Welcome to our Colossus Movie Guide for Joker. This guide contains our detailed library of content covering key aspects of the movie’s plot, ending, meaning, and more. We encourage your comments to help us create the best possible guide. Thank you!
What is Joker about?
Joker is about how outside influences shape and drive us. What are these outside influences? Our friendships, family, romantic life, support systems, work, where we live, media, entertainment, politics, and the overall zeitgeist. The more stable each of these things are, the more stable we are. But what happens if these influences turn bad? Not just one or two, but all of them? Upon its release in 2019, despite the awards and acclaim, many thought Joker vapid. But Arthur Fleck’s story is an exploration of the tipping point in all of us. A mere 14 months after Joker’s release, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the January 6 U.S. Capitol Attack occurred, surprisingly mirroring much of the film’s diagnosis of what drives people to insurrection and pandemonium.
Movie Guide table of contents
- Arthur Fleck (Joker) – Joaquin Phoenix
- Penny Fleck – Frances Conroy
- Murray Franklin – Robert De Niro
- Gene Ufland – Marc Maron
- Sophie Dumond – Zazie Beetz
- Randall – Glenn Fleshler
- Gary – Leigh Gill
- Thomas Wayne – Brett Cullen
- Alfred Pennyworth – Douglas Hodge
- Bruce Wayne – Dante Pereira-Olson
- Social worker – Sharon Washington
- Clark – Brian Tyree Henry
- Burke – Shea Whigham
- Written by – Todd Phillips | Scott Silver
- Directed by – Todd Phillips
The ending of Joker explained
The end of Joker begins with Joker’s appearance on the Murray Franklin Show. He is confident in a way we’ve never seen before. Initially, he plays into the light-hearted nature of the talk show format. When encouraged to tell a joke, he scans through his notebook and comes across a line we saw earlier in the film. “I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.”
It’s part of a longer section of his journal where he talks about leaving a convenience store with only 25 cents in his pocket when I noticed that there was an ambulance and the parumedics were standing over the homeless man. I go over because I was interested in what happened to him as I got near them I heard them say “What a way to go, on the side walk. What…” Can you imagine that??? Dead on the sidewalk with people stepping over you. Maybe he’s happier but I don’t want to die with peopl just stepping over me. I want people to see me. I just hope my death makes more cents than my life. Imagine yor hole life ends on a sidewalk. I wonder how old he was and how long noone care about him for.
There’s an obvious consideration of what to do next. Then a shift in tone. Joker no longer plays along with Murray’s format but begins to hijack the show, warping it into something much darker. Murray himself switches gears. The interview becomes a serious interrogation after Joker admits to slaying the bankers on the train. A back and forth about society ensues.
Joker: It’s been a rough few weeks, Murray. Ever since I killed those three Wall Street guys.
Murray: Okay, I’m waiting for the punchline.
J: There is no punchline. It’s not a joke.
M: You’re serious, aren’t you? You’re telling us you killed those three young men on the subway? And why should we believe you?
J: Got nothing left to lose. Nothing can hurt me anymore. My life is nothing but a comedy.
M: Let me get this straight? You think killing those guys is funny?
J: 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 you decide what’s funny. Or not.
M: Okay. I think I might understand it. You did this to start a movement? To become a symbol?
J: Come on, Murray. Do I look like the kind of clown that could start a movement? I killed those guys because they were awful. Everybody is awful these days. It’s enough to make anyone crazy.
M: Okay. That’s it? You’re crazy? That’s your defense for killing three young men?
J: No. They couldn’t carry a tune to save their lives. [Crowd boos]. Ugh. Why is everyone so upset about these guys? If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me. I pass you every day and you don’t notice me. But these guys. What? Because Thomas Wayne went and cried about them on TV?
M: You have a problem with Thomas Wayne, too?
J: Yes. I. Do. Have you seen what it’s like out there, Murray? Do you ever actually leave the studio? 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 there and take it like good little boys. That we won’t werewolf and go wild.
M: You finished? I mean, there’s so much self-pity, Arthur, you sound like you’re making excuses for killing those young men. Not everybody, and I’ll tell you this, not everyone is awful.
J: You’re awful, Murray.
M: Me? I’m awful? Oh yeah? How am I awful?
J: Playing my video. Inviting me on the show. You just wanted to make fun of me. You’re just like the rest of them.
