hope that he is in fact Wayne’s son. A hope that is dashed when he confronts Wayne and is told that his mother was delusional and that in fact she had spent time in Arkham because of it. It was then that she adopted Arthur as a prop to keep her own delusion in place and perhaps leverage Wayne. Arthur then goes to Arkham to see if there are in fact files that show his mothers illness and what he gets confirms not only this, but also the long standing abuse he was subject to that he had been suppressing psychically. Meanwhile, his mother has a collapse and is brought to the hospital. Arthur is being sought by police in the investigation of the subway murders, and while he is sitting with his mother he see’s his idol, the Tv Show host, air Arthur’s painful standup routine mocking it for a national audience.
Fleck is brought on TV by this host because he, fleck, is inadvertently funny as a standup comedian because he is so spectacularly bad at it. Fleck’s uncontrolled laughter during the performance is an alleged medical condition wherein he laughs, or rather cackles, uncontrollably when he is upset. This response is a trigger for attacks on him by others both verbally and physically that also add to his psychological state of ‘negative ideation’ which he talks with the social worker about. Fleck realizes from the start that he is being mocked by the TV host he has idolized as a surrogate father in his delusions.
After murdering his mother in the hospital and feeling a release, Arthur goes home and accepts an appearance on the TV show knowing that it is just an opportunity to make fun of him for a live studio audience. It is at this point, after going off of his meds, that Fleck has the psychotic break and the personality of Fleck is subsumed by “The Joker”, a name given to him by the tv show host as a sleight. It is at home while he is getting ready to go on air that his ‘frenemy’ and another friend from his workplace show up. The frenemy wants to insure that he is not going to get into trouble over the gun he gave Arthur that he used in the subway killings. Arthur finally has had enough of this man and kills him violently while the other man, a dwarf, hides in the corner. It is at this point that we see Arthur spare this dwarfs life saying that he was in fact the only person who was decent to him.
Arthur goes on the show in his clown makeup and regalia while the city is seizing up in mass revolt in an ‘eat the rich’ movement that has taken the clown image of the subway killer on as their rallying cry. He is brought out on stage and has requested that he be called ‘joker’ and proceeds to confess his killings on the subway and through questions by the host tells him that he believes in nothing and that they should be careful who they treat poorly.
Arthur Fleck : What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you fuckin’ deserve!
Joker then pulls his gun and shoot’s the TV host dead. The crowd in the audience screams and start to flee, and Joker runs around the stage manically. He finally runs off stage and out of the camera frame. We next see Arthur in the back of a police car being taken ostensibly to jail while the city is in the middle of a spasm of violence by the joker rabble protesting. As he is watching this as they pass by, a truck plows into the cop car and we next see the joker’s taking Arthur/Joker from the back and laying him on the hood. Joker rises and starts to dance to the adulation of the mass wearing clown masks. The scene cuts to a white room with Joker talking to a therapist who is asking him questions;
Social Worker : Is something funny?
Arthur Fleck : I just thought of a funny joke!
Social Worker : Do you mind telling it?
Arthur Fleck : …You wouldn’t get it.
Next you see Joker running the overly white halls of Arkham Asylum and the music swells, the end.
Nihilism: Believing In Nothing Is Liberating
Joker, is a film that sets the stage for the character of “The Joker” as the clown prince of crime, a character with no real backstory in the ouvre of Batman, which makes him all the more interesting. It really wasn’t until later years after the ‘Dark Knight’ graphic novels and the movies, that the character of the Joker began to take on an even more menacing tone. In “The Dark Night” (2008) the character of the Joker took on new dimensions with a portrayal of a nihilist character who’s seeking to cause anarchy because he believes in nothing and no one. In “Joker” we have the backstory (akin to the Batman graphic novel “The Killing Joke”) of how the Joker emerges. In this film as in the graphic novel, the Joker has, what is termed in the book as ‘one bad day’ as he tells Batman, and that bad day broke his psyche thus becoming the Joker.
The bad day, or days, in Joker are exacerbated by Arthur’s mental illness, the pressures of life in the city, and a series of circumstances that lead him to go off his meds and begin his life of crime. Once the break happens, Joker, now fully formed, announces on the show that he is the one who killed the three men on the subway and repeats that he is not political, he is making no political statement here at all. He in fact believes in nothing. This is the core of the philosophical system of Nihilism, and now Joker is an adherent. This is a key point in the movie and one that carries over into the reality we have today concerning the fears of mass shooters who may be incel’s or other Nihilists actors.
