Arthur Fleck just wants people to smile more.
Let’s face it: The folks of Gotham could use a good smile. A garbage strike has spawned “giant rats.” Violence is on the rise. Social divisions have never been higher, it seems, and everything seems to be spinning out of control.
“Is it just me?” Arthur asks. “Or is it getting crazier out there?”
The question comes freighted with a certain level of irony. After all, Arthur is talking with his legally mandated counselor after a stint in an asylum. He takes seven kinds of psychiatric meds—none of which seem to help one of his most obvious conditions, in which he laughs wildly at the most inopportune times.
But his mother always told him to “smile and put on a happy face,” and so Arthur does. He literally paints one on every morning, entertaining children or spinning signs as a clown. He scribbles constantly in a journal, where jokes mix with his own dark thoughts and pasted-in pornographic pictures. (“I just hope my death makes more cents than my life,” reads one.) Some nights, he tries out his material in low-rent comedy clubs. Some nights he’s the only one laughing.
Still, Arthur keeps trying. He takes care of his invalid mother (who pins her own hopes on the beneficence of her former employer, Thomas Wayne). He reliably clocks into work every day and searches desperately for new human connection somewhere, anywhere: on the bus, on the street, in the apartment elevator.
Gotham does not care. Its machinery tears into the softer things until they’re annihilated or turn as hard and cold and ruthless as the city itself. Not all the rats in Gotham have tails.
One afternoon, street punks steal Arthur’s twirling sign and, when he pursues them, they smash it over his head and beat him senseless. When he shows up at work the next day, Arthur’s boss tells him that he’ll have to return the sign, or pay for it out of his own pocket.
And so it goes. Every day brings a new setback, a new slight, a reason to stop smiling. City budget cuts strip away away his counseling. His meds run out. He’s given a gun—a gun he can’t legally carry—and loses his job because of it.
Then, one dark night on a graffiti-covered subway car, Arthur watches as a trio of well-dressed, well-to-do stock brokers harass a young woman. And he begins to laugh.
He can’t help himself. The laughter shoots from him like water from a half-kinked hose, sounding sometimes like sobs. The brokers sidle up to him, pull him up and punch his still white-painted face. He lands hard on the subway floor and his assailants begin to kick.
BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!
Blood splashes against the subway car walls. Two brokers slump, dead. A third, shot in the leg, tries to make his escape. But the clown follows, gun pointed and cocked.
For most of his life, Arthur only wanted to make people laugh—to give them a sense of joy and release that he’d never known himself. But as the broker tries to scurry up the station stairs, leg bleeding, Arthur feels a different purpose burbling inside.
And he pulls the trigger again.
Despite the name and DC Comics bona fides, Joker is not a superhero movie. It’s a character study of one of the most enduring, enigmatic villains that American culture has ever created.
But Arthur is not without humanity. He loves his mother and spends much of the movie tenderly caring for her. He earnestly tells his boss how much he loves his job. And when he loses it, it’s yet another devastating blow to his self-worth and psyche. This Joker wasn’t born bad: He was made that way, and if just a few more people showed him a little kindness and a little patience, we get the sense that Arthur’s story might’ve turned out much differently. Similarly, the movie shines a sad light on the desperate plight of those coping with the intertwined pathologies of mental illness and poverty.
Even before its release, Joker has stirred plenty of controversy—controversy we reported in Culture Clips and will touch on below. But at its core, the movie asks a salient question: In a world that sometimes seems filled with monsters, does society bear some responsibility in creating them? Do we? Perhaps Christians can pull an especially important message from the mess—called as we are to love the unlovable, just as God loves us.
There’s no overt spiritual content here, other than a picture of Mary and the baby Jesus hanging over the bed of Arthur’s own mother.
The Gotham of Joker is a metropolis pulled from the late 1970s or early ’80s, before the Internet made pornography ubiquitous and when it was still the provence of squalid peep shows and glossy magazines. Graphic marquees for pornographic films glow above Gotham’s streets, and newsstands hock girlie mags. Those magazines are only briefly and indistinctly seen on street corners, but it’s clear that Arthur has bought his share: His joke notebook contains explicit images of naked women. Their bare bodies are briefly on display as he flips through the notebook’s pages, but their faces are removed or scribbled out, further objectifying them.
Arthur stalks his neighbor, Sophie, and at one juncture, we see him knock on her door. She opens it, and the two passionately kiss before the door closes behind the both of them. We see them together in later scenes that suggest an almost domesticated sense of intimacy.
Arthur often goes shirtless and, sometimes, pantsless. (In the latter case, he wears a pair of worse-for-wear briefs that feel uncomfortably revealing, even though nothing critical is actually seen.) He kisses a woman against her will for a laugh. The brokers crassly talk about some of their sexual conquests before turning their attention to a woman sitting by herself on the subway. They flirt, if you can call it that, by leering at her and chucking a stale french fry or two in her direction.
Arthur’s relationship with his mother, Penny, isn’t sexual. But he does bathe her (we see her bare back and some cleavage), and the two are shown in bed together, suggesting that their physical boundaries as mother and son are unhealthily blurry.
[Spoiler Warning] Penny believes that Arthur’s a love child she had with one of Gotham’s most rich and powerful leaders. We also learn that Arthur was abused as a child, though the full extent of that abuse is never specified.
