Empathy for the Devil? You’ve got to be Joking.
Updated: Feb 29, 2020
SPOILER ALERT. This article has spoilers for the movie Joker.
© Warner Bros. Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker, doing his dance of empowerment.
“Can you introduce me as, Joker?” Arthur Fleck.
Who is Arthur Fleck? Is he simply a deranged man acting out because he had such a horrible childhood? Was he made insane by his circumstances? Should we feel bad for him? Maybe because of an abusive upbringing he has an excuse for being a murderer. But is that even what Joker is really about, Arthur Fleck? Or something, or someone else?
There are already many great theories out there that consider the idea that Arthur Fleck is an unreliable narrator and whether or not the plot elements in the movie are even true or accurate to his own origin story. One thing for sure, Arthur is a liar and he is the one telling us the story. Some theories argue that everything that happens after he gets in the fridge is from his imagination. I tend to agree but I have serious doubts about most of what happens in the movie’s plot both before and after the fridge event. I think the refrigerator is showing us that we are now going even deeper into Arthur Fleck’s mind. His empty cold mind. Thus, the arguments that some folks have made, that most of the movie, if not all of it, happened in his mind have a lot of validity. I think this is part of the big joke Arthur mentions at the end. That Arthur Fleck has told a large lie and that the whole thing is a joke.
What is true, is that Arthur is trying to create empathy for himself. He thinks that by telling the story in this fashion that his therapist and therefore us, the audience, will have compassion. We might look and say hey he was abused; he has a mental illness; he was treated poorly; he has an excuse. These are the lies. If we fall into that trap we are doomed. Arthur Fleck is evil. The Joker is evil. He only has “bad thoughts.” There is no excuse for evil. And even though the movie we watch is his big lie there are great truths inside this film that I wish to flesh out. The movie is not about mental health at least not the clinical, individual kind people are debating on social media. Arthur has no conscience. He cares little for anyone except himself.
He does portray himself as the dutiful, formerly abused, son who cares for his invalid mom, those scenes are all lies. How do I know this? He kills her. He is telling the story of her and it is to create empathy. To make us feel for him. In reality, all she really does is give him false hope. Did she even work for the Waynes? She offers no solace; he sees her as a liar and an abuser. Family is a joke. He blames her for his situation. He blames a lot of people in the film.
Arthur blames his buddy Randall, who also works at the clown employment business Ha Ha’s. He blames Randall for the gun because he gives it to Arthur. According to Arthur it is Randall’s fault that Arthur loses his job because he brings that gun to a kid party at a hospital. He says, “Why don’t you ask Randall about it? It was his gun.” Thus, it is also Randall’s fault that Arthur kills those guys on the subway. Therefore, Arthur kills Randall with the scissors.
Arthur takes no responsibility for any of the actions he commits or causes in the film. Even when Murray Franklin asks him point blank,
“Are you part of the protest?” Arthur Fleck says, “No. No, I don’t believe any of that. I don’t believe in anything. I just thought it’d be good for my act.”
We must pay close attention to the stories Arthur is telling us. His storytelling is part of his act. His answers and actions are important. The message is in there and the message is that everything is a joke. Arthur is the manifestation of that Joke. It is precisely his answers that are really a problem.
There is a pivotal scene that pushes a major plot point of the film and that is the subway scene where Arthur gets beat up by three “Wall Street” type young men who we find out later happen to work for the Wayne Corporation. These three start to pick on Arthur and eventually knock him to the ground and kick and beat on him. That is until he pulls that gun out and shoots them. Consequently, this incident gets reported in the media and it blows up into an all-out riot.
I find this scene and its consequences interesting because this incident has a parallel. It already happened. In one of the early scenes of the film, Arthur is standing on the sidewalk advertising a business that is closing, “Everything Must Go” is painted on the sign. Suddenly, a group of street thugs run by, steal his sign and he chases after them. They end up destroying his sign and beating him up in the same fashion as the “rich kids” will later. He ends up lying on the ground getting kicked and beaten. The only difference seems to be that he didn’t have a gun that time. There is a message here. The truth is that Arthur is getting beat up by people on both sides of the economic scale. Economic status is a joke. In fact, all people treat him poorly. He says, “Everybody is awful these days.”
This is also true of his view of the welfare system, he is the one that makes up the idea that “they are cutting funding.” Don’t you feel bad for him? What about the mental health system? Just look at what’s happening in the elevator and hallways at Arkham. Arthur makes negative comments about school, corporations, police, and television. He believes that these institutions are dead or should be destroyed. They are all a joke. Not a joke that is funny “ha, ha” but a joke because they do not work or they are exploitative. And that sign that was stolen so early in the film might be more significant than one might have originally thought. “Everything Must Go,” absolutely everything.