M: You don’t know the first thing about me, pal. Look what happened because of what you did. What it led to. There are riots out there. [Joker smiles]. Two policemen are in critical condition. [Joker laughs]. You’re laughing. You’re laughing. Someone was killed today, because of what you did.
J: [Pleased] I know. How about another joke, Murray?
M: No, I think we’ve had enough of your jokes.
J: What do you get when you cross a mentally-ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?! I’ll tell you what you get! You get what you f***ing deserve!
A few shots later, we cut to the control room of a TV station. There are 24 monitors, each on a different channel. Every channel is covering Joker and the riots. His message broadcasted to millions.
What do we see next? Joker in the back of a police car going through Gotham City as riots consume the city. People loot and destroy. Fires burn. After a commandeered ambulance crashes into the police car, two rioters in clown masks pull Joker from the back of the cruiser.
Somewhere else in the city, Thomas, Martha, and Bruce Wayne leave a theater and try to escape down an alley. A clown follows them. “Hey Wayne, you get what you f***ing deserve.” The clown shoots Thomas and Martha. A young Bruce watches.
Joker wakes up. An entire crowd cheers him on. He rises to his feet. Gazes upon them. Dances, much like he did after the subway murders. Then takes the blood running from his nose and smears it into a smile. The crowd roars.
We pick up with Arthur in Arkham Asylum. He’s in a session. Laughing to himself. “What’s so funny?” the psychiatrist asks. “I’m just thinking of a joke.” The camera cuts to Bruce Wayne in the alley, looking at his fallen parents. “Do you want to tell it to me?” Joker responds, “You wouldn’t get it.” The song “That’s Life” plays. Joker begins to say the lyrics along to the music. Another cut shows the hallway outside the interview room. Joker leaves bloody footprints. An orderly chases him.
The big picture stuff
There’s a lot to unpack there but a good starting point is the line “You get what you f***ing deserve.” It’s what Joker says to Murray before firing. Then what a random clown says to the Waynes before doing the same. Between the two moments we have the shot from inside the TV network, of all the stations broadcasting Joker’s conversation with Murray and the concluding bang.
The clown who shot the Waynes didn’t coincidentally say the same thing as Joker. He said it because he heard Joker say it. And the only reason he heard it was because the media happily and eagerly replayed the moment for everyone, because Murray didn’t shut down the conversation when he should have, because Murray invited Arthur on in order to, as Joker said, make fun of him.
So even though Joker is the one who said the thing and did the thing and inspired the clown to say and do something similar—it was only possible because the media gave Joker a platform. Because the media put ratings ahead of decency and common sense.
Joker, as a film, doesn’t condemn the individual as much as it does the external influences that ruin someone’s stability and push them over an edge. There’s a world in which Arthur Fleck manages to live a decent, if uneventful, life. Where he has a few friends, a few loved ones, brings some joy to people, and that’s it. At the start of the movie, he had work. He took his meds. He cared for his mom. He wasn’t a great person but he wasn’t bad—which is what you can say about most people.
Joker essentially establishes a series of external influences that shape Arthur’s life: friends, family, romantic life, support systems, work, location, media, entertainment, politics, and the overall zeitgeist.
Think of each of those as having a switch. When the movie begins, all of those switches are “on”, in the sense that they’re working relatively well. Then, one by one, they flip to off.
Arthur feels betrayed by Randall. Realizes his mom has lied to him. Realizes he made up the relationship with his neighbor. Gotham shut down his access to counseling and medication. He loses his job. Gotham itself has become full of crime. The media focuses on negative stories that only increase the sense of fear and tension. Murray Franklin was Arthur’s escape, until Murray mocked Arthur’s stand-up set. The city is politically adrift.
While it’s a bit jumbled when listed out like that, there’s a cause-and-effect dynamic between the problems in Arthur’s personal life and the issues with Gotham as a whole. The political woes create a “broken windows” atmosphere that almost encourages the kids to attack Arthur in the opening minutes. That attack is what causes Randall to give Arthur the handgun. The fear of suffering another attack causes Arthur to carry the weapon with him while at work. Which causes him to lose his job. Which angers him. Then we come full-circle with the Wall Street guys on the train. The train car is mostly empty because the city is dangerous. They, much like the kids, attack Arthur because who is around to stop them? They feel empowered by the lawlessness of the city and their wealth and status. Arthur has so much anger built up because of things going wrong that he feels justified in defending himself with a lethal response.