The movie opens with a beating. Arthur, decked out in his clown outfit, is smashed over the head with a sign and brutally, repeatedly kicked by several assailants. (It’s not the last time Arthur will endure a wicked beatdown with no provocation.) When the attackers run away, Arthur writhes on the ground, holding his hands to his crotch. We later we see that the assault left wicked-looking bruises on his emaciated body.
Arthur shoots and kills three assailants during another beatdown; one of them, as mentioned in the introduction, involves Arthur’s cool, calculated pursuit of a wounded man who’s trying to escape. He empties his gun into that last surviving broker and, while fearful, he later seems to glory in the killing’s afterglow, lithely dancing in a bathroom.
Arthur also flirts with suicidal ideation at times. We see him “practice” a scene in which he hopes to pull out a gun and shoot himself in the head, lying still as an audience on television applauds. (He also rips out a bunch of shelves in a refrigerator and climbs in, almost turning it into a makeshift sarcophagus.)
Someone is stabbed in the head and neck with a pair of scissors, then has his head slammed repeatedly and bloodily against a wall. (The resulting carnage is grisly and disturbing.) Several people are shot and killed before and during violent demonstrations—including one on live television—and the deaths can be pretty jarring and graphic. A woman is smothered by a pillow, and two innocents—a mother and her little girl—may lose their lives, too (though the movie doesn’t make it clear what happens to them). We see Arthur talk with a psychiatric expert in one scene; in the next, he walks through a white hallway leaving red footprints in his wake, implying that he killed her, too.
Gotham is engulfed in riots largely sparked by Joker’s murders. We see fires burn and people engage in destructive revelry. An ambulance crashes into a police car, killing the driver. Other cars careen and crash. Arthur often smashes his head against doors and windows and, at one point, a wire mesh divider. Someone is choked. Arthur fires his gun accidentally, leaving a bullet hole in his apartment wall. His mother locks herself in the bathroom when Arthur shouts and scares her. Someone suffers a stroke. A guy gets punched in the face in a public bathroom: He stands over a sink while blood dribbles off the counter.
Nearly 30 f-words and about 10 s-words. We also hear “a–” (several times), “p-ss” and “pr–k,” along with a misuse of God’s name.
Arthur smokes cigarettes almost continually. As mentioned, we see that he takes multiple psychiatric meds; eventually, he runs out of them, and we see empty bottles.
During an interview leading up to his mayoral run, Thomas Wayne calls Gotham’s poor and less-successful citizens “clowns” and generally acts like a jerk.
A late-night talk show host replays and mocks a recorded clip of one of Arthur’s unfunny standup routines in which he laughs uncontrollably.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote these oft-quoted lines:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Ironically, that exhortation comes after its speaker, Polonius, has just (comically) given his son Laertes a whole bunch of advice on how to behave.
But we modern Pinterest users aren’t great with context, and in some modern readings of that verse, we imagine that Shakespeare is embracing a very 21st-century virtue: To accept ourselves unconditionally, to do what we’d like without apology and, ideally, without consequence.
Joker exposes the limits of that 21st-century virtue.
“I stopped doing my medication,” Arthur tells an associate. “I feel much better now.” After spending much of the film trying to conform to society’s expectations, he feels ready to embrace his true self. He finds murder cathartic, chaos freeing. And those who gravitate to his special, violent form of crazy find it freeing, too.
Those whom the Joker inspires aren’t necessarily limited to on-screen characters alone, incidentally. The Joker has reportedly served as a dark muse for chaos before, and many worry it could again. Indeed, given Joaquin Phoenix’s riveting depiction of the Clown Prince of Crime, as well as the emphasis the movie makes on his and others’ societal disenfranchisement (an issue very familiar to us today), it could be argued that the movie is practically courting such a response. In an age where so many feel horrifically lonely and woefully ignored, there’s a certain, dark pull to Joker’s desire to write his own name on Gotham’s history in blood. And this fear isn’t sequestered to just we pearl-clutchers at Plugged In. Many a secular reviewer has voiced his or her own concerns, too.
Surely, Warner Brothers and director Todd Phillips aren’t angling to inspire copycat Jokers. Phillips told The Wrap that “We didn’t make the movie to push buttons. I literally described to Joaquin at one point in those three months as like, ‘Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film.’ It wasn’t, ‘We want to glorify this behavior.’ It was literally like ‘Let’s make a real movie with a real budget and we’ll call it … Joker.’ That’s what it was.”
OK. But surely in the fictional world of Joker, no one intended for Arthur to turn killer, either (excepting, perhaps, the man who gave him a gun). The tragedy of Joker is how almost everyone Arthur meets undermines his fragile sanity, bit by bit. Few intended to do so. For them, a moment of meanness would be a mere blip. But cumulatively, and absorbed through the lens of deep mental illness, those blips wind up destroying a man and creating a monster. Art or no, to dismiss the possibility of a movie being a blip in someone else’s timeline seems almost willfully short-sighted.
Even setting aside those concerns, Joker boasts plenty of others. This is a brutal film, and it’s all the more brutal due to the quality of its filmmaking. Joker begs for a hero. It gives us a clown. Gotham seeks salvation and finds only blood.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.