What about those riots and those masks? Arthur wears a mask not to hide who he is but to blend in and appear to look like the others around him. This is what he is trying to do the whole film. Look human. As the riots escalate, we see the people on the streets pushing back at the police. According to Arthur, order is a joke,
“Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore! Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what it’s like to be someone like me? To be somebody but themselves? They don’t. They think that we’ll just sit down and take it like good little boys! That we won’t werewolf and go wild!”
To be somebody but themselves? Is that what Arthur is trying to do? Be somebody but himself? The rioters wear masks, to escape identification. This supposedly gives them license to cause problems, light fires, carry signs. Joker has no mask, he just is. Yet he desires to be someone. How can we not see that the riots mirror what is all over our televisions in our reality? This is Joker’s symphony. A threat to the civilian on both sides of the economic scale. Civility is a joke.
In his mind real people have romance and love so he constructs the idea that the woman in his apartment complex falls for him and that they have a dreamy relationship together. At least this is what he is relating to us through his story to the psychologist. That he can be in a relationship. But it was not true. We are not told about her fate after he invades her apartment but it was not good. Romantic relationships are a joke.
Television and the media play a large role in Arthur’s mind. Arthur’s mom appears is obsessed with the television. It is continually on when she is around. The one show she almost always watches is Murray Franklin’s nighttime talk show. Again, the reality here is that this is actually Arthur’s obsession. He wants to be on television, as seen in his dream. He wants to be on the Murray Franklin show. Not for the reason the average person might want to be on the television. He wants to be funny. He wants to be seen as a sympathetic person, cares for his mom, seen as a son by Franklin. He has some desire to become a stand-up comedian. He takes notes, but laughs at all the wrong times. Remember, in his own words, he does not believe in anything it is just for his “act.” Again, because he is telling the story he is the one that makes Murray seem condescending to him. He is the one who thinks Murray is like a father to him. But this parent relationship is a joke, just like with Thomas Wayne. Arthur is convinced in his mind that he is right. It makes no logical sense. It’s not the other way around. We must think almost backwards when it comes to Arthur. Fathers are a joke.
In his narrative he creates the idea that he actually gets a chance to be on the Murray Franklin show. We are led to believe that this time it is no dream. He has a speech to give and a murder to commit. When he comes out and sits next to Murray, Joker says, “This is exactly how I imagined it.” Of course it is, because this is his imagination. The conversation continues…
Murray Franklin: Let me get this straight, you think that killing those guys is funny? Arthur Fleck: I do. And I’m tired of pretending it’s not. Comedy is subjective, Murray. Isn’t that what they say? All of you, the system that knows so much, you decide what’s right or wrong. The same way that you decide what’s funny or not… I killed those guys because they were awful. Everybody is awful these days. It’s enough to make anyone crazy. Murray Franklin: Okay, so that’s it. You’re crazy. That’s your defense for killing three young men? Arthur Fleck: No… Murray Franklin: You finished? I mean, there’s so much self-pity, Arthur, you sound like you’re making excuses for killing those young men.
Even Murray gets it. Self-pity. That’s Arthurs whole ploy. Make people feel bad for him. Even the last few things he says is about being a loner and abandoned by society.
I believe that Arthur Fleck is always in Arkham. The whole story of the movie is told from there. The movie is Arthur’s sick and twisted dream. Joker arises out of the chaos. He is a construct of conflict. His origin story is our fault. We create Joker through our own hate and fear. He is our culture’s bastard child. He is Freddy Krueger, Chuckie, and he is our Grendel. Spawned from those who create hate, cause disorder, who starve joy, and hope. He cannot be killed with traditional weapons. He is always trying to convince us that he is human. He is not. He is not one of us, it is part of his act. He is conniving and a deceiver. He is not mentally ill, he is not abused, neglected, or abandoned. He thrives on those things. He believes he is right and that he is better than us.
Joker hears a tune in his head like Edgar Allen Poe’s King of the Ghouls whose bosom swells and rolls as he yells and dances merrily to the song of iron bells. This is all a joke on us. We were played. If we cannot see what we are doing to ourselves and the mirror images that played on the movie screen with what is happening on our televisions, in our nation, then hope slips away. Joker lives in our minds, in our discontent, our hate and prejudice. Yet he is as real as the strangers we walk past every day. That is what we find out at the end of the film. Joker walks away leaving those bloody footprints. He runs off and no one can catch him. He cannot be caught or contained in a cell, an asylum, a time or a city. Joker is a warning. No one is laughing now and we still don’t get it.
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