Essentially, you have someone who feels powerless finding power through violence.
But that’s exacerbated by the media response. When the news talks about the train murders, Arthur feels seen. He feels meaningful. He did something and it caused someone on TV to talk about it. That’s never happened before. Maybe it would have ended there. But then the Murray Franklin Show wanted to use Arthur. So they give him another platform. And what happens? Arthur doesn’t play by their rules. He uses the moment to inspire others to his cause. And they listen.
Some high-profile critics have derided Joker for being obvious, simplistic, or even empty. Legendary New York Times film critic A.O. Scott said: To be worth arguing about, a movie must first of all be interesting: it must have, if not a coherent point of view, at least a worked-out, thought-provoking set of themes, some kind of imaginative contact with the world as we know it. “Joker”, asn empty, foggy exercise in second-hand style and second-rate philosophizing, has none of that. Besotted with the notion of its own audacity—as if willful unpleasantness were a form of artistic courage—the film turns out to be afraid of its own shadow, or at least of the faintest shadow of any actual relevance.
Joker came out in October of 2019. Only a few months later, in March of 2020, the world went into lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic. People suddenly couldn’t see their friends. family, or pursue romantic relationships. They lost jobs. Had money issues. Couldn’t easily access support services. They turned to social media and the news. They needed political solutions that were slow to come or completely ineffective.
In the United States, the zeitgeist grew strained then turned outright combative. Add in an election where nearly half the population didn’t like the results. And what happened next? Nearly 30-thousand people marched on the US Capitol. Eventually, two-thousand rioters stormed the building itself. Many of them wore costumes.
Joker proved its themes, imaginative contact with the world, and relevance when it essentially foreshadowed one of the biggest political uprisings in America in 150 years. Wikipedia notes it was the “most severe assault on the Capitol since the 1814 burning of Washington by the British Army.”
There are plenty of things to critique Joker for. But it doesn’t lack a coherent point of view, or themes, or imaginative contact with the world. It laid out a recipe for how individuals cross a tipping point to violent uprising. Then we watched that recipe play out in real-time. The movie is less about Arthur Fleck and more about how fragile people are to the forces around them.
The final conversation at Arkham Asylum mirrors Arthur’s initial meeting with his social worker. In that first scene, a mere 5-minutes into the movie, Arthur does his uncontrollable laughter (pseudobulbar affect), but it’s not humor. He’s clearly in pain. This happens right after the kids beat him down. So he’s going through a lot of negative feelings. The first thing he says is, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” He’s polite. Vulnerable. Attempting to fit in. It’s not like he’s a perfectly-adjusted person but he’s certainly somewhat stable.
The social worker asks him how it feels to go there, if talking helps. He responds, “I think I felt better when I was locked up in the hospital.” The implication, especially following the attack, is that in the hospital he was isolated and free from the negativity of others and the world at large. But being out in the world, he’s subject to all the insanity. Not just a victim of it. But also influenced by it.
The final scene starts similarly to the opening one—Arthur’s laughing. Except this time it’s genuine. He’s not in pain. It’s not an uncontrollable reaction. He’s legitimately amused. When Arthur says he’s just thinking of a joke, the camera flashes to Bruce Wayne in the alley, looking at the bodies of his parents. The implication is that Joker’s thinking about the fate of the Waynes and that’s what’s so amusing to him.
The last line, “You wouldn’t get it” is another contrast to the talk with the social worker. There, he tried to communicate more openly. Now, he’s distanced. Insular. He’s no longer attempting to placate or be part of the system. He doesn’t need to make others laugh. It’s enough to make himself laugh. It seems like the beginning of the classic mystique that the Joker-character has possessed across mediums and portrayals. That’s reinforced by the way the camera lingers on the Arkham psychiatrist trying to figure out what Joker’s thinking.
When Joker sings the lyrics to the song that plays, it does create a strange moment. The music is clearly non-diegetic, meaning it’s outside the world of the movie. Most music in film is non-diegetic, just the score that plays over a moment. But diegetic music is common enough. Usually from a car stereo or something similar. The music in a club. Or in Baby Driver we hear the music the character listens to on their iPod.
A character singing along to diegetic music makes sense. It’s normal. A character singing to non-diegetic music has meta implications.
