Joker – A Story of Three Villains


The world of Todd Phillips’ Joker is a world without hope. Gotham City is overrun with crime, corruption, and civil unrest bubbling just beneath the surface. Society is a powder keg, and into this maelstrom, a single spark of madness emerges in clown makeup to blow the whole thing to pieces. Joker is a movie with a lot of things to say, and these things are best personified in what I consider to be the three villains of the film: Arthur Fleck, society at large, and Thomas Wayne.

Arthur Fleck – The Loner

To many, Fleck is the embodiment of the trending term “toxic white male”. The narrative posited by many in the modern world – that lonely white males are to blame for the many mass shootings and various societal ills that plague the world. This viewpoint is ideologically tainted and at its core, simplistic and illogical. Fleck is indicative of a far more complex narrative.

Arthur Fleck in the film is a mentally unstable outcast who is the walking definition of life dealing someone a bad hand. Abandoned at birth, adopted by a psychotically delusional and narcissistic mother, horrifically abused by said mother and her various partners all throughout his life, to say Fleck had a tortured childhood is an understatement. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. When the film opens Fleck is living with and caring for this mother, either unable to remember his past traumas or unwilling to admit her role as a possible root at his mental instability. He is on seven different medications, suffers from a condition (possibly from abusive head trauma) that causes him to laugh uncontrollably in inappropriate social contexts without reason, often to the point of physical pain, ALL while dealing with extreme anxiety, social awkwardness, isolation, and anger. He has no real outside relationships, he has no real interactions with women, and he has no real talents or gifts to speak of.

His dream of being a stand-up comedian will never be reached because of his crippling anxiety, social awkwardness, his laughing condition, and the fact that he is terribly unfunny. His “joke book” is filled with borderline incoherent scribblings (such as misspelling “sense” as “cents”) and crudely plastered pornographic images of women amongst his growingly psychotic ramblings. Around the midpoint of the movie, he attempts stand-up at an open mic night and it ends in embarrassing disgrace. When a video of his performance is aired on the late-night show hosted by TV personality Murray Franklin (who Fleck idolizes), it garners an invite to appear on the show, presumably to further humiliate him. Through every turn of every moment, he is told by the universe that his life is a joke.

Fleck is mocked and abused at every point in his life. The city cuts funding that allows him to get his medication. The film’s title card appears over Fleck in his clown costume lying face-down in an alley after being assaulted by a group of teenagers. The movie wants you to feel sympathy for the devil, all before you see his decline into madness and murder. In the end, his motivations and behavior seem almost inevitable, a byproduct of a broken system.

Fleck has a bone to pick with society and everyone in it, and his actions cause the society to react because of him in increasingly violent ways, which leads me to villain number two.

Society – The (Resentful) Rest of Us

In the film, Gotham City is on the verge of exploding. A corrupt and useless city government has led to city-wide trash strikes, rises in crime, civil unrest, and the cutting of services (such as Fleck’s medications). Citizens are becoming more and more frustrated with the system, and these things inadvertently eventually come to a head because of Fleck. One night, already mentally declining from his lack of medication and emotionally reeling from recently being fired, Fleck kills three businessmen who harass and assault him on the subway. The first two he kills largely in self-defense, while coldly murdering the already injured third man. At first, he is horrified by his actions and runs for his life, but after getting a moment to gather himself, he suddenly feels elation. He feels reborn. For the first time in his life, he fought back.

When those three men are later revealed to be wealthy and up and coming employees of Wayne Enterprises, the reckless and frustrated society finds its folk hero in the unknown killer clown. Fleck finally did what many had dreamed of deep in their frustration and resentment – punished the rich and uncaring. The civil unrest bubbles to the surface and Fleck sees a movement beginning to form against the society he hates because of his actions, and he feels confidence and purpose for the first time in his life, saying to his therapist, “For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice.”

As he descends into violence, rage, and madness, so does society along with him, all focused largely around a single man, villain number three.

