In the age of perpetual comic book movies, origin stories like Man of Steel or Captain Marvel often get overshadowed by bigger, more action-packed and elaborate movies with fun costumes and a nifty moral lesson at the end. It’s understandable since the majority of people would rather watch a multi-million dollar fight scene that ends with victory over evil than watch their favorite heroes suffer tragedy before becoming the characters we know and love.
However, Joker is the rare exception, making over $1 billion according to Box Office Mojo.
One common theme in comic book movies, big and small, is a lesson in morality. Movies such as Wonder Woman and Black Panther teach us that the ability to fight for a cause is universal as long as a hero’s heart and ideals are true. Infinity War teaches us that sometimes evil can prevail, while Endgame continues the lesson by teaching us to never give up because the fight may still be won. Logan, a grittier, less straightforward comic book movie set around an aged and cynical Wolverine, teaches that fighting and dying for something, even something you never wanted but discovered you needed, is one way to be a hero until the end.
These movies, even when heroes died and were mourned, taught their audiences a valuable and socially appropriate message. After all, the entire X-Men franchise can be boiled down to a lesson in individualism. Children are taught to be who they are, and that others will love them for it. Joker seems to teach that too, but in a way, most people have likely never seen.
From the very beginning of Batman and his war with the evil in Gotham, readers have seen a full cast of characters who have embraced the evil inside of themselves and appear happier for it. Joker lends an important backstory to these characters, showing us the vicious fight between accepting yourself for the very flawed person you are and doing everything you can to be a decent person.
From the beginning of the movie, Arthur Fleck is unhappy. It’s intentionally ironic, that he works as a clown. But, while on the job, he is attacked by a group of children who brutally beat him. Even worse, when he returns to work the next day, his boss admonishes him for not returning a client’s property, which was destroyed by the children.
His boss refuses to believe him and the cost of the property is taken out of his already dismal paycheck. Ten minutes into the movie, and the viewer can see the character they know and love as a sadistic cackling lunatic sobbing onscreen and forcing a cheerful face for the sake of his awful job.
However, Arthur’s life is forever changed when his coworker offers him a gun to carry so he can protect himself against criminals. He feels more confident with himself now, walking the streets with a bit more swagger and a small, genuine smile on his face when he takes it out at his apartment and points it at nothing.
When the gun slips out of his pocket while he’s on the job at a children’s hospital, he is fired and betrayed by his coworker, who claims Arthur tried to sell him a gun. It’s on the subway home that Arthur takes the first step towards becoming his true self, and it is brutal to watch.
Arthur’s medical condition, a psychological response to discomfort or nervousness that causes laughter, flares up when he is confronted by three somewhat drunk businessmen on a late-night subway train. The men, who were earlier laughing at and soliciting a woman reading a book nearby, mock Arthur for his condition and the fact that he is still wearing clown makeup before they knock him to the ground and beat him.
It doesn’t take long before Arthur becomes fed up with his beating and pulls out his gun, firing randomly before shooting two of his three assailants to death. The third, shot in the leg, runs panicked through the subway cars before exiting at the next stop and trying to escape to the street. Arthur, deadly calm and blank-faced, follows him as he struggles up a staircase before shooting him once more in the back.
The viewer watches as the man still struggles to climb up as Arthur empties his entire clip into the man and yet still continues to fire. Arthur runs home, panicked, but seemingly unregretful. He is mostly concerned about being followed or seen, arriving home with a relieved sigh. The next day, when he sees his murders on TV and the suspect being called a ‘vigilante clown’, he smiles once again.
After this first step, Arthur slowly becomes more confident, happy, and openly violent around others and alone. He stops taking his many medications and begins to destroy things seemingly for the sake of destroying them. He literally punches the clock at his job until it falls off the wall, kicks over trashcans, and shoots his gun into the wall of his apartment several times.
The more things around him begin to crumble, the more he puts on a happy face and seems to mean it. He is becoming himself, not a comedian like he had hoped to be, or a shining beacon of comedy and laughter like his mother had led him to believe he would be, but a raging psychopath who loves to see the world burn. And burn does it ever.
Sparked by Arthur’s murder of the three businessmen, riots began to take place all over town, people in clown masks attacking the rich and entitled in the name of the Vigilante Clown. They believed the initial murders were a political statement emphasizing that the gap between the rich and the poor was far too great in Gotham, and used the clown moniker as their way of paying homage to the one who inspired them. These riots are taking place when Arthur is invited to appear on a late-night show he has been watching his whole life. However, Arthur has mixed feelings about the show, given that they only invited him to discuss footage of his horrible comedy routine, which gained popularity for its terribleness.
Arthur devises a plan to kill himself on live TV with his gun, but the plan begins to morph after he gets a taste for violence against others. He suffocates his abusive mother after learning that she had adopted him. He kills a fellow clown when he comes by to pay condolences, and encourages clown rioters to attack policemen chasing him. Arthur arrives on the set of the late-night show in his full clown makeup and green hair, looking like the Joker we know now. With his gun still in his pocket, it seems for all the world that Arthur will go through with his plan.
After making several inappropriate jokes about death and a delivering a frightening rant about rich people and how they look down on him for his mental illness, he pulls out his gun and shoots the host of the show through the eye, much to the horror of the audience. People rush for the exit of the studio as the Joker, as he was dubbed by the late-night host, speaks directly to the camera, telling his audience to stay happy. The movie ends with him in an asylum, laughing at a joke in his head. After his interview with a member of the hospital staff ends, he leaves the room, leaving red footprints on the hallway floor, and walks through the halls humming and dancing, a huge grin on his face.
We watch Arthur spiral happily into his role as the bane of Gotham. Arthur falls deeper into his insanity at his own choosing; he quits his meds and begins to give in to his more powerful urges. His happiness seems to come from this progression of his mental illness. His increasingly violent and sadistic nature could be attributed to these poor choices. ‘Crazy people are happier’ might be the message of this movie.
Arthur seems to conclude that only after he has given into his deepest urges, finally stopped restraining himself out of fear for himself or societal repercussions, do people notice him and even appreciate him. He gives in and becomes himself. Arthur lived his life a lie, doing what he thought he was meant to do because someone told him to do it. While Joker ends with Arthur accepting himself and being happy, this premise turns a blind eye to the many people who die as a result of his new-found happiness.
Joker seems to imply that Arthur’s happiness is directly linked to his sadism and killing of other people, but one man’s happiness can’t reasonably be balanced on the lives of countless others. It makes Arthur hard to root for in the end. Joker portrays a man out for his own kicks, which may make good cinema, but in this age of copycat killings and mass murders, the lessons that could be taken away from it are darker than need be.
Live it a lie, suppress your personality forever for the protection of others and suffer through your days. Or live a life of laughter at the expense of others, seeing only hilarity in the darkness consuming you. Life’s a joke, and as the Joker claims, you wouldn’t get it.