The extreme interpretation of this would be something like “Joker suddenly has meta awareness and there was a meta element to the entire film.” But that doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s not like Deadpool where the main character talks directly to the audience. Or even Killers of the Flower Moon where a transition to a radio production of the movie we just watched recontextualizes the movie we just watched. In many instances, a character being meta is the character reacting to the formal aspects of a film or the knowledge they’re in a movie.
But Joker is probably an example of the movie reacting to the character. As in—Arthur Fleck’s probably thinking of Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” and the film plays it so we hear it too. Meaning that the proper reading isn’t something like “Joker’s aware of the movie!” so much as “the movie is, in this final moment, putting us more in the mind of the Joker.”
We can look at the song lyrics, too.
That’s life, that’s what all the people say
You’re riding high in April, shot down in May
But I know I’m gonna change that tune
When I’m back on top, back on top in June
I said, that’s life, and as funny as it may seem
Some people get their kicks stompin’ on a dream
But I don’t let it, let it get me down
‘Cause this fine old world, it keeps spinning around
I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king
I’ve been up and down and over ad out, and I know one thing
Each time I find myself flat on my face
I pick myself up and get back in the race
That’s life, I tell ya, I can’t deny it
I thought of quitting, baby
But my heart just ain’t gonna buy it
And if I didn’t think it was worth one single try
I’d jump right on a big bird and then I’d fly
Arthur’s journey sees the world beat him up. Then he, in his own way, comes out on top. But in a very dark, twisted victory. Similar to 2014’s Nightcrawler, where the protagonist of a typical American underdog story is actually a villain. Arthur is the underdog who stands up to being bullied and achieves the kind of recognition he had hoped for—except he’s also a maniacal murderer.
The song carries with it a sense that the world is what the world is. That we can’t change it. All we can really do is change our response to it. Which is what we see with Arthur and his switch from regular guy who is overwhelmed by it all to the Joker. And that’s mostly embodied by that change in laughter from the beginning to the end.
The implication he kills the psychiatrist only furthers this notion that Arthur as Joker is someone who now takes action rather than the person acted upon.
Was it all a dream?
Fans have theorized that the “joke” that Arthur won’t tell the psychiatrist is that the entire movie, everything we saw, was just in his imagination. And that’s why the psychiatrist wouldn’t understand, because it’s too complicated to explain. If this were true, it would upend the entire movie. Arthur may not even be the real Joker. It might not even be the year 1981.
Todd Phillips actually discussed this with the Los Angeles Times. Quote: There’s a lot of ways you could look at this movie. You could look at it and go, “This is just one of his multiple-choice stories. None of it happened” I don’t want to say what it is. But a lot of people I’ve shown it to have said, “Oh, I get it—he’s just made up a story. The whole movie is the joke. It’s this thing this guy in Arkham Asylum concocted. He might not even be the Joker..” … Maybe Joaquin’s character inspired the Joker. You don’t really know. His last line in the movie is, “You wouldn’t get it.” There’s a lot going on in there that’s interesting.
Phillips talked more about this in the “Vision & Fury” featurette. There’s many ways to look at the movie. He might not be Joker. This is just a version of a Joker origin. It’s the version this guy is telling in this room at a mental institution. I don’t know that he’s the most reliable narrator in the world, you know what I’m saying?
At the time, Phillips did not intend to make a sequel. So the vagueness of the ending was something that wouldn’t matter much in the long run. But in 2022, we found out there will be a sequel coming out in October 2024. We already know it will co-star Lady Gaga as Harley Quinn. We’ll see how Phillips handles it. The sequel could make it very obvious that what we saw was “real” and not a made up story. Except. We do know that the sequel, Joker: Folie á Deux, is rumored to be a musical. Which might further the idea that it’s all in Arthur Fleck’s imagination.
Personally, I’m not that excited about the “it was just a story” theory. I’m more interested in what’s there rather than the idea that nothing happened. Because while there’s a superficial cool-factor to it all being made up, it renders everything moot. At least in something like The Usual Suspects, the frame narrative has enough meaning and pay-off that finding out the story might not have happened how we saw it doesn’t matter all that much because it serves a role. Joker doesn’t have enough of a frame narrative to earn that same conclusion.
But it does align with the way Phillips drew influence from Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Two movies that also leave viewers wondering how much really did or didn’t happen. Scorsese has made it clear that Taxi Driver wasn’t a trick, it all happened. But King of Comedy, a much more direct comparison to Joker, did fall into fantasy.