Thomas Wayne – The Corrupt Elite

The true villain, at least if you look at the plot through the eyes of Fleck as the protagonist, is Thomas Wayne. The characterization of Wayne is one of the more surprising, and in the end, culturally revealing aspects of the movie. In literally every other canonical DC story, Thomas Wayne is depicted as a gifted physician, loving family man, a principled citizen, and a generous philanthropist who cares deeply about the city. In Joker, however, Wayne is an out-of-touch elite who views the masses with contempt, unable to think for themselves or rise to his level of influence. In his announcement of his mayoral campaign, he looks at the people of the city and says that he will “save them” as if they are children incapable of doing anything themselves. When asked about the unknown clown who murdered his three employees, Wayne paints the young men as bright lights who had their potential snuffed out and then points to those who don’t make something of themselves as the true “clowns”. Flecks actions, combined with Wayne’s response, causes the city to unravel. Demonstrators with clown masks brandish signs proclaiming “Kill the Rich” – all while Fleck admires the movement he accidentally caused. Fleck, however, has a deeper connection to Wayne.

Throughout the film, Fleck’s mother continually claims that Wayne could help them out financially since she worked for the Wayne family 30 years earlier.  Fleck dismisses her claims until he opens a letter his mother intended to mail to Wayne, which she claims that Fleck is Wayne’s son. When Fleck goes to confront Wayne about this, Wayne tells him that his mother was psychotic and delusional, believing that she and Wayne had a relationship when in reality she adopted Fleck. When Fleck becomes belligerent, Wayne punches him in the face and dismisses him coldly. Later, Fleck investigates Wayne’s story and finds records at Arkham that show his mother was indeed delusional and indeed adopted him before horrifically abusing him for years. In response, Fleck murders his mother. Later in the film there is evidence to suggest that his mother was possibly telling the truth all along, but this is left up to the viewer.

Wayne is one of the main catalysts that push Fleck into madness. After Fleck, fully embracing his Joker persona, kills TV personality Murray Franklin on live TV (choosing this act of revenge instead of killing himself), the city descends into chaos and riots, with Thomas Wayne and his wife murdered in the crossfire by a random clown mask-wearing thug. In the process, Fleck as Joker becomes an icon for those fighting elites in their violent uprising.

Painting Thomas Wayne as the cold, disconnected, corrupt elite who may or may not be Fleck’s father paints Wayne as the root of the rotten flower that Joker causes to bloom in his hideous glory. Corruption and power birthed the monster that was destined to destroy the society that helped shaped him.

All three villains play into and feed one another, creating a twisted knot of dysfunction and evil. Fleck as the Joker takes revenge on the society he feels wronged him and created him. Society and everyone he kills “deserves” what’s coming to them and in the end, he becomes the symbol of a world gone mad, burning itself alive in revenge, madness, and rage as it seeks to punish those who seemingly hold the keys. Society looks to Joker, a literal psychotic murderer, as their guide into the new world as the mob acts out its resentments and frustrations in violence and anarchy. Wayne, the symbol of those corrupt elites who dismiss the 99% as worthless tools, dies by the indirect hand of the possible son he abandoned to the cruel and broken system that the masses believed helped line his pockets.

What is the point of it all? As Fleck says at one point late in the film: “There is no punchline.” There’s no cavalry or Batman or hero coming over the horizon to save us. What we have is a world where everyone is a villain and the hero is a murderous clown.

There are various messages and interpretations that one can have about the movie. This is the nature of art. If you see it as a critique of “the system”, the alternative presented when the system is destroyed is more broken and murderous than the one before it. If you see it as a critique on the mental health crisis, it shows that the problem lies deeper than mere medication and it is deep within the evil hearts of men. If you see it as a commentary on class warfare, it shows that many revolutions will inevitably adopt a violent maniac as it’s hero (Mao and China for example) and all revolutions lead to violence and bloodshed.

I see Joker as a product of our modern sensibilities – many believe society is an oppressive force that creates monsters and fosters corruption – yet many who hold that belief also believe that some violent revolution will solve all its problems, when it will only further eat itself.

God help us if we ever let a man like Arthur Fleck become a folk hero.