While Joker believes in nothing, Arthur believed in his mother, believed that the system could help him, and that by being a nice person, would be reciprocated by others. Arthur’s descent into madness was hastened by learning that the sole person who he knew loved him, was in fact a delusional individual who adopted and then proceeded to abuse him as a means to an end for her own needs. This core betrayal is the linchpin in Arthur’s break and rebirth as Joker. In the moments before Joker shoots the show host on live TV, the host asks him why he had come on the show and why he was doing the things he had done. Joker looks at the show host and mockingly says
Arthur Fleck : How ’bout another joke, Murray?
Murray Franklin : No, I think we’ve had enough of your jokes.
Arthur Fleck : What do you get…
Murray Franklin : I don’t think so.
Arthur Fleck : …when you cross…
Murray Franklin : I think we’re done here now, thank you.
Arthur Fleck : …a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?
Murray Franklin : Call the police, Gene, call the police.
Arthur Fleck : I’ll tell you what you get! You get what you fuckin’ deserve!
[Joker shoots Murray in the head, killing him instantly]
While Joker does not call out the specifics, or knowledge of Nihilism, he is certainly espousing it saying that he now believes in nothing. His actions throughout the comics and the movies have shown him to be a Nihilist as well as an agent of chaos. This is what I believe is one of the foundations of this film and the overall canon for Joker and his foil Batman. They are intimately intertwined in their history, in some places it is Joker who created Batman by killing his parents. In others, it is Batman who creates Joker after dropping him in a vat of chemicals that make him go insane, as well as have the green hair and white skin. In each case though, his break from sanity is of a kind where he see’s life as a cosmic joke meaning nothing.
Incel’s, Hand Wringing, and Mental Illness:
This film has had such a polarizing effect on audiences as well as reviewers. Much of the criticism has been around the story of Joker being something that plays well with those who might want to shoot up a theater full of people and idolize the Joker. In the case of this film though, to date there have been no incidents and the hand wringing that has been going on by the media has only served to perhaps egg those actors into action more than having any greater meaning.
The families of the Aurora shooting victims went as far as petitioning Warner Brothers, about the films violence and possible call to those unbalanced souls like James Eagan Holmes, who committed the crime in 2012, attempting to link his actions to the Joker. The fact of the matter is that Holmes did not act out as the Joker, and only chose the film because it was going to be a full theater. The linking of the two was an emotional reaction, not a rational or correct one.
Other reviews of the film tagged Incel culture with this film saying that Arthur was an Incel and thus this film would be a call to others to act out in emulation. In reality, Arthur was not in fact an ‘Incel’ by strict interpretation because he was not solely acting out because women would not date or have sex with him. While Arthur has a delusion of a relationship with a woman in his building, it is not that she rebuffed him that caused his break with sanity. This argument by those who have made these claims are I think, putting social justice warrior ideals and fear above actually looking at the story line as a more nuanced picture of a man on the edge of a psychotic break.
Joker was a good film in my opinion. The film is a great addition to the whole Batman franchise and gives more nuance to the Joker and perhaps one backstory. There are parts of the films plot I did not cover in the beginning of this post that have direct connections to the Batman timeline that are incongruous. If you take this film as the ‘prime’ timeline, then this Joker is not ‘the’ joker that Bruce Wayne as Batman fights because this Joker would be geriatric if not dead by then, so this could be the Proto-Joker that starts a movement and one of those later ‘Jokers’ becomes the one he battles.
This is a well put together film and you will leave the theater thinking about it. In today’s world where everything seems so pressurized, it is not uncommon to see mass shootings by perhaps mentally unstable people. It is an every day thing now unfortunately for us, and as such, this film touched a raw nerve with people. As I said at the start of this post, I too was apprehensive about going to the theater to see this for fear that someone would decide that this is the theater to shoot up. It is this world weariness and constant fear with live with today that I think, made this film such a touchstone for the hate on it as well as the attempts at cancel culture that were made against it by certain factions.
I personally find the psychology of Joker fascinating as well as the others within the Rogues Gallery that Batman fights. There are books and articles about the psychology of all of these characters that you can read and they are good. There is much more to understand than just that some guy couldn’t get a girl and had a bad day so he became a psychotic criminal. This film does a good job at trying to show just how this could happen and why.
Most of all people, it’s just a movie!!
Go and enjoy it.