So, at least until the sequel comes out, what did and didn’t happen is up to the viewer. Phillips has also said that he would like to see someone make a Batman movie that takes place in this version of Gotham. You could read that as confirmation the events did happen. Or at least confirming that the Gotham imagined by Arthur in the Joker story was accurate. Still, I’d argue that the movie is more interesting if we take the story at face value.
The themes and meaning of Joker
The masks we wear to fit in
Arthur’s character journey is a ceasing of normality, of trying to fit in, of being someone you’re not. When Joker starts, Arthur doesn’t have the best life. But he has a job, has his mom, has a dream, and a routine that allows him to feel part of society. One by one, he loses those things. He’s fired, he discovers he was adopted then abused, the relationship he thought he had with his female neighbor was a figment of his overly powerful imagination, and his routine crumbles. When those definitions of self vanish, so does Arthur Fleck. What remains is pain, rage, a twisted sense of justice, and a desire to be more than insignificant. The alchemy of those ingredients in the cauldron of Fleck’s trauma and mental illness spawn the clown prince, the Joker.
But there’s an implication that Joker is closer to the true person than “Arthur Fleck”. This is most obvious in the laugh. Throughout the film, Arthur’s laugh is either the byproduct of his mental condition or a learned-response. The former is often painful and triggered by stress, so not indicative of any actual humor. The latter is stilted, performative, a thing Arthur does because he believes he should. It’s not a genuine laugh but part of an act. It isn’t until the very end of the movie, after Arthur’s become the Joker and back in Arkham Asylum, that we hear his genuine laughter. This is no longer the diminutive Arthur Fleck who was so overwhelmed by everything and everyone. He isn’t laughing at what society tells him is funny. Rather, he’s the one defining what’s funny. And by extension—what matters to him.
The laughter is one way Joker expresses this dropping of the mask. Another is Arthur’s dancing. When he’s performing as a clown, Arthur dances with enthusiasm. An enthusiasm we know he doesn’t actually possess. But after he shoots the Wall Street guys on the train, a different dance emerges. It’s slow and graceful. Honest. A genuine expression of emotion rather than the bouncy step, spin, and gesture of an entertainer. When Arthur dresses up as Joker for the first time, we get the big dance number on the stairs. It’s a lot more high-energy than the bathroom dance, yet still wildly different from the happy jig from his performances. It’s Arthur’s true confidence and bravado showing through.
This creates an interesting conversation. Most people feel at least somewhat stilted or stifled by society. A pretty harmless example. For decades, nerd culture was something that wasn’t suited for popular society. If you liked superheroes or anime or video games—you didn’t talk about it. But in the 21st century, nerd culture is one of the most popular subjects in the world. But the examples grow in seriousness when you start talking about sexuality, gender, religion, politics, etc.
So we tend to respond well to stories where someone gets to live their authentic life. Because so many of us make compromises in that department. We do the safe thing rather than take a risk. We make a choice that appeases our parents or our religion or our culture rather than follow our heart. We cheer on people who find the courage to make the leap, even if it’s just in a movie or TV show.
Some viewers feel very conflicted, even upset, by the way Joker hijacks the beats of a familiar, usually positive story. Why? Because they don’t want to resonate with a murderous monster. It’s one thing when the character you feel similar to is attractive and smart and succeeds. That’s what makes Hollywood escapism so popular. It can provide a bit of hope. But what happens when the character you resonate with is a psychopath? When the movie takes advantage of how we’ve been trained to root for protagonists, to see ourselves in protagonists?
It makes us more aware of our own masks. Of our own limitations. And that can be incredibly challenging and off-putting. Also problematic. As there are people who don’t recoil from Arthur. Rather, they admire him. Want to be like him. They want to drop their mask. And not in a healthy, ideal way, like wanting to quit the football team and join theater. No. They want chaos and madness.
Being part of society often demands some level of restraint. If everyone just indulged in their every whim, civilization would fall apart rather quickly. So masks are, to a certain extent, absolutely necessary. Arthur is an extreme example of what happens when the mask comes off entirely and in the worst way possible. He walks up to that line of “good for you” then blows past it to the point of “This is very bad.”
The pain and power of the individual
Let’s define the various levels of zoom that make up the scope of Joker.
- Individual (closest zoom)
- Collective Unconscious (furthest zoom)
To understand the relationship of these zooms, we can look at Frank Ocean’s refrain on the Jay-Z and Kanye West song “No Church In the Wild.”
Human beings in a mob/What’s a mob to a king?/What’s a king to a god?/What’s a god to a non-believer who don’t believe in anything?
The refrain lays out entities that escalate in grandeur. Almost like a linear list of planets from smallest to largest.
- A mob is made up of individuals who are more powerful together than they are alone.
- Despite the strength of a mob, a king wields more authority, controlling laws and military.
- But a king is, all things considered, still mortal and limited by that mortality. So how can a king possibly compare to a god who is unlimited?
- Even then, in most religions, a god’s inherent celestial nature necessitates influence through religious leaders and ethereal machinations. So if someone is a non-believer, it means they don’t acknowledge the influence of any god on the world, thus reducing the omnipotent to seemingly nothing.
In Joker, a similar “circle of life” exists.
- Individuals make up the public.
- The public is at the mercy of politics.
- Politics are shaped by the media.
- The media of a culture is influenced by that culture’s collective unconscious.
- And it just so happens individual actions can have a tremendous impact on the collective unconscious.
In both “No Church in the Wild” and Joker, the smallest entity—a single person—can range from the weakest to the most influential.
During the course of Joker, we have several key narrative arcs. A narrative arc is important to understanding a movie, as the contrast from “how someone/something is in the beginning, compared to the end” is purposeful. That final state of being is the destination the entire story built to.
What do we see when we look at the narrative arcs in Joker?
- Start: Has a mostly normal life, despite sometimes struggling to manage his mental illness.
- End: Mental illness is in full control. Ends up as the symbolic leader of a violent, city-wide revolution that empowers criminal activity.
- Start: The citizens of Gotham are living regular big city life, though there are signs of unrest, like teenagers that steal from Arthur then assault him. Or the Wall Street Bros who harass a woman on a train before physically confronting Arthur.
- End: The public, inspired by a vigilante clown, revolts against the political establishment. The citizens of Gotham descend into a terrifying, indulgent, and harmful chaos.
- Start: Things aren’t great in the city. The movie opens with a news report referencing a garbage strike, and we can see just how much garbage there is. There’s clearly issues between Gotham’s government and its public. But order and standards still reign.
- End: For a majority of the movie, we’re told by various entities that Thomas Wayne is the only hope for improving Gotham. If he wins the upcoming mayoral election, things will improve. Except the continued deterioration of Gotham’s policies—shutting down mental health groups, increasing unemployment, etc.—feed the fire of the eventual riot. And Thomas Wayne, our hope for a better tomorrow, is gunned down.
- Start: In the first 20 minutes of Joker, the media is informative (garbage strike) and entertaining (the Murray Franklin Show).
- End: The media’s constant fascination with the “clown who killed three rich guys on the subway” provides Arthur with a sense of importance he’s never felt before. Like a moth to the flame, he can’t keep away. The Murray Franklin Show ends up being Joker’s platform that catapults him into a symbol for the maligned and angry.
- Start: The aesthetic of the city is bland and worn down and exhausted. You get the sense of ennui and powerlessness that makes up the psyche of those in Gotham. Everyone’s just trying their best to get by. But is anything getting done?
- End: Gotham burns. But the heat is double-edged. There’s a vitality that’s been missing. There’s a sense of urgency that’s been missing. There’s action where there had only been stagnation. Except the people acting are the broken, the unruly, the morally unrestrained. They’re dressed as clowns, shedding all cultural norms.
What the narrative arcs say
When Joker’s stripped down to its “zooms” and “narrative arcs,” the intention of the movie clarifies. It’s an examination of the recipe that tilts not only an individual but a society from the humane to the inhuman.
A stagnant environment, media that focuses on negative stories, policy that abandons citizenry, and unchecked mental illness—these are your ingredients. These are the conditions that, when they mix together, culminate in a hurricane of unimaginable consequence.
If we, as a culture, understand what ignites this dismal chain reaction, maybe we, as a culture, could do something about it. Which is why Joker, under the direction of Todd Phillips, is an attempted diagnosis.
Cinema, as with most narrative art, is, ultimately, a means of soul searching. Of reflection. Of showing something that’s infinitely difficult to tell…and in so doing, movies can help people understand the indescribable beauty and pain of the human heart. Whether you hate it or love it, Joker is such an undertaking.
Why is the movie called Joker?
The most superficial reading is that it’s simply a reference to the popular character. The same way a Batman movie is called Batman. Or a Spider-Man movie is called Spider-Man.
The difference with Joker is that there’s more nuance. It’s not a made-up name like Captain America. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “joker” has existed since 1729 and means “jester, merry fellow, one who jokes.” It goes on to note: In generic slang use for “any man, fellow, chap” by 1811, which probably is the source of the meaning of “odd face card in the deck” (1868), also often jolly joker.
OED also has a quote from the St. James Gazette in 1894: American manufacturers of playing-cards are wont to include a blank card at the top of the pack; and it is, alas! true that some thrifty person suggested that the card should not be wasted. This was the origin of the joker.
So the title has this extra layer of referring not just to the character but to the classic definition of someone who is a jester—a person who is laughed at, for better or worse. As well as the joker card in a deck of cards. From Wikipedia: The Joker originated in the United States during the Civil War, and was created as a trump card for the game of Euchre. It has since been adopted into many other card games, where it often acts as a wild card…
That wild card nature is certainly part of the characterization of the Joker across media.
The Joker is also part of the world of Tarot cards and is associated with the archetype of The Fool. A book called the Pictorial Key to the Tarot lists The Fool’s traits as: “Folly, mania, extravagance, intoxication, delirium, frenzy, bewrayment.”
So a jester who gets laughed at. A wild card. And the Fool. All three tend to sum up the iconic energy of the Joker character.
The title also creates an irony. It implies humor. But the movie is quite serious, with little in the way of actual comedy, outside of the darkest kind. That lack of laughs in a movie with a title that implies laughs only serves to highlight the gravity of the thematics.
Lastly, you can see the title referring to that idea that the movie is all a joke that Arthur Fleck tells himself. He’s not actually THE JOKER but just a joker. And the movie is the private joke he’s thinking about. So a bit of meta humor.
Important motifs in Joker
Dancing and laughing
We covered this in the themes section. But Arthur has two different dances and two different laughs. For both, one is what he does when he’s performing and trying to fit in. This is what we see most of the time. The other is authentic and true to his own self. So you have the dance he does while working as a clown versus the dance he does in the bathroom, when it’s just him and he’s processing a mess of emotions. Or the laugh we hear at the start of his meeting with the social worker versus the laugh we hear at the meeting with his psychiatrist at Arkham.
This plays into the idea of how much we perform for others and adapt our behavior for others versus what we truly like or feel.
The city of Gotham
Gotham’s drab and gray. Trash piles up because the garbage workers are on strike. The city is either fully chaotic or completely empty and scary. In many ways, it’s the externalization of Arthur’s emotional state. Especially when we get the shots of him having to go up and down this huge staircase on the way to his building. You can feel how tired he must be. And the amount of time he spends in transit. On trains, buses, or walking. Completely bored. Just to reach his job. Or the comedy club.
His suit and makeup
We talked about how Gotham’s aesthetic represents Arthur’s emotional state. There’s a reverse dynamic when Arthur puts on the Joker outfit. The purple suit with the full face makeup. Suddenly, his drab and gray world has a pop of color. He himself becomes a pop of color. Those stairs he would trudge up and down? As Joker, he dances on them and turns them from this obstacle to a stage upon which to perform.
By changing his outer appearance, he ends up changing the city, as well. We see a whole new Gotham after Joker’s appearance on Murray’s show. It’s mostly on fire. And in the midst of a riot. But it’s active and alive in a way it hadn’t been. Stirred. Roiled. Still representative of Arthur’s emotional state.
Questions & answers about Joker
Was Thomas Wayne the father of Arthur Fleck?
No. Despite Penny’s desire for it. The report at Arkham seems to confirm Arthur’s adoption and that Penny’s boyfriend abused Arthur. There’s an implication that trauma from the abuse is what’s caused the laughing disorder.
Did Arthur kill his neighbor, Sophie? Were they ever in a relationship?
We’re shown that Arthur and Sophie never had a relationship. That he had imagined the whole thing. Which makes his arrival in Sophie’s apartment pretty terrifying. As he’s a strange neighbor who just is there, on her couch, sad and menacing. The movie then cuts to Arthur leaving the apartment, without any clear indication about what happened to Sophie. In fact, we never see her again.
In the theatrical cut, when Arthur returns to his apartment, a few moments later we hear sirens and see the flash of lights from an emergency vehicle. That kind of implies that something happened. Something that was maybe too awful to show. And a neighbor overheard and called the cops or someone found a body.
Except Todd Phillips addressed this directly. He told IndieWire: He doesn’t kill her, definitively. As the filmmaker and the writer, I am saying he doesn’t kill her. We like the idea that it’s almost like a litmus test for the audience to say, “how crazy is he?” Most people that I’ve spoken to think he didn’t kill her because they understand the idea that he only kills people that did him wrong. She had nothing to do with it. Most people understood that, even as a villain, he was living by a certain code. Of course he didn’t kill this woman down the hall.
In fact, Sophie’s supposed to appear in the Joker sequel.
Does Joker use an unreliable narrator?
Yes, but weirdly. The film stays on Arthur the entire time. So in that way, it mimics the kind of limited-third-person you see in novels. We never just cut to and follow what another character is doing. Everything is through Arthur. That allows the film to then set-up the twist that he imagined the entire relationship with Sophie. Because we were following him, we saw it how he saw it. Which is classic unreliable narrator.
What makes it weird is that the stuff with Sophie seems to be the only time we experience anything so surprisingly unreliable. You have the obvious moment when he imagines himself in the audience at the Murray Franklin Show and everything that follows. But that’s not really the stuff of an unreliable narrator. It’s more just insight into Arthur’s imagination.
If you buy into the theory that the movie was all in Arthur’s head, something he imagined while in Arkham, then the unreliable narrator concept is much stronger. Outside of that, it’s pretty underutilized or, arguably, badly utilized.
Is Joker based on The Killing Joke?
The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore, is one of the most famous standalone comic book stories of all-time. Phillips said it was definitely an inspiration, especially because it attempts to give Joker a backstory as a failed stand-up comedian. Something Joker clearly incorporates. They don’t share much else. Especially as Killing Joke is a story that heavily involves Batman.
Though Killing Joke does famously end in an ambiguous way that has had people debating for over 30 years whether or not Batman kills the Joker. So Joker having the debate of whether or not it really happened or was just a story that Arthur tells himself definitely has similar energy.
How can Joker be the nemesis of Bruce Wayne when Bruce was so young?
He probably can’t. The ages won’t match up. So we’ll probably never see the Joaquin Phoenix version of Joker have a showdown with Batman. But. We do know the sequel introduces Harley Quinn, Joker’s long-time love interest. There’s a world where Joker and Harley have a kid and that kid grows up and takes on his father’s mantle.
What was playing at the movie theater Thomas, Martha, and Bruce left? Are they meaningful?
Blow Out and Zorro the Gay Blade. Both came out in 1981. Fun fact: Blow Out has what I consider to be the single greatest shot in movie history.
In terms of meaning. They could just be two random movies Phillips picked. But, if you want to make an argument…
Blow Out is about someone who tries to fight back against political forces larger than himself only to have his spirit completely crushed. Zorro is a comedy starring a hero who wears a mask.
You could see Blow Out representing Joker and Zorro Batman. Or that both Joker and Batman embody the brokenness of Blow Out and the theatrics of Zorro.
Is Joker part of the DCEU or DCU? Is it connected to The Batman?
DC is in a pretty weird place with its cinematic universe. It started with the Snyderverse. Then extended out to include things like Suicide Squad and Shazam. But once Snyder left, the whole thing felt empty. Some executives actually made the correct call and okayed an Elseworlds genre that would be outside the canon of the DCEU. That’s what allowed us to get both Joker and The Batman.
But Joker and The Batman aren’t connected. They’re separate properties in their own unique universes. Granted, given the whole multiverse thing, anything is possible. But we shouldn’t see Joaquin’s Joker interact with Pattinson’s Batman. The Batman introduced its own Joker in Barry Keoghan.
Though, with the whole “It was just a story” theory, you could technically unite them and say Barry Keoghan is the son of Arthur Fleck and Harley Quinn. We’ll see.
Now it’s your turn
Have more unanswered questions about Joker? Are there themes or motifs we missed? Is there more to explain about the ending? Please post your questions and thoughts in the comments section! We’ll do our best to address every one of them. If we like what you have to say, you could become part of our